Avatar: The Way of Water, fresh off its six Critics Choice Awards nominations, is directed by James Cameron and stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver. Even though his character was killed off in the first Avatar (2009), Stephen Lang returns as the antagonist, the clone of Col. Quaritch, in the first of the film’s many retcons. Sparked by a somewhat inexplicable vendetta, Quaritch chases Jake (Worthington) and Neytiri (Saldana) away from the forest and into another part of Pandora, where they must join a tribe of Na’vi who live off the water.
The first twenty minutes of the film are filled with unnecessary narration that hand-waves a novel’s worth of character development and plot machinations in order to establish that Jake has a family, Quaritch is back, Sigourney Weaver is playing the fourteen-year-old child of her character in the first movie, and the Earth is dying so humans are invading Pandora. All that is packed into an over-stuffed expository monologue in order to make room in the three hour and ten minutes of Avatar: The Way of Water’s runtime for long sequences of Jake and his family learning to swim.
The visuals are absolutely breathtaking. The scenery of Pandora is deep, colorful, and vibrant. Every shot is carefully constructed, and the special effects team has surpassed all expectations. Reportedly, after watching the first Avatar people were disappointed by the real world and succumbed to depression, and if that’s true, then mental health professionals better beware because that same issue will likely occur again in 2022. Cameron continues to invent new ways to thrill audiences, and every frame of this film is so beautifully rendered that I wish films could be evaluated on prettiness alone.
Avatar: The Way of Water’s story is mind-bogglingly bad. The shameless sequel set-ups and retcons of the first film notwithstanding, characters routinely make ridiculously illogical decisions that contradict whatever mild character development occurred minutes before. Quaritch’s character and a human who lives with the Na’vi in the third act are the most obvious examples.
What is more, conflicts appear out of nowhere with no set-up. The rivalry between Jake’s two young sons has little basis in how we’ve seen them behave, and Neytiri’s position about where to locate the family oscillates until her character fades into obscurity throughout the second act. The character development in this movie is some of the worst that I’ve seen so far this year. It is eye-rollingly frustrating.
And there’s a whole sequence in the second act that presumably only exists because Cameron thinks we need to be taught a lesson about whaling.
The people who like Avatar for its portrayal of the beautiful and lush landscape on Pandora will enjoy this sequel, and there is a lot to enjoy. However, this story is just too nonsensical and fractured to recommend Avatar: The Way of Water.