The 10-foot-tall, blue, humanoids of Pandora returned to the big screen after 13 long years in “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
The highly-anticipated sequel to James Cameron’s 2009 Oscar-winning blockbuster, “Avatar” picks up where the first one left off, with Jake Sully, ex-human and conflicted U.S. Marine, played by Sam Worthington, and Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldaña, leading the plot. The film centers around a new threat to the planet and the Na’vi people, as a human mining colony begins extracting a valuable resource from Pandora’s oceans with military force.
The film follows the Sully duo and their four young children as they abandon their house and integrate themselves into the Metkayina, a clan that resides by the ocean in the remote atolls of Pandora, in order to avoid the returning soldiers. The aquatic environment serves as the focal point of this movie as it depicts the transition from a land-based to a sea-based existence.
The military-minded, planet-destroying humans of this universe are once more depicted in “The Way of Water” as its real antagonists, though their motivations are occasionally unclear. Only around halfway through did I begin to understand that the leader of the Avatar Marines is more interested in killing Jake Sully and his family than mining resources from the planet. Although a treat to watch visually, the predictability of the script and excruciating length and pace of the film means that the first movie outshines the sequel in most aspects.
“The Way of Water” had the potential to be more political and action-packed than the first film, but under-delivered. The themes of environmentalism, Indigenous rights, and the consequences of greed and colonization were woven seamlessly into the plot of the first film and made for a thought-provoking and impactful viewing experience. The themes of the second edition, however, come off as a shallow attempt to pander to audiences’ social sensibilities.
With the exception of Zoe Saldaña, a Black Latina actress, and Cliff Curtis, a man of Maori origin, the cast of the movie is made up of predominantly white actors who play the Na’vi aliens. As a result, according to the New York Post, widespread criticism accused Cameron of appropriating Native American culture to feed his “white man’s savior complex,” tone deaf of the real struggles of Indigenous peoples. The term “blueface” has become shorthand for the franchise’s portrayal of the Na’vi as Native Americans.
Overstuffed with character and incident and taking more than three hours to complete, the film is clunkily narrated, hastily throwing viewers back into the world of Pandora without a comfortably-paced setup.
Even a pop auteur as creative and resourceful as Cameron might have run out of ideas for climactic fight sequences, as evidenced by the last stretch, which drags more than the rest of the film. There are many fights, both above and below the water, fierce and flaming, depressing and rousing, and almost all of them will bring to mind something you have already seen a dozen times in the cinema.
Despite its shortcomings, the film is undeniably a visual feast, with stunning special effects, breathtaking landscapes, and bursts of vivid color. The motion capture technology used to create the Na’vi characters is more advanced than the first film, resulting in even more realistic and expressive performances. The film’s use of 3D is also strikingly impressive, adding depth and immersion to the already mesmerizing visuals. We are treated to underwater sequences of Na’vi swimming amid animated coral reefs and teeming marine life in the oceans of Pandora, with their rather slender, sapient blue bodies, with wide eyes, pointed ears, bifurcated noses, sharp canines, and long, prehensile tails.
Every living creature in the film is, in some way, based on an animal that currently lives on Earth. Indeed, the most extraordinary looking creatures are the whale-resembling Tulkun. Revered as brothers and sisters of the Metkayina, they are displayed as highly intelligent, emotional, and expressive beings, combining movements of sea lions, whales and sharks. The Metkayina have soul connections with these creatures, and upon learning of humans killing the creatures to exploit their resources, were ready to go to war. The Tulkun serve as symbols of human warfare against the animal kingdom and unethical exploitation of natural resources for capital gain, but maintain their charisma without becoming caricatured, reflecting the animators’ eye for detail.
Overall, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is an ambitious sequel that tries sincerely to live up to the high standards set by the first film, but falls short. If you are a fan of the franchise or science fiction in general, don’t miss it, but for the rest of us, the film might be an accidental opportunity to catch some Z’s.