Let’s talk about Avatar: The Way of Water.
13 years. That’s how long ago the first Avatar film was released. Back then, Barack Obama was a year into his first term as President, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the video game everyone was playing, Russia was shutting down gas pipelines to Europe and the world was descending into a recession. Huh, maybe it isn’t so different to now. But Avatar comes into a very different world. One where despite the original making the most money of any film ever, it barely made a dent in pop culture. Nothing about it gets parodied or talked about nowadays. Morbius gets more jokes than Avatar. So can a sequel released a teenagers lifetime away from the first be successful and good? Let’s see.
Jake Sully has lived with the Navi on Pandora for years now, fathering a family with Neytiri. However, Quaritch, the army official who Sully stopped mining Pandora years before, is back in an Avatar body and is looking for revenge on his previous defeat.
The first Avatar’s plot line was mocked because of it’s rudimentary plot, often being called FernGully with a big budget. That’s a fair criticism by the way, but it also missed the point. The plot was just a reason to spend time in the world, a world that has been painstakingly built and is achingly beautiful. This film looks to replicate that feeling but it knows we’ve seen a lot of the forest from the first film, so it takes us to the water. If you know about CGI, you will know that water is one of the hardest effects to get right. There’s something about the texture and inherent chaos that happens with the ocean that makes it really hard to replicate in computers. And yet this film not only gets it perfect but also captures the beauty of the ocean. With the plethora of sea life on show in this film and how amazing it all looks, it’s easy to forget you are watching a blockbuster film and that David Attenborough’s narration isn’t going to kick in any moment. This is where the most effort has gone into and it absolutely shows because no other films offers jawdropping visuals on this scale.
But you can’t just ignore the plot completely because without it, this film would be a tech demo they use at Currys to sell you 4K TVs. Thankfully, FernGully stays in the bin for this one unless they also had a sequel that headed to the ocean. Weirdly, it ends resembling family sitcoms more than an epic blockbuster. The storylines present which include a young brother who feels like a reject and unloved compared to his older brother, who’s also admonished for not protecting his younger siblings, and a young Navi girl whose plot purpose is to look cute and get kidnapped. Heck, after the young Navi brothers get into a fight with some other Navi, which feels like it’s right from an 80s coming of age movie, the film makes a ‘the other guys look worse’ joke. It’s quite odd, though not necessarily bad, and it can feel a bit awkward at times.
The biggest flaw the movie has is during these periods as well. The film starts off quick, with narration catching us up with everything that has happened and then the humans returning for a big attack on Pandora once again. We get the returning villains established and the plot starts in earnest. Then, the decision is made that Sully’s family must flee and this is when they head to the ocean. The film then stops dead. For at least 40 minutes, we don’t see the villains at all as we see the Sully family adjust to life with a sea tribe that doesn’t really want them there. Yes, this is meant to be the wonder part of the movie as the family become connected with what are essentially swimming banshees and we learn more about this world, but the actual plot stops in its tracks for such a long time. The film gets back to speed once the villains come back into the film, they drive the plot far more than the heroes, but for a long time this film really does nothing.
Thankfully, the end is really good. The first Avatar ended in a 30 minute blaze of glory and in hindsight, it was definitely the cause for so many other blockbusters to have a massive special effects mad conclusion in the following years. This film follows the same conclusion, except it is very water based and continues the themes of the movies. And I won’t spoil it all, but it is very fun. There’s quite a surprising emotional blow halfway through it to hammer home that these characters are not narratively safe, and then there’s a great mix of action set pieces and character beats which keep you engaged throughout a thrilling ending. A film that ends well will always get some good marks because it’s the last thing you remember, especially as the characters seem to grow from the things that would frustrate the viewer.
At the end of the day, Avatar: The Way of Water delivers what the first one did. It gives you some incredible visuals, though the fact the rest of Hollywood has caught up means they aren’t as stunning as they were in 2009, and the action is as good as you’d expect from someone who directed Aliens and the first two Terminator movies. I’d have to say the plot is improved as well because at the very least, it isn’t FernGully. The pacing however is very poor with a middle act that should have seen an editor take an axe to it, especially with a running time that heads over the three hour mark. So many sequels that take this long do end up disappointing but at the very least, this movie is just as good as the first. Probably won’t make as much money though, I mean £2.9B? How did it make that?