]It’s been 17 years, but it’s finally arrived — Avatar: The Way of Water. Evoking memories of water-bending and ATLA (which reminds me, it’s time for a rewatch), I went to watch the movie in 3D in an IMAX theatre, having heard of the movie’s fantastic visual effects. Well, they weren’t wrong — it is a visually stunning movie that should be watched in theatres, and in 3D, if possible (putting on those 3D glasses felt awkward, it’s been years since I’ve watched a 3D movie).
Before I begin talking about Avatar: The Way of Water, I wanted to give a quick refresher on Avatar; after all, it is a sequel, and the first movie came out in 2009, so we all need a reminder of what happened 17 years ago. To make it short, the movie takes place on an alien planet called Pandora, populated by beings called the Na’vi, 10-foot tall, humanoid beings with tails and blue skins. The story begins when human beings attempt to invade Pandora in an attempt to mine unobtanium, and the mining colony threatens the existence of the Na’vi. The protagonist, Jake Sully, is able to control an avatar of the Na’vi, in an attempt to gather more information, but falls in love with another member of the Na’vi, Neytiri. The two team up, and Jake works with the Na’vi and is able to drive the human population off the planet. The story is a typical anti-imperialistic one, albeit with stunning visuals and what was then unprecedented cinematic technology, particularly with 3D.
And then, 17 years passed.
Now, we have Avatar: The Way of Water, a sequel that is another typical anti-imperialistic story, but with higher stakes. Instead of mining for unobtanium, they want to take over the planet as Earth is dying! The story is relatively simple — we see the return of Colonel Quaritch, this time, as an avatar, and he’s looking to exact his revenge against Sully for betraying him during the first movie. The entire film is one long fight scene, detailing the chase between Quaritch and Sully, and Sully’s attempts to protect his family. His older ‘daughter’, Kitty, is an avatar and is Grace Augustine’s daughter (a scientist from the first movie, and her inert avatar gives birth to Kitty). Kitty is very obviously a new Messiah; she is able to communicate with sea creatures and has a personal connection to Eywa, the Great Mother. She has the makings of a typical white messiah figure, down to her unknown father, her seizures, and religious ecstasy.
I’d like to talk about what I enjoyed in the movie — and I did enjoy a few things. It definitely was a very, very pretty movie — the special effects were incredible, and it truly is a spectacle. I even liked the forays James Cameron made into exploring the world and introducing the audience to another race of the Na’vi. Looking at how the Na’vi evolved near the water was fascinating, and the little details he included — like their arms and tails — were interesting, and I’d love to have a more fleshed-out world. Credit where credit is due, James Cameron can definitely direct a good-looking fight sequence.
The downside? It is long. It did not need to be this long. Sure, it’s a very pretty movie, but visuals can only go so far, especially when the movie is an incredible 3 hours and 12 minutes long (with no breaks, but you’re not missing on any plot, so feel free to take toilet breaks in between).
Ignoring the fact that the movie could have an hour shaved off and still be just as good, the sequel doesn’t address any of the narrative flaws the first movie has; in fact, it doubles down on them. A lot of work has been written on the problems of the first movie; from the racist elements around Sully being a literal white savior to the Na’vi people, to the neo-colonial elements that look at how the film is colonialist, as it relies on a white American male to help the Na’vi tribe. Even if we ignore the over-sexualisation and essentialisation of the Na’vi, or the fact that Jake is the only protagonist worth talking about (again), or even the ham-fisted attempts at portraying sibling relationships, the movie is…pretty boring (The dynamic between the two brothers was almost painful to watch; the stereotypical ‘good soldier’ firstborn, versus the ‘outcast’ second son was laid on really thick). There isn’t any real conflict — though the movie begins with the idea of Earth wanting to take over the whole planet, the focus quickly shifts to Quaritch and Sully’s fight, so it feels very…uneventful. You know going in, that Sully will survive, and that this won’t end with any closure — after all, how are they going to churn out Avatar sequels, with the next one set to release in 2024?
Ultimately, the story is similar to Avatar, which is disappointing; it works as an introduction to this world and sets itself up for a sequel. Funny thing is, this movie is a sequel. Is it really just sequels all the way down, with introductions upon introductions and no real payoff? I hope not — I don’t think I can sit through another 3 hours just to go, “huh, I wonder if they’ll build on this in the next movie.”