Avatar: The Way of Water movie review: blueface on a blue planet

So, the “way of water,” as far as I can determine from James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Wateris a teensy bit Cameron’s own Titanic and The Abyssa smidge of The Poseidon Adventurelashings of somehow both Free Willy and Jaws… and whole lotta David Attenborough’s documentary series Blue Planet.

Like, so much Blue Planet that I can’t help but wonder whether a faux documentary series about planet Pandora — an imagined but plausible Earthlike moon orbiting a gas giant in our neighbor star system Alpha Centauri — is really what Cameron wanted to make. Might have been tough to sell that as a premium 3D IMAX experience, but I suspect it would have been a helluva lot more compelling, as an overall package, than the turgid white savior–driven appropriation of indigenous culture and pain that we instead get here .

More on that in a bit.

Avatar The Way of Water
“Don’t worry, Willy, I’ll help you get back to your family!”

Just as with 2009’s Avatar, absolutely the best thing about this sequel is the worldbuilding. The environmental worldbuilding, that is. Filmmaking technology has advanced dramatically in the 13 years since the first film, driven, in part, by Cameron himself, and he absolutely deserves kudos for that. But even a decade-plus ago, we science-fiction dorks were granted the gift of feeling like we were walking an alien world, which any sci-fi dork worth her salt has always craved. That feeling is only more enhanced now. Pandora is a gorgeous world, and to sit through three-plus hours of The Way of Water is to feel like you have leapt into a future extraterrestrial experience that probably most of us alive right now will not ever get to enjoy. Pandora is a wondrous and strange place, and I do wish I could visit it now. Seeing in the cinema is a poor runner-up, but it’s all we have, and I will absolutely take it.

I could have done without Cameron’s distracting deployment of high-frame-rate imagery, though: the film switches between ultracrisp, hi-def visuals and those with the more familiar cinematic look not only from scene to scene but often from one shot to another. There’s no immediately obvious reason why he created this moment in HFR but not that one, and trying to figure out what the hack he was thinking and what impact he was going for threw me out of illusion way too often.

That’s a problem, particularly when the illusion is the best of what the movie has to offer. The filmmaking craft of The Way of Water may be (mostly) astonishing. But the craft must always — always — be in aid of a compelling story populated by compelling characters… and that’s not so much the case here.

Avatar The Way of Water
Happy Na’vi family time… until the stupid humans come back with their stupid colonialism.

We are back with human Jake Sully (performance-captured Sam Worthington: The Titan, Everest), a former Marine grunt who has gone native in a way that only sci-fi speculation can grant: his consciousness was, by the end of the first movie, permanently transferred to a cloned body, a hybrid of his homo-sapien genes and Those of the Pandora natives, the Na’vi: blue-skinned, 10 feet tall, and able to bio-psychically commune with seemingly all other living things on Pandora. In movie-time, it is also more than a decade on from the events of Avatarand Jake and his Na’vi partner, Neytiri (performance-captured Zoe Saldana: Avengers: Endgame, Missing Link), now have a gaggle of kids and are facing a human return, with a vengeance, to Pandora. The rapacious, resource-stealing upright Terran apes had been booted off the planet at the end of the first movie. But they –we — are not going to let the fact that they — we — destroyed one beautiful planet (Earth, that is) stop them from doing the same thing again on another. Jake and fam are determined to push back and save their world from destruction.

I have a lot of feels in response to this, not all of them ones that, I imagine, Cameron intends. So much of The Way of Water‘s extended runtime is given over to battles between the humans and the Na’v — just long sequences of fighting and killing — and I am so very tired of this. (This is, I know, a Me problem, more than it is a This Movie problem. Maybe.) In my review of 2009’s AvatarI wrote:

We humans are on Pandora for all the reasons we’ve ever gone anywhere, it seems: to take what we want from this place, in spite of what the people who are already there may have to say about that. I wish that weren’t so tediously familiar, but it’s hard to imagine, unfortunately, a human future that doesn’t unfold along these lines, especially not only a century and a half into the future: if human nature can change, it’s not likely to change that quickly.

And while that may be true, my approach to science fiction has changed in the interim. I crave more optimism. I crave depictions of a path to better things to come. I think we all need to see more constructive ideas about what the future of humanity could hold, not more reminders about how we have been and continue to fuck up. I absolutely need our creative storytelling thinkers to start imagining a better, more positive future for humanity. I think we desperately require a paradigm shift that is very much more hopeful than anything we’ve seen before.

Avatar The Way of Water
Kiri’s case of “my parents musta been aliens” is, in fact, accurate.

I’m tired of seeing more of the same-old. Which is, alas, all that this movie is.

There’s a sequence here about human hunters of the Pandora equivalent of whales — majestic, intelligent, social creatures — and it is brutal and callous. I cried. The humans are plainly depicted as the villains of the sequence, so it’s not like they — we — are valorized or treated as heroic. Which would be terrible. But I’m disheartened by the story’s lack of imagination: no matter what these creatures might have to offer, as a resource, to humanity (and how was their utility to humans discovered, I wonder? it seems incredibly farfetched that we could have stumbled upon it), is there truly no other relationship conceivable between humans and another world’s denizens?

Avatar The Way of Water
“I’ll never let you go, Jack. I mean: Jake.”

Even so, this is not what lost many points for me with this movie. I’m appalled at how scattershot it is. Characters and plot threads are picked up and then forgotten, lost in the spectacle. The brilliant Edie Falco (Megan Leavey, Landline) turns up early on as a no-nonsense human general heading up the campaign to terraform Pandora for large-scale human colonization, and then she disappears. Jake’s adopted daughter, tween Kiri, grapples with the difficulty of being half human in a way that is poignantly depicted. She was born of human scientist Dr Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney Weaver) half-Na’vi cloned avatar (no one knows who her father her is, or at least no one will say), and her despair her at not fitting in is oh-so recognizable adolescent. Kiri also seems to have a particularly strong connection to Eywa, the literal planetary consciousness that connects all living things on Pandora. Both of her threads are abandoned halfway through the film, too. (Weaver [A Monster Calls, Ghostbusters] provides performance capture for Kiri… whom, honestly, I thought everyone was calling “Kitty,” which seemed way too human but that’s what it sounded like.)

Jake Sully remains a distasteful example of the white-savior trope: the cloned-avatar thing is nothing but a sort of “blueface.” Why would the Na’vi truly consider him the best person to lead them in their own fight for survival? Sure, of course there’s a benefit to having a defector from the enemy on your team bringing important knowledge about whom and what you’re up against. But only yet another deficit of storytelling imagination elevates and centers him. Cameron doubles down on coding the Na’vi as “native,” too, with “flavor” borrowed from human indigenous cultures: Jake’s adopted tribe has their beads and braids and loincloths, and another seafaring Na’vi race here sports Maori-esque tattoos . (Their leader is played by performance-captured Cliff Curtis [Reminiscence, Doctor Sleep], a Maori New Zealander.). The first time one of them they did a haka-like hiss, I cringed.

Avatar The Way of Water
These are aliens, for sure. Definitely not humans of the Maori persuasion.

Using forms of real human cultures to cast characters as “alien” is problematic, at best, and is something best left in cinema’s past. (Sam Thielman at Slate thinks Cameron is somehow trying to change white peoples’ racist approach to pulp sci-fi stories. I don’t agree with him, but it’s an intriguing read anyway.) Pandora the planet may be richly conceived, but its peoples and their stories are far less so.

see also:
• Avatar movie review: biological diplomacy

more films like this:
• Dances with Wolves [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV US | HBO Max US]
• The Great Wall [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV US | Apple TV UK | Netflix UK]