Movie Curiosities — Avatar: The Way of Water

Yes, yes, I know I’m late to the party on this one. Over the past few days, there’s been an especially bad winter storm going on through half the country and it’s made going outside a really bad idea. Also, it’s the holiday season and you’ll forgive me if I’d rather go see a play or go to a White Elephant gift exchange or spend time with my family or do some last-minute shopping or do literally anything else with my precious three hours instead of watch and review a movie that’s going to gross more than the GDP of Africa regardless of what I say.

But then, while my review may be a few weeks late, Avatar: The Way of Water is at least a decade late, so there’s that.

I openly acknowledge that James Cameron is a cinematic grandmaster and only an ignorant fool would bet against him. At the same time, it would also be a fair assessment that Cameron is arrogant to the point of delusional, with a white savior complex besides. And if there’s anything big enough to potentially bring him down a peg, it’s the Avatar franchise.

With Avatar, James Cameron has created a beast that can’t be fed. We’re talking about a sequel that took so much time and money to produce that it played a significant role in bankrupting 20th Century Fox. A movie that took five writers (Cameron himself, alongside Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno), an estimated $460 million budget, 13 years in development and production, and 190 minutes of runtime to bring us more bland characters and a dental-floss plot on par with the first movie.

By James Cameron’s own estimates, this movie needs $2 billion just to break even. I can’t stress this emphatically enough, ranking as the fifth-highest grossing film of all time is the break-even point. Anything less than that, and Disney loses a good chunk of the $71.3 billion they spent acquiring 20th Century Fox in the first place. (Because it’s a guaranteed certainty that the Avatar films in production went a long way toward boosting the sale price.) Which means that the absolute best that Disney can hope for is a profit of $1 billion, and that’s ONLY if this somehow miraculously becomes the first movie in history to clear $3 billion.

Oh, and by the way — of the five movies in all of history to gross over $2 billion, none of them were released post-COVID. This would literally have to be the first movie of the pandemic age to break the $2 billion mark, at a time when audiences are worried about the COVID/flu/RSV trifecta, audiences in the USA are kept at home by inclement weather, and recent international developments could seriously affect the box office returns out of China and Russia.

(Side note: As of this typing, Avatar: The Way of Water has cleared $855.4 million globally after nine days in wide release.)

But it’s okay — Avatar will make that money back with the merchandising sales and the theme park attractions. Or we could get a hugely expensive laughingstock like the Star Wars Starcruiser Hotel fiasco. Disney would have to create an attraction on that extravagant scale to fit the Avatar brand, and it would have to be astronomically expensive to make all that money back. In essence, Disney would have to repeat the mistakes that made their immersive Star Wars hotel experience a cataclysmic flop.

The bottom line is that this franchise was built to be expensive. Indeed, the exorbitant production costs have become a selling point of this entire franchise. We’ve seen what happens when movies are made and marketed as hugely expensive extravaganzas (e.g. The 1963 Cleopatra film and the infamous Heaven’s Gate) and it never goes well. There’s no way a franchise can sustain itself long-term like this.

All of that aside, what have we got this time? More of the same, really. Let’s pick it up roughly a decade after the first movie.

Jake Sully and Neytiri (respectively played once again by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana) are still the leaders of their Na’vi tribe in the forest. They’ve since given birth to a pair of interchangeable sons (Neteyam and Lo’ak, respectively played by James Flatters and Britain Dalton), both desperate to live up to their father’s legacy as a war hero even as they drive their dad crazy by virtue of being reckless idiot teenage boys. They’ve also got a young daughter (Tuktirey, or “Tuk” for short, played by Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), who primarily functions as luggage.

In addition to their own biological children, Sully and Neytiri have taken custody of Grace’s child, name of Kiri (Grace and Kiri are both played by Sigourney Weaver). If you’re keeping score, you may recall that Grace was killed off in the first movie, but her Avatar remained intact. And somehow, while Grace’s Avatar was floating dormant in its tank (unfit for use without a human pilot to match Grace’s DNA), it gave birth to a healthy Na’vi girl. No joke, we have a bona fide immaculate conception in this movie, and it’s never explained what the fuck happened to make this possible.

Rounding out the family is “Spider” (Jack Champion), a teenage human boy. See, when most of the human colonizers got kicked out of Pandora at the end of the first movie, Spider had to be left behind because he was just a baby at the time — too young to be put into cryostasis for the trip back to Earth. So he stayed behind with the last few human scientists, though he spends most of his time living among the other Na’vi children and immersing himself in their ways. Even better, Spider is the orphaned son of none other than the late Colonel Miles Quaritch, played in the previous movie by Stephen Lang until he got killed off. More on him later.

This beautiful status quo is of course too good to last, so the humans inevitably come back and they come back with a vengeance. The Earthlings and the Na’vi have both spent the intervening decade preparing for the day when the humans would try another invasion, and there’s no longer any pretense that peaceful coexistence is an option. What’s worse, the humans aren’t just after unobtainium anymore, they’re after EVERYTHING. Yes, it seems that Earth is now so far gone, RDA has been sent back to Pandora with the mission of burning down the whole damn planet so it can be terraformed into a new home for the human race. After mining the planet for its viable resources, of course.

