James Cameron released "Avatar" in 2009 and set box office records at the time. But he did not start shooting its sequel until 2017. Now "Avatar: The Way of Water" hits theaters as one of the most expensive films of all time.
"Avatar: The Way of Water" is pretty to look at and the 3D technology is impressive. And that’s about the only nice thing I have to say about James Cameron’s film.
To be honest I was not a fan of the first film. All the awards and box office receipts cannot change the fact that I was bored and annoyed throughout the film by its pedestrian script. Yes it looked pretty but I go to the movies to do more than look at pretty pictures.
I have appreciated the 13-year break he has given me from having to endure another "Avatar" film but I knew he was working on a franchise of four planned sequels and that one day I would be returning to the cinema to review another "Avatar" outing.
"The Way of Water" definitely raises the bar on computer-generated technology but incredulously it manages to set the bar even lower for simple storytelling skills and creativity.
Although it’s been more than a decade since "Avatar" came out, Cameron begins his sequel as if we all saw the first film yesterday and remember exactly where the story left off. But the new story is so insipid that I guess it doesn’t matter if we remember what happened at the end of "Avatar 1" or how Jake became a big blue alien or what the heck the military and big corporations did with the Unobtanium.
But as "Avatar 2" begins, we find that people who were dead are back in various incarnations and Cameron leaves the forest world of the first film simply so he can dive into an island culture and play with underwater CGI.
The 192-minute length would not be an issue if the script showed even the slightest hint of originality or interest. But everything we see in the film, from family on the run to sibling rivalry to stirring environmental awareness has been done before and better.
There are moments where Cameron seems to be stealing from himself or maybe just revisiting earlier films such as "The Abyss," "Aliens," and "Titanic." There's even a sequence where we have to return repeatedly to a sinking ship to rescue someone.
So much of the film is just inexplicably lame. Take the character Spider (Jack Champion), a human who gets captured and stubbornly refuses to provide the military with any information about Jake and his family, even when tortured. But then, in a subsequent scene, he is suddenly traveling with the military and helping. The only remains of his resistance comes in the form of an occasional sarcastic comment.
Or take Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), who bonds with the whale-like Tulkun and tells the creature he cannot understand him, but then the two suddenly seem to understand each other's language in a following scene. And then why create a language for the Na'vi if you are going to have them speak in English and only revert to their language when it serves as a plot device? Perhaps the answers to all these questions await us in the director's cut that will no doubt be released at some point, but I won't be returning for that.
But "Avatar: The Way of Water" is critic-proof. People who love James Cameron will see anything he does, much like the Zack Snyder fans will rally around all his work. Plus, "The Way of Water" is being pitched as an "event" film that needs to be seen in the cinema in 3D, and that seems to be what pulls people off their couches and into the theater. For the sake of movie theaters that have been struggling, I hope it brings in crowds. But I won't shed any tears if it tanks at the box office and jeopardizes the future of the "Avatar" franchise.
If my criticism of the film sounds harsh, that's because Cameron is given so much money and opportunity but displays so little originality and art. By contrast, an inspired genius like Phil Tippett has to struggle for decades and solicit crowdfunding to complete his truly visionary stop motion animation dream project of "Mad God." So the fact that more people will see and will have the opportunity to see "The Way of Water" over "Mad God" just because of how the entertainment industry and film distribution works makes me sad and angry.
I know that is not Cameron's fault, but the epic blandness of his storytelling is. So that makes the dazzling advances in technology that his visual effects team achieves seem wasted.
I do love the old Cameron, the guy who gave us “The Terminator” and amped up the action of “Aliens.” But that guy seems to have disappeared and I doubt we'll ever see him again, and that's too bad. Those films embraced the genre's formula with vigor and fun and gave them a fresh energy. But I see none of that in the "Avatar" films.
Better movie options
But the good news for filmgoers is that Digital Gym Cinema is bringing back "TÁR" today and will have the ridiculously fun Tollywood epic "RRR" starting on Dec. 30 (I can't think of a better way to ring out 2022). And I will be co-hosting the antithesis of "Avatar" this Saturday at 7:00 p.m. as Film Geeks SD and Bonkers Ass Cinema present "Blood Beat." "Blood Beat" is weird, wacky, stunningly low-budget but absolutely bonkers. But there's a DIY passion to the filmmaking that brings me joy. It's a Christmas movie with a serial killer samurai ghost. That's all I'm going to say.