Avatar: The Way of Water

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

James Cameron


Kate Winslet Sam Worthington Zoe Saldana


Love James Cameron to pieces. His films? Not so much…


Empty spectacle that’s entirely bereft of heart and soul.

In Retrospect.

A feat of coldly-precise engineering, but not a good movie.

A gaudy blue folly which encapsulates James Cameron’s strength as an image-maker, but weakness as a storyteller.

Outsider art comes in many forms. Often we think of it as primitive doodles for which the “artist” has employed found materials and is usually divorced from the fray of the art-manufacturing industrial complex. Despite the fact that its purported price tag amounts to many hundreds of millions, there’s something about James Cameron’s stubbornly imposing Avatar: The Way of Water that embodies the basic precepts of outsider art – for better and for worse.

There’s a naivety to this sequel story which makes it feel as if Cameron has been squirrelled away at the bottom of an oceanic trench within a glass-domed submersible for the last 13 years (and probably the 13 before that too). With his charmingly inflated ego and staggering artisan intellect, he has not merely ignored but batted back the global tides of art, fashion, political thought, refined taste, and – most importantly – narrative cinema. In fact, the only thing he appears to have had down there is a worn DVD of the film Free Willy (1993).

But we all know the story. Against all odds, 2009’s original Avatar became a world-conquering box office behemoth, trumping his own record-setting love boat disasterpiece, Titanic, from 1999. Yet unlike Titanic, it’s hard to find someone who’ll admit to actually liking Avatar or, if not that, feeling as if a sequel would hold any anticipatory value whatsoever. Do kids have Na’vi action figures? Has there been any spin-off fiction about the habitable planet of Pandora in the intervening years? Perhaps it’s this blanket cultural absence that makes the prospect of a new Avatar film so weirdly tantalising?

As with the first one, The Way of Water is a film that wears its overbearing, gaudy technical achievements on its sleeve, and Cameron himself makes for an effective carnival barker when it comes to hyping up the experiential aspects of Going To The Cinema To See A Movie. He knows that the theatrical space is still where the big money is, and the current mix of post-pandemic malaise and industry doomsaying might just make for the perfect conditions for him to front a revolution and cash in on what must be one of cinema’s most eccentric and precarious franchise spread bets.

With this second run-out for the lanky blue hippy hunter-gathers, once again a lazy homogenisation of nativist tropes, Cameron cleaves tightly to the same winning formula as the original. The film not only rejects any criticisms – and there are many! – of the first film, but doubles down on them, delivering an even more hokily disjointed narrative, ramping up the sentimental cut-aways of human/animal camaraderie, and ramming unearned, broad-brush emotion down the viewer’s throat like so much salty popcorn.

The eponymous concept of the avatar gave the first film its speculative sci-fi USP, and also served to imbue its wide-eyed army puke protagonist – Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully – with a workable if hardly earth-shattering dramatic dilemma. This aspect is swept aside as ground already covered in the new one, which instead goes for a straight-up Na’vi-vs-“Sky People” (humans) battle for the future. Sully himself is less of a central presence, as is his sultry wife Neytiri as played by Zoe Saldana. The baton has been passed along to their teenage brood, which comprises a quartet of oikish, hot-headed boys and sensitive, maternal girls.

In terms of writing and characterisation, Cameron never met a cliché which he didn’t embrace with open arms and a wet smooch. This is a film which, across its 192 minute runtime, offers nothing but retrograde, dumb-for-show boilerplate. Is this a criticism? Maybe… But this has always been the way with Cameron, as he is not someone who gravitates towards narrative trickery or a desire to add any level of ambiguity or sophistication to his characters. There’s no nice way of putting this, but in The Way of Water, we are served up the director’s most basic dramatic structure and across-the-board bland set of players he’s ever manufactured.

Meanwhile, the humans are now even more pantomime in their colonial villainy, having done with stripping Pandora of vital mineral assets (Unobtainium!), and now shifting focus to the golden, age-stymying brain cheese of the Tulkun, a race of hyper-intelligent whale/turtle hybrids who have also adopted a strict code of pacifism. The detail of non-violence leaves the door wide open for Cameron to indulge in many shows of simplistic environmentalist hectoring, and one of the film’s big and most brazenly manipulative action set pieces involves a mechanised hunting party meting out pain and humiliation on a defenceless Tulkun and her brood.

As the main antagonist, we have Stephen Lang’s heinous, claw-marked Marine, Quaritch, now back in the body of a Na’vi (something about extracting his memories before he was killed in the first film?), and with a hankering for some afters with his killers, Jake and Neytiri. With a vaguely justified go-ahead from the brass, the stage is set for his long-game and logistically incomprehensible revenge mission, with an estranged, feral son, Spider (Jack Champion), haphazardly tossed into the mix to test his emotional mettle.

All of which is to say, that awkward dichotomy between crassly superficial story and pathfinding visuals is still very much in play, and The Way of Water can still be enjoyed and lauded as a purely cosmetic spectacle. It’s hard not to be awe-struck by the levels of detail, the creative in-world design and the svelte dynamism of the 3D, 48fps presentation, but the human brain has evolved to adapt to its surroundings, so spectacle quickly transforms into gimmick. The effects become wallpaper. There’s a tragic irony to the fact that Cameron and his team have created a world so immaculately immersive – a mellifluous trompe-l’œil writ large across the sky in fluoro blue – that the defects in his by-the-motions storytelling are the only thing left to stare at.

And yet, a James Cameron Avatar sequel – more for what it stands for than what it is – remains preferable to the vast majority of mainstream, effects-driven genre cinema. His release strategy is akin to that of the conceptual video artist, as the settings and the strict viewing conditions have become part and parcel of the artwork itself. It’s why he may be onto another winner, with more-of-the-same cannily repackaged and marketed as populist subversion. The third episode is already in the can, and I for one have little interest to see how things on Pandora inevitably pan out, especially now Cameron – without a 13-year gap to test the waters – has now well-and-truly played every card in his aesthetic hand.

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Published 13 Dec 2022

Tags: Avatar Avatar: The Way of Water Disney James Cameron


Love James Cameron to pieces. His films? Not so much…


Empty spectacle that’s entirely bereft of heart and soul.

In Retrospect.

A feat of coldly-precise engineering, but not a good movie.

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