James Cameron is no stranger to blockbuster films, or to having his efforts make a serious impact on cultural consciousness, but even with all his name brings a sequel to Avatar is a decidedly tricky task. There are obviously a lot of reasons the deck is stacked against this one, not least the fact that it’s been so long, but the main reason is that Avatar is so mind-crushingly bad. It’s a film that is as much a delight for the senses as it is simply a tossing into a blender of every sad banality and cliche of film pasted over the plot of other films.
Shockingly, while Avatar: The Way of Water isn’t quite a good film in the end, it manages to improve on the original in every way, despite falling victim to most of the same problems.
Much like the original, this one is clearly built around several key effects Cameron wants to film with certain societal statements (and tepid, boring ones at that) serving as anchors. Thus, the steps leading from one to the next, the motivations and reactions of characters, the plot devices that pull and shove things along, are all tedius, eye-rolling, and meant to be ignored. As bad as that sounds, and is, the film at least establishes the paramaters during its opening minutes, during which we see the aftermath of the first film and the incomprehensible extent to which Jake (and everyone else on Pandora) does absolutely nothing to prepare for the guaranteed returned of the human race for over a decade.
Humans do return, in spectacularly fiery fashion, because the “humans destroy everything without a care” theme needs to whack audiences over the head again, in case you didn’t just rewatch the original. This go around, Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his closest crew return in avatar form, and general security/putting locals in their place issues quickly become a revenge/Jake-focused concern, meaning above all else Quaritch is simply gunning for one person… ish.
This largely preposterous catalyst maneuvers the film toward the ocean as Jake lands on the idea that if he simply hides far away with another group of Na’vi, who have evolved to better live in an ocean/coastal habitat, everything will be fine. Nothing to this point makes a lick of sense, except using the film’s “sense construct” whereby if it got me to the point I can include whales and underwater action it makes sense.
Finding refuge among the water Na’vi gives us the chance to watch Jake’s sons weather some bullying that would have John Hughes wondering if perhaps the young people aren’t acting a bit simplistically, because a little thing like an alien race trying to take over the planet isn’t going to deter anyone from wearing a bit more tread off a tired hazing plotline.
Conveniently, we’ve lost interest in unobtanium, and apart from simply wanting to take over and populate Pandora, the resource of the moment is the few ounces of goo you can collect from the brains of a species of whale on Pandora. Lo and behold, this puts Jake and his new friends in conflict with the returning destroyers of all things good and pure, and the fight is on.
Surprisingly, the film manages mostly to win out, because, as I said, it improves on nearly everything. The wonder of the visuals exists more in actual fact than theory, and though pacing could still be improved, it allows a viewer to ignore the story to a much greater degree. There is a richer world of our key characters vying for your attention, and as much as several elements (like the bullying) are pointless and “effect service,” it is far more possible to let yourself be taken up with them and let the “story” wash over your experience.
It even improves, though not by much, on its villain/s, something Cameron simply isn’t good at when any degree of depth is required. Quaritch is black hat goofy in the first film and he’s hardly much more here, but he at least has some interesting notes to play with by virtue of figuring out who he is, even if it doesn’t ultimately amount to much.
In the end, the film is a mesmerizing ride that takes “pure popcorn fun” to new heights and manages to dodge and weave around its own failings, though it would have been nice if it tried to remove them instead of celebrating its ability to outmaneuver them. It deserves recommending, and would even if the plot were worse, because the wow factor and moments of real emotion win out. It’s also a film perhaps deserving of every rating, depending on where a person falls on the specturm of wanting plot that isn’t just plain silly.