Review of “Avatar: The Way of Water”

Good things come to those who wait, or so we’re told. Patience is a virtue, goes another saying. Haste makes waste. A watched pot never boils. All things are difficult before they are easy. Hold your horses. Rome wasn’t built in a day. All axioms about the value of not being in a rush and I suck at putting them into practice. I want things when I want them. I don’t want to wait any longer than necessary. From deliveries of online purchases to food ordered in a restaurant, I want what’s mine and I want it NOW! There’s another saying about waiting: Beware the fury of a patient man. In 2009, “Avatar,” by director James Cameron, was released to a world told 3D movies were the next big thing. It went on to rake in almost three billion dollars at the box office worldwide, between original and rereleases. I was enamored by the breathtaking and groundbreaking visuals. It had a simple (perhaps thin) story of an alien race in tune with their environment on the planet-sized moon Pandora and how humans were coming to exploit its natural resources at the expense of the native population called Nav’i. It was never believed the film could never recoup its $237 million budget and when it became the biggest grossing movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation), a sequel was a given. It took 13 years, innovations in 3D and motion capture filming technology, the writing of scripts for four sequels and a pandemic, but “Avatar: The Way of Water” is finally in theaters. Was it worth the wait?

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Nav’i avatar, is the leader of the Omaticaya clan. He and wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have four children: Oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) whose conception is a mystery, and youngest daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). Life is good for the family and the Omaticaya until the return of the “sky people,” humans that seek to eliminate the Nav’i and use Pandora as “Planet B” as Earth is dying. A new group of soldier avatars contain the memories of dead soldiers including Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed by two arrows from Neytiri. Led by General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco), Quaritch is given the mission of stopping a Nav’i insurgency, commanded by Sully, attacking mines and transportation of the invaders. Quaritch and his avatar soldiers capture Jake and Neytiri’s children, and a human child left behind in the evacuation, Spider (Jack Champion), who spends most of his time with the Nav’i. Spider is the Quaritch’s son, but they never met. Jake and Neytiri rescue their children, except Spider, but Quaritch knows who the children’s parents are and swears revenge on them. Spider becomes a prisoner and Quaritch plans on using him to find the Nav’i base. To protect his clan, Jake convinces Neytiri and his children to leave their village behind and travel across the ocean to join a village of Metkayina, a group of Nav’i that live in harmony with the ocean and their bodies have evolved to make them better swimmers. Quaritch is still on the hunt and his thirst for vengeance will not be satisfied until he kills the entire Sully clan.

Cameron has again succeeded in making a visually beautiful film. The landscapes, the action, the creatures, all of it looks completely real despite being mostly the creation of computers. Pandora is a planet of varied environments. We’d only seen the rainforest in the first film, but now we head to the ocean and its abundant life. The flora and fauna of the Pandoran oceans is just as colorful and impressive as the rainforest. And the interpretation of this alien life is almost fairytale-like in its grandeur. From towering kelp-like forests to giant predatory fish with mouths like a poisonous snake to massive intelligent whale-like mammals, Cameron and his team of creative and technical wizards have given us what could be called an educated guess of a look at what advanced like might be like on an alien world. If Disney (now the owner of the “Avatar” franchise) could create an immersive experience allowing you to explore Pandora, I might be willing to pony up the money for a VR headset. As it will be two more years before we get “Avatar 3,” we’ll all have to exercise our patience muscles before we can go back.

But, as visually stunning as it is in 3D, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is surprisingly flat, from a story perspective. Cameron and his crew of writers tell essentially the same story in this film as the first. Humans, greedy and bad. Nav’i, in tune with nature and good. The prize the humans are looking for in this film (no spoilers) is different than the first but is no less petty. While Jake’s human body was discarded at the end of the first film, he still is a human in Nav’i form that leads the natives against the invaders. He uses their tactics and their captured weapons against them while the other Nav’i use spears and bows. It’s the “Dances with Wolves” storyline all over again.

The film also luxuriates in long sequences as Sully and family learn the ways of the water Nav’i. This does nothing to progress the story, but does give Cameron an excuse to show off his new underwater motion capture technology. If a character is underwater, the actor, wearing a motion capture suit, was filmed in a giant swimming pool to get natural water-influenced motion. The underwater sequences are gorgeous and you may find yourself holding your breath as the character go through the scenes. Actress Kate Winslet, who plays a pregnant water Nav’i, is reported to have held her breath for over seven minutes to shoot one scene. That’s an impressive feat and an interesting bit of movie trivia, but the actors in “Aquaman” shot all of their swimming scene in a dry studio. The motion of their bodies and their CGI hair looked just as natural as “Avatar.” While I commend Cameron and his actors for taking the risk of free diving for their art, I’m not sure the payoff, while visually extraordinary, was worth it.

The acting in “Avatar: The Way of Water” is difficult to judge since most of it was animated, even if believably so. But special kudos should go to Zoe Saldana as Neytiri for her commitment to delivering a powerful performance. The character goes through a wide range of emotions and does so convincingly. Stephen Lang is also well cast once again as the evil Quaritch. Lang’s character seems to revel in spreading as much pain and destruction as he can. I almost expected him to deliver the “Apocalypse Now” line about loving the smell of napalm in the morning. Lang makes a believable and despicable villain that always seem to be a step ahead of our heroes.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language. There are numerous battles throughout the film. We see several characters shot by arrows, there are shootings, skin is cut with a knife, whale-like animals are hunted and killed, a large predatory fish chases a character and there are also fist fights. The partial nudity is of the Nav’i characters in their native dress. It is not sexual. Foul language is scattered, and the movie uses its one rating-allowed “F-bomb.”

So, 13 years and the added cost of watching it in 3D…is “Avatar: The Way of Water” worth it? That depends on how forgiving you are of a barely there story, some brain-rattling dumb character choices, and a three hour 12 minute run time (plan your fluids). It is a visual masterpiece that will win many of the technical awards at the Oscars, but despite a few emotional moments near the end of the film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is mediocre.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” gets three stars out of five.

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