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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ review: It comes in waves

Carljoe Javier
‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ review: It comes in waves
'When I think about the situations, the conflicts, and all the other story pieces here, the movie feels like a mishmash of '80s and early '90s action movie clichés'

James Cameron is rightfully celebrated as a director who is an innovator, pushing the boundaries of film, and often developing new techniques and technologies to bring his imagination to the screen. And so we have Avatar: The Way of Water, sequel to one of the highest grossing films of all time and a technological wonder that has left most of the world spellbound. I’m among the many people who was in pure awe, and I look fondly on the experience I had watching it in 3-D over a decade ago. 

So here’s the thing.

I rewatched Avatar (2009) recently and, well, the story has not aged well. The action sequences are still great, the imagery and technological whizz-bang still impressive. But I’ve basically lost a sense of nostalgia for that first flick. And that’s an important thing to consider with this review. I don’t hold that first movie with much longing, nor did I ever really feel, after that first flick closed so neatly, that we needed more of it, needed a franchise. 

As such this review can be read in two parts, which is also sort of how I think about The Way of Water. The first half will be approaching it as its marketing materials and hype suggest, as yet another technological wonder and innovation. Then in the second half I’ll dig in and tell you all how I really feel. 

First things first, given the budget and technological innovations of this flick, if you like film, if you remotely care about that kind of thing, then you’ll probably want to check this movie out. I think, in all likelihood, the hype machine of Avatar is so powerful that people will go watch just to see what it’s all about. 

I have no doubts that people will go out and see this movie. And you should. It’s often jaw-dropping. If you watch any of the behind-the-scenes stuff, then you’ll know the kind of crazy work that’s been done to make this happen. One of the important narratives around this movie is that it was supposed to come out sooner but James Cameron had to wait for the technology to catch up with his ideas. 

In that respect, sure there’s a lot to see here. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I found some sequences very cool, very awesome. I was absolutely sucked in and propelled forward not just by cool fight scenes, but by all the underwater stuff. Coming from the dude who made Titanic and Abyss, you can also expect some of that, but turned up even louder as we get water as both this beautiful thing, but also something lethal. 

The simple fact is, if you shell out some real cash to see this, to experience this, even or especially in IMAX 3-D, then you will be getting your money’s worth. You’ll get three hours of all of this amazing technology and filmmaking mixed together. 

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And now we get to how I feel about it. I don’t hate it, because there is so much here to admire, but I don’t think I like it very much. 

This has nothing to do with being impressed or not by the technology. It has pretty much everything to do with being a very long three hours with very little story for me to hang onto or care about. 

We jump about a decade forward in narrative time, which closely mirrors the time that has passed since the last film. Since then the main couple of the previous film, Jake and Neytiri (Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, respectively) have birthed a brood, and now they are caring for four kids. And while we thought the Na’Vi conflict with the Sky People was done when humans were kicked off Pandora, we see here both the return of humans and a resurrection of characters. Our big bad from last time, Stephen Lang as Quaritch, is brought back with his squad (I won’t explain; the movie does more than enough exposition). 

In all this setup we get at least a good 10 minutes of exposition to start us off. Granted it’s exposition in the form of VO on top of loads and loads of beautiful imagery, but it’s exposition nonetheless. And as we move forward in the film, the narrative doesn’t do much in getting better.

If I’m being honest, I can break down the original film as a pretty simplistic Pocahontas retelling, mildly (if not sometimes very) offensive with its mix of exoticism, over the top “hoo-rah marine” misogyny,  and white savior narrative. And I can overlook all that stuff because, hey, it was 2009 and the action was super cool. 

With this new installment, though, we get a supposed “family story” where Jake and Neytiri take their kids into hiding because they are being hunted by Quaritch. We spend over an hour as these kids start to integrate themselves with a new tribe, in the water as promised by the title, and have their mishaps and adventures. 

Now, from a “I want to do cool stuff” perspective, this all works. Basically, Cameron wanted a narrative reason for them to be hanging out and learning from water people so that he could unveil all of the water stuff that he had built or designed specifically to shoot this kind of stuff. 

But from a story level? I just found myself resisting and doubting so much of this. I won’t get into details here so as not to spoil anything. Overall, the problem in the writing for me was that the progression and forward momentum of the story relied on characters either making bad decisions, which would lead to things happening, or characters not doing anything, which leads to things happening. There was very little agency and very little “smart” stuff happening story-wise. 

This connects to perhaps one of the larger narrative problems of Avatar: The Way of Water. Because this story had to wait for the technology, it feels like a very old story. Further, even if this story came out in 2014, it would still feel very “out of time.” When I think about the situations, the conflicts, and all the other story pieces here, the movie feels like a mishmash of ’80s and early ’90s action movie clichés. It’s like they took a bunch of what worked from movies in that time period, shook them around, and then sprinkled them on. 

Which is to say that despite whatever focus and care and effort and thought went into making this visually stunning and technologically innovative, it feels like the storytelling skill was left by the wayside. This isn’t to say that the story is horrible (subjective, though I lean toward this), it is by all means passable, and it serves the purpose of putting these huge blue creatures and humans onscreen so they can do cool-looking stuff. But from my perspective as a viewer who cares more about an interesting story than big cool tech stuff, I wish that there was more care put into crafting a story that is as big and ambitious as the world-building done on the visual side. 

At risk of being one of the contrarians who won’t give this thing flat-out positives, I will say that I more often than not felt like I was watching a video game cut scene than a film. Again, I know how much technological effort was put into this and I appreciate it. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that all that tech wizardry got me to feel strongly one way or the other. It still boiled down, often, to some amazing performances, in particular Saldana’s, breaking through all the barriers of tech to give me something truly powerful and emotional. 

I know my opinion is probably going to be an outlier opinion audiences, as this is definitely the kind of big-budget tent-pole flick that is sure to pack seats. It’s fun. It’s worth the money just to see the cool stuff they have done. But is it a good movie? I don’t know how to answer that. – Rappler.com

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