This time, the magical resource of the film is “amrita”, a glowing golden substance that can stop human aging entirely. And some-fucking-how, human scientists discovered that this wonder drug can be harvested from the brains of a certain aquatic species on Pandora. It’s still a more interesting and compelling MacGuffin than “unobtainium”, I’ll grant you that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Worst of all, the humans have returned with a new secret weapon. It seems that at some point just before the events of the first movie, RDA took the genes and brain scans of their most elite marines and put them into storage. Put simply, the human colonizers kept backups of the best and brightest warriors to get KIA on Pandora.

So it is that Colonel Miles Quaritch himself and a platoon of his most seasoned cutthroats have been resurrected into human/Na’vi hybrids by way of Avatar technology. I have to assume this must have been an extremely costly and time-consuming measure (given how the first movie made such a big deal about what it took to make a single Avatar), which is why we don’t have a whole army of these “recoms” running around. At any rate, it’s bad enough that we have a cadre of Na’vi running around with the training and experience of the galaxy’s top marines, not to mention the fanaticism of xenophobic bigots.

Our plot kicks off with the arrival of Quaritch and his recom crew, roughly a year into the new invasion of Pandora. By now, Jake Sully is widely known as the notorious mastermind of the Na’vi insurgency, and Quaritch naturally has his own deeply personal reasons for going after Sully and his family. Sully responds to this… by abdicating his leadership of the forest Na’vi so he and his family can flee to seek refuge among the island tribes.

One assumes that this would be a huge deal, considering how Jake Sully’s leadership, strategic prowess, and intimate firsthand knowledge of the enemy were all such crucial factors in holding back the invasion up to this point. Given the humans’ stated goal of burning all Pandora to the ground, and considering how much of the forest they’ve already burned up simply by virtue of making landfall and setting up another colony, any reasonable people would have to wonder how that established mission of genocide would be coming along during three hours of runtime.

And we’ll all have to keep on wondering (at least until the assumed third movie), because we never revisit the forest Na’vi or hear from them again.

Instead, we follow Jake Sully and his family out to the Metkayina tribe who live on the islands off Pandora’s eastern seaboard. This is a whole ‘nother breed of Na’vi, anatomically build to live and fight and travel through water like the forest Na’vi simply aren’t. This tribe has its own dedicated sign language for underwater communication, they commune with underwater fauna unknown to the forest Na’vi… they’re two different cultures entirely.

On top of that, the sea tribe immediately recognizes Jake Sully and his children as half-human abominations. But for their own safety, Sully and his family agree to learn about these people and their ways, casting off their old allegiances and prejudices on their way to becoming full-fledged members of this new tribe.

Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?!

Yes, the vast majority of this plot is a rehash of the first movie’s plot, except that Jake Sully’s development arc is now spread between his different children. Sully’s romance arc with the chieftain’s daughter? That went to Lo’ak and Tsireya (Bailey Bass), the sweet and beautiful daughter of Chief Tonowari and his wife Ronal (respectively played by Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet).

Sully used to be the Chosen One blessed by Eywa to speak and act for all Pandora’s flora and fauna. That mantle has now been passed to Kiri of the Immaculate Conception, who shows honest-to-godlike telepathic control over the plant and animal life on Pandora. Speaking of which, Lo’ak was also assigned his father’s “tame the legendary untameable beast” arc from the previous film, as Lo’ak befriends a great and terrible sea monster named Payakan.

Oh, and we can’t forget Spider. He’s now the human character who gets to look on in abject horror and wonder which side he’s on as he witnesses human colonizers openly commit flagrant genocide.

So now that all of Jake Sully’s main character beats are getting rehashed by his progeny, how does Jake Sully himself learn and grow over the course of this sequel? Honestly, not much. Though he and Neytiri have a lot to do in the action sequences, their agency in the plot is mostly limited to reacting to their children’s actions. Sully and Neytiri are both more or less the exact same people they were at the start of the film, only now they’ve learned the importance of standing and fighting instead of running away from conflict. Which sounds an awful lot like how they solved all their problems in the first movie, just saying.

With all of that being said, it bears remembering that all this repetition and simplicity isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. I wrote a whole other blog entry on this. The point of this franchise isn’t in complex characters or nuanced discussion or innovative plotlines — in fact, all of those would only detract from the main objectives. These main objectives are 1) the environmental message, and 2) a huge fantastic world to live and play in, both conveyed by 3) making it effortlessly quick and easy to immerse the audience completely into this world, and 4) keeping the audience in that world for as long as possible.

As with the first movie, the runtime isn’t over three hours long because of the plot. It’s over three hours long so we can spend as much time as possible gawking over the flora and fauna and technology of this particular universe. A significant part of James Cameron’s evil genius is in designing and portraying something in such a way that we can immediately and effortlessly know its function and whether it’s good or evil upon first glance. That allows for less time wasted in exposition and more time so we can enjoy loving or hating the thing in question.

And I’ll say this for Cameron, he knows action cinema. Seriously, that big climactic fight goes on for something like 50 unbroken minutes, but it keeps escalating beautifully without a hitch.

Ultimately, Avatar: The Way of Water is nothing more or less than another three hours of Avatar. It’s the same plot, the same vainglorious excess, the same environmental message, the same shallow world-building, all with a different coat of paint and even more characters that nobody remembers or cares about. If you liked the first movie and you wanted more of it, then here it is and I hope the wait was worth it.

Is it a good movie? At this point, who fucking cares? I’m not going to waste my energy getting angry over a sequel that keeps its promise of delivering more of the same, and I’ve already wasted enough of my time on a franchise that neither has nor aspires to anything more than pretty animation. This is James Cameron’s world (at least for the moment), and we’re all just living in it.

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