One day, a heroic whale woke up and chose violence!
I expect two things from an Avatar sequel: incredible creature design and VFX; and rampant, in-your-face environmentalism. And on that charge, The Way of Water is a blockbuster success!
The visual effects in this movie are utterly spectacular. It's been a while since I've really been aware of things like CG oceans or forests, but getting a tour of this alien world is like a nature documentary. It felt like watching Prehistoric Planet, with these familiar yet slightly-off environments filled with fantastic beasts. Except, unlike that TV show, the environments are just as generated as the beasts, and I'll admit, I completely lost track of that. Plus, the creatures are all wonderfully alien and yet feel cohesive, like they fit together somehow biologically, yet without feeling repetitive (the creature design team absolutely smashed it again), and exploring the reef world is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
On top of this, the Na'vi are just something else. Once or twice the more human "avatars" let the illusion slip, but the full-native Na'Vi are almost completely convincing. I think the overly large eyes on some of the women threw me a little, but the skin textures and facial expressions convinced me so utterly that I had to keep reminding myself that these weren't just actors in prosthetics. When it worked, it was flawless, and it worked 90%+ of the time.
That said, I do think the kids suffered a little in their emoting. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana clearly gave a lot to their roles, and Stephen Lang plays a surprisingly nuanced take on the revenge arc, where I thought they did just enough to show that this man is not the same as the one who died in the first film, but does share a common history (it was a nice touch on the clone gimmick, even if it was a bit ridiculous to bring him back). But I have to say, the standout performance here is Jack Champion's Spider. It can't have been easy being the only "human" on set, and yet he plays this "feral" young man so well. The emotion and intelligence on display, combined with selling this general feeling that we have a human that knows he is human, but also fully understands and embraces the Na'Vi culture, is extremely compelling to watch, and I thought they both wrote his character well, and he managed to bring something extra to it himself. Serious bravo! 👏
So it's well-acted, visually spectacular, and clearly a whole new level of achievement for CG, but is it a good film? Yeah, but it's not great. The plot is heavily "inspired" by the first movie; we've just replaced the "white man learns that his way isn't the best way" Dances with Wolves environmentalism with "new father learns that his family is the most important thing" with a splash of "whaling is evil". But both of those are basically just an excuse for a three-part act:
- Have fun exploring a beautiful world of incredible creatures;
- Have the humans come and exploit it/be greedy and screw it all up;
- Big fight, where mother nature wins!
And, frankly, I'd be on board with watching that film a thousand times, particularly if we get a whole new range of alien critters for each one 😂
Still, I would have liked them to maybe learn a little from the original. The humans are still overly evil, and this time it's not for unobtainium. No, instead we hear that Earth is dying, so they need to terraform this literal Eden into a... desolate industrial wasteland (lolwut?). Oh, and the whales contain immortality juice, because apparently every nice thing on Pandora is some magic elixir for humanity. Look, I'm happy that they give the humans some purpose behind their immense greed, but they also keep making the scientists have at least an iota of conscience, so it kinda begs the question why the hell are the rest of the denizens of Earth such asshats? On the other hand, anything that maybe makes people sit up and take a stance on demilitarisation and banning whale hunting is broadly a good thing, so I'm just not too fussed that my magical space Pocahontas isn't that narratively complex 🤷♂️
(Though, I will say this: the story would have been more compelling had we opened with the humans attempting to re-occupy the forest lands, and the Sully clan generally undermining them, until the threat begins to grow less and less. Thinking they'd won, we see a kind of stale peace begin to unfold, until someone from the coastal tribes turns up and tells them that the humans have turned their attention elsewhere, bringing Sully and co into the fight. This makes the central conflict not about vengeance or hiding, but instead about Jake realising that if he is to protect his family, he first has to protect his new world, and that means fighting the humans on every front, setting up the rest of the new trilogy. The human story becomes one where the discovery of the magical immortality juice switches the exploitative goals of the mission to the oceans, and thus reveals that Jake's hard-won "truce" was actually just because they no longer needed to stoke that conflict. I dunno, to me this reads a little more clearly and sets up the larger "war" that they are so clearly teasing than what we got. You still have the revenge arc, but this time it's because the General discovers that Sully has kids and goes after them, not just to hunt him down, but because Jake has relocated and is now fighting for the coastal tribes. You have the family move as a whole not because they are fleeing the mountains, but because Jake needs to help and Neytiri refuses for the family to be parted – Sully's stick together, after all. The tribe that he reaches can still be suspect of him; perhaps the envoy is from the southern tribes that have already been wiped out, so Jake's appearance is still a bit of a shock. You get all of the main beats, without having to retread quite so much ground.)
Which is all to say, I really enjoyed this movie. It's not going to win any awards (except maybe for VFX, for which it utterly deserves the Oscar), but I don't really need it to. Dune can be the sci-fi trilogy with heart, this should just be a spectacle. And let me tell you, as the first 3D movie I've seen in years, it is completely phenomenal at a cinema. James Cameron just seems to understand depth better than any other director (though he does succumb to some 3D gimmicks, and the forced perspective is still annoying at times). I haven't felt this much like 3D is worthwhile since the original film (and maybe The Life of Pi), but I guess that ship has sailed. Still, whenever episode three rolls around, I'll be donning the stupid glasses and heading the biggest screen I can find 😉
 This is a reworking of a quote from the exceptional creature artist, Alex Ries, over on Twitter.