I will readily admit that I belonged to the camp of thinking that James Cameron’s Avatar sequels would never come out. Sequels seemed a shoo-in soon after the massive success of the 2009 first movie; each successive year when the Avatar 2 would get pushed back and another two or three sequels added, it seemed much less sure. But here we are, 13 years after the first movie, with Avatar: The Way of Water. The world of cinema has changed immeasurably in that time, as has the world at large. Almost all of the MCU, all of Disney Star Wars, five Fast & Furious movies, and the entirety of A24 have debuted since the first movie. Do we need, in 2022, more Avatar movies? That answer will depend very much on what you look for from cinema.
Avatar: The Way of Water feels like it should have come out in 2011 or ’12. I mean that in a number of ways. It jumps right back into the story from the first one with almost zero recap of the events of the first movie or its characters. It begins with a montage of scenes and moments covering huge swaths of the characters’ lives in the many in-world years after Avatar 1. (At the time we only called it Avatar.) And while the special effects evidently needed tons of time to catch up to where Cameron wanted, the story and characters didn’t get such attention.
We follow Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now fully fastened within his Na’vi body and living a life with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). They have four children, including two boys, a little girl, and the daughter of comatose Dr. Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney Weaver) Avatar. That daughter, the adolescent Kiri (also played by Weaver), has some kind of attachment to alien world Pandora beyond that of other Na’vi. The Sullys have led various missions against the human military, still intent on exploiting Pandora’s many inexplicably beneficial natural resources.
The main action begins when many of the human villains from the first movie, including Stephen Lang’s Col. Miles Quaritch, effectively return from the dead, their consciousnesses uploaded into avatar bodies. He has a score to settle with Jake Sully and his family. This leads our heroes to leave their familiar forest home for the coast, with the hopes of joining new Na’vi tribe, the Metkayina. The move doesn’t go well for the Sully children. They all endeavor to make friends with other kids and commune with the ocean creatures. Naturally, the baddies encroach on this would-be harmony and various new mysteries about Pandora arise that will probably be addressed in the subsequent 19 movies Cameron has planned.
So. Where to begin? Avatar: The Way of Water is really a movie of two parts. One part is the visual presentation. I will mince no words here when I say, this is the best looking performance capture, CGI-rendered vistas, and 3D technology I have ever seen. It is positively gorgeous to look at. Sweeping action and gorgeous scenery populate much of the movie’s 192-minute runtime. Many times during the proceedings I was positively in awe of what I was looking at. Especially once the action shifts to the water, where massive whale-like creatures swim in bioluminescent expanses, every texture, every ripple or sprig of fur moves as it should.
This kind of visual effects wizardry has gotten so much better since 2009. The characters are so uncanny in their lack of uncanny valley. Some of the movie is in a higher frame rate, to smooth out the action even more and make it seem even more realistic. This, I will say, took a while to get used to, especially because it changes pretty regularly throughout the movie. But by the end, when the action really ramps up, I never had a problem. While so many Hollywood movies recently have had to rush through CGI to upsettingly slapdash results, Avatar: The Way of Water‘s extra long gestation ensured as realistic, as believable, and as thoroughly stunning an imaginary world as has ever made it to screens.
While the visuals have far surpassed even the already gorgeous 2009 original, the plot, story, and characters remain remarkably staid. All of the problems the original have are present here. The lone exception, I suppose, is not needing to fully explain the premise. The villains are, excuse the phrase, cartoonishly evil. They’re either over-the-top capitalist stereotypes who would kill or maim anything if it means a profit, or they’re bloodthirsty monsters who just want to kill innocent things. This manifests in an especially lengthy and graphic sequence in which the massive, gorgeous whale-like creatures we have spent time swimming with are victim of a hunting expedition. It’s so long and truly upsetting.
Cameron’s own environmentalist leanings, especially his love of ocean life, comes to the forefront here. He ensures we all cheer when these nasty SOBs meet a righteous end from the dual efforts of the Na’vi and other creatures. And look, I’m on board with the message! I completely agree with all of this, but it’s profoundly unsubtle.
At the same time we have all the same pseudo-Indigenous Peoples yikes from 13 years ago. The phrase “go full Na’vi” is uttered by the colonizers infiltrating the tribes. The mélange of stereotypes of various real-life Indigenous and tribal peoples just feels incredibly out of touch in 2022. None of that has improved. And worse, while the Na’vi are still scantily clad and highly sexualized, most of the characters in question are children. All of this is just in service of a pretty rote narrative about fathers and sons. Seen it.
So, for days now since I saw the movie, I’ve fought with myself. Is Avatar: The Way of Water a movie I would call “good?” It certainly has a lot to recommend on the filmmaking side of things. It really is an overwhelmingly beautiful movie to look at. But as a story, as characters you can attach yourself to, it’s very two-dimensional. It works much more as a theme park attraction, a journey to a world of wonder and grandeur. But then we have a great deal of unfortunate stereotypes and graphic (though fake) violence.
I’ll say this: if you are someone for whom the original Avatar was enjoyable, and especially if you are someone who enjoys 3D movie experiences, then go see it. See it on the largest possible screen, in 3D. I don’t think the movie works well enough without these things. A day or so after I saw it, I forgot about it, but while I was watching, in the moments the visuals really took hold, it’s breathtaking. But I need more than that. I doubt the next three films will deliver anything more robust.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.