Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Directed by James Cameron; Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and James Cameron

Shortly after the first Avatar released in 2009, a number of people expressed a sadness bordering on suicidal due to the fact that Pandora, the planet on which the film takes place, isn’t real. The return from the planet, with its lush vegetation and wondrous ecosystem, to our earthbound universe and its parking lot mundanity, sparked a great longing for something that never was and won’t ever be.

I can’t remember any other film that did so, and I can’t explain why Avatar evoked these feelings either, but to those people who were left emotionally exiled 13 years ago, I have good news: the place is right where you left it. 

Pandora is still a breathtaking place, and while some may just reduce it to screensaver porn, there’s still a fully-realized world with rich textures and numerous details to enjoy. More than enough to once again whisk you away.

As for what’s going on back on Pandora, we’re reunited with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), ex-Marine who turned his back on his own species and alma mater to be reborn among the Na’vi, the native population of Pandora. Him and his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), have four children and live in somewhat contented happiness. Funny thing about happiness, Jakes says in an opening voiceover, is that it can instantly disappear. 

And of course it does. In what’s perhaps not the most unexpected development, the humans they booted off the planet return in greater numbers, but more worryingly, the villainous Marines who wanted to set fire to the forest have been reborn in avatar form, coming back stronger, faster, more durable, and with one goal: kill Jake Sully. So he must leave with his family and sever the important familial roots he’s grown, and with change comes tumult. For his wife, his daughters, and most importantly, his sons. 

It means there are two stories in Avatar: The Way of Water. One is the endlessly predictable conflict with the humans, a dull one-note affair that reenlists Stephen Lang as tinpot baddie Quaritch who unfortunately (for us) is destined to be Jake’s Oedipus-like father-foe. 

The other storyline Cameron has cooked up for The Way of Water is about identity, family, and belonging. This one’s slightly more interesting, so it’s all the more disappointing since it’s the storyline Cameron and co-writers Silver and Jaffa have the most problems with, offering nothing that hasn’t been seen before as Jake’s youngest son struggles to find his place in the family and in his father’s eyes. If you’re intrigued by this premise of coming-of-age and youthful discontent and rebellion, watch The 400 Blows instead. 

The first Avatar was about one man’s struggle to get a new lease on life, and while parenthood offers bounties of dramatic potential, this sequel demotes Jake and Neytiri to secondary characters. In this exploration of what it means to raise a family, raise boys, raise men, Jake’s behavior is watered down to “be stern for almost the entirety of the movie, and even then, only begrudgingly accepting of my children.” As for Saldana, she has little to do, and what she does with those scarce opportunities makes the underutilization all the more disappointing. 

This is Avatar, for better or worse, and something closer to a 1.5 than a true sequel. The things that worked well in the first film still work well here, and what was subpar in the first is now even more so. If you liked Avatar, you’ll enjoy The Way of Water too, and relish the return to a universe that despite its flaws still feels like an original creation with initiative and outlook. 

But if Pandora, its people, and ideas did nothing for you, then there’s nothing to suggest you’ll experience existential wanderlust this time around, and what’s on offer instead is a rote two-lane story where one leads straight off a cliff, and the other into a barren inland empire where promised sequels will pave the road to further dramatic mediocrity. 

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