Avatar: The Way of Water is 150 minutes of brawny, exhilarating sci-fi spectacle, splayed over 194 minutes of movie. For every badass action scene and 8K CGI of undulating squid-beasts, we get too many crises, too many characters, and too much dippy narration. As per usual, director James Cameron doesn’t know when his audience has been properly sated, so he keeps the circus going until everyone is sufficiently exhausted. That provokes a difficult question: Is this too much of a good thing?
Set sixteen years after the first film, this sequel finds Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) settled into domesticated tranquility on Pandora. He and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have four kids: Sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and daughters Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and Kiri, the latter of whom they adopted from Grace’s (Sigourney Weaver plays both roles) comatose avatar. With the sleazy, corporate humans long-defeated, life amongst the Na’vi has become peaceful bliss.
Of course, we still have 180 minutes of movie, so you know that quiet calm is about to go the way of the Do-Do. One night, Jake gazes into the night sky and spots the glow of spaceships in the upper atmosphere. A new batch of human scumbags lands in the jungle, scorching the ground as they go. It seems a potent chemical has been discovered on the planet, which also gives the villains a chance for revenge against Sully.
In a twist, the baddies from the first film look a little different this time. Colonel Quatrich (Stephen Lang), the Marine who sipped coffee and growled xenophobic dialogue, returns for the sequel. Only this time, Cameron clones him into a Na’vi body, so he can match the bigger, faster, and stronger Jake Sully in combat. In addition, Quatrich gets a whole squad of cloned jarheads, all for the express purpose of hunting down Sully and his family.
Sully leads a resistance against the human invaders, and he has some success. The Na’vi regularly shoot down choppers, derail trains, and commandeer supplies. Unfortunately, a run-in with Quatrich convinces Sully that he and his family make too enticing of a target. He convinces a reluctant Neyriti the noblest thing they could do is go into exile. With that, the Sully family packs up and takes to the sky, putting a continent between them and the enemy.
As they land ashore, the Sullys meet the Metkayina tribe, who subsist on the oceans of Pandora. The Metkayina form a spiritual symbiosis with the water. They commune with the creatures of the reef, just as Sully’s people bond with the forest. The ocean tribe is led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), a fierce warrior who is nonetheless sympathetic to the Sully family. His wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) is much more skeptical. To fit in with the Metkayina, the Sullys must master the ocean and pull their weight within the community. The entire midsection of the film is dedicated to this acclimation.
This means that Cameron gets to show off his technical mastery, and it’s something else. Special effects houses like Weta and ILM tackle the challenges of a water setting, and the results are astonishing. Whether it’s a droplet of water, a frothy wave, or an expansive reef of otherworldly creatures—they all look convincingly lifelike. If the first Avatar was an enormous leap forward, then this sequel has an equally daunting challenge: To build incrementally on that achievement. Cameron and his team succeed with gusto.
That praise also extends to the performers. Worthington effectively plays Sully as a more confident and charismatic version of the man we saw in the first film. Likewise, Saldaña’s Neyriti has settled into a nice parenting dynamic with Sully. (She often plays Good Cop.) Amongst the kids, Weaver does a great job as Kiri, the skittish daughter who must embrace her shamanistic abilities and accept her larger destiny. Jack Champion is also a welcome newcomer, as an expatriated human teenager who becomes a de facto member of the Sully family. His character bears more than a passing resemblance to Emil Minty’s Feral Kid in The Road Warrior.
So you see, there’s a lot to enjoy about Avatar 2. But it’s also just a little bit frustrating. As a filmmaker, Cameron is a force of personality—an auteur on a multibillion dollar scale. His talent and hubris flow freely through everything he makes. These act as both blessing and curse: Cameron packs his movies with as much movie as they can possibly hold. Whether it’s Titanic, Aliens, Terminator, or the Avatars, we get a glut of innovative special effects and meticulously crafted sound and fury, all tweaked for maximum entertainment. If Cameron falls short, it’s never from a lack of trying.
In fact, sometimes there’s just a hint of trying too hard. I know it’s low-hanging fruit for a movie that clocks in at 194 minutes, but The Way of Water is way too long. Nothing about Cameron’s epic is ever boring—he would never allow such a glorious carnival ride to grind to a stop, after all. No, this is two action movies pumped into one script. That means a final act that spreads over an hour, with one Big Crisis after another. That also means lots of subplots, lots of table-setting for sequels, lots of everything. Cameron is clearly worried you’re having a good time, but he might be worrying just a smidge too much.
At the same time, it’s hard to ding somebody for giving too much effort. After all, I’ve reviewed hundreds of movies where talented actors and crew half-ass their way through lousy material. Avatar: The Way of Water delivers solid storytelling and stirring images. If you loved the first movie, chances are you’ll devour this one, too. