Avatar 2: The Way of Water is a three-hour Disney ride more than an actual film, and it feels as though the creators believe that’s plenty. Characters are drawn broadly and their motivations even more so. Plot elements are convenient, shoe-horned, and repetitious retreads of the first film, at least when they aren’t completely nonsensical. Themes are unchanged from the original, an afterthought at best. This is a movie that is more about the experience of watching it than the actual content of the movie.
Now, to be fair, Pandora is just as pretty as last time, maybe even more so. The creatures, environments, and the lore of the Na’vi are great to look at, and continue the tradition of the first film of offering an eye-pleasing frame. A handful of years have passed since the events of the first film, and there’s a nice little prelude to help us along, complete with the first of many voice-overs from our main character, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington).
Like the roll call at the beginning of a rebooted sitcom, Jake lets us know about the things that have changed in his life since he first sent the Sky People packing. He has a couple of sons, Neteyam and Lo’ak, his daughter Tuk, and an adoptive daughter named Kiri who is actually the offspring of the Grace avatar from the first film and some mysterious father (no points for guessing, we’ll have to wait until one of the sequels to get an answer, plus it’s obviously Eywa, the spirit of the planet). There is also Spider, the son of Colonel Quaritch, stranded on Pandora because children could not make the return journey. This prologue ends with the Sky People returning as we leap forward a full year and get to the actual story.
But first, some extra stupid: Stephen Lang’s character of Colonel Quaritch, plus his entire team, have been cloned into Na’Vi bodies with all of their original memories, which is definitely a thing that they can do. Stupid? And how. But hey, it’ll get the plot going.
Although I do use the term “plot” loosely. The marines are after Sully because he is leading the guerilla resistance against the new operation. Sully and his family are part of the war effort, causing some significant headaches. So the new general wants Quaritch and his team to hunt down Sully to remove the leader of the opposition from the equation and weaken the resistance.
After some scuffles, Jake realizes that the marines will keep coming for him, and for his family, endangering the entire tribe. They leave, hoping to join one of the island tribes hundreds of miles to the north.
So then, with Jake confirmed to be gone and out of the way, the marines . . . follow him? And the general is okay with this course of action, spending vast resources, men, and materiel to hunt down someone who now has exactly zero effect on the state of the resistance?
I’m just trying to get this straight. Maybe I’m not so smart but the plot points that were being spoonfed to me were fairly simple:
- Jake Sully is leading a resistance.
- Na’vi clone marine team is tasked with assassinating the leader of the resistance, Jake Sully
- Jake Sully flies 400 miles away. There is now a new leader of the resistance.
- Let’s chase Jake Sully.
So, as much as it goes against the promise of the plot as we were given it, point #4 takes up the remainder of the film. The entire second act is Jake and his family fitting in with their new tribe, a meandering bit of storytelling meant more for worldbuilding and eye-catching visuals than any actual character growth or plot progression. We establish just how bad the bad guys are by showing some proper over-the-top exploitation of wildlife in the form of whale hunters harvesting the philosopher’s stone from the brains of whales (not kidding, that’s what happens; I didn’t think anything could be stupider than “unobtainium”, but here we are).
There’s some attempt at character development, but it is incredibly clunky, never more than whatever the Hell is going on with offspring-of-the-planet Kiri. In one scene, she’s at perfect peace with the water and a wunderkind with inexplicable powers. In the next, she’s a mopey complainer upset at her lot in life. It took me a good hour before I realized she wasn’t two different characters, that’s how awkward her characterization is. It doesn’t help that the editing of this portion of the movie is more interested in showing off cool fish than crafting comprehensible scenes.
The final act is a by-the-numbers hodge-podge of the third act from the first film, repeated kidnappings, and the ending of Titanic plus The Abyss thrown in for good measure. At some point, I was surprised that Sarah Connor didn’t make a cameo.
Thematically, there’s nothing new here at all. Na’vi are still in perfect harmony with a sentient planet, colonizers and exploiters are still trying to disrupt this natural balance and destroy Pandora. This time, there’s water and whales with the Fountain of Youth in their brains. Oh, and a good bit of Family a la The Fast Franchise.
There’s the sense throughout this facade of a film that the audience should feel a sense of wonder simply on the merit of what James Cameron and the legions of CGI artists were able to conjure on the screen. Cameron will likely contend that his computer-generated light show has deep meaning, that it is about harmony with nature, the cruelty of oppressive exploiters of the planet, and fighting for what you believe in with the support of your friends and family. But these ideas are taken as broad givens, bursting forth fully formed from Cameron’s head as a result of the pretty renders he’s put together, along with some blunt moralizing. But at the end of its extensive runtime, there’s nothing significant in Avatar 2 that wasn’t present in the first film, both good and bad.
It makes one shudder to think, how many more of these expensive finger paintings do we have to sit through?