Avatar: The Way of Water | Review

★★★

It’s been such a long time since James Cameron’s largely forgettable Avatar supposedly changed the face of cinema that a recap almost feels due. Or, rather, it would were such a prelude not to extend this second instalment’s already overwhelming runtime. If Avatar was a tale of romance, its sequel – The Way of Water – is one of familial ties. Thematically, little has changed in the transition. The same is true of the now franchise’s questionable approach to indigenous appropriation. And yet, it’s not narrative prowess that will draw the crowds to a Pandora return. Thirteen years of work has fuelled the technological advancement of Avatar 2. It shows.

Which is not to say that The Way of Water is a pictographic triumph without fault. There’s beauty here and no expense spared but a higher frame rate, applied inconsistently across the film, jars. It’s silky smooth, true, but off putting and oddly un-cinematic. Much has been made of efforts made by the film’s production to master sub marina motion capture. Sure enough, when total submersion finally comes, the effect is suitably breathtaking. Bioluminescence proves a particular highlight. With each resurfacing, however, things slip. It’s realism at the expense of the luxuriant visuals that made the original a spectacle.

Visual dissonance aside, The Way of Water lacks too a much need emotional connect. Having abandoned his deceased human form – actual avatars are conspicuous by the absence second time around – Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully is now chief of the Omaticaya. His love for Na’vi mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) is undiminished and together they share three children and an adopted teen, weirdly but successfully played by Sigourney Weaver. Paradise falls with the return of the ‘sky people’, human colonisers now salivating with vengeful intent. By some quirk of crowbarring, Cameron’s script, co-written by Planet of the Apes partnership Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, allows a return for Stephen Lang’s Colonel Miles Quaritch. Now a lab-grown Na’vi himself, Quaritch has ne’er been so deadly.

Impassioned to protect his family, Jake leads clan Sully away from the forest to the far out islands of the Metkayina tribe. It’s classic world building that frames the Metkayina as semi-amphibian whale riders, with tillers for tails and wrists like oars. With one eye on films three and four in his Avatar empire, Cameron brings forward the youngest Sullys here and it is through their eyes, their adventures and their conflicts that we learn the way of water. Naturally, it’s only so long before Quaritch finds them and one more native versus interloper battle begins. The execution impresses but it’s all very clinically engaging. I defy anyone to name a single Sully child on exiting the auditorium.

So evident is the work that has gone into Avatar 2 as a visual achievement that a sense of the smug pervades. It’s creatively redundant showboating. Each scene is designed simply to impress rather than express, while ruthlessly efficient plotting works well to hook in the moment but will fade quicker than the credits roll. It would be churlish to deny that Avatar 2 does entertain but nothing said here has not been said before. It’s desperately rote. A patchwork of tropes and cliches, glued together in the name of technological avarice.

The result wastes the talents of a freshly recruited Kate Winslet, begging the question: why hire an Oscar winner, make them totally unrecognisable and give them nothing to do but snarl? Winslet is said to have held her breath for a record-breaking seven minutes during under water filming. That’s nothing. Try holding your bladder for one hundred and ninety two of them.

T.S.

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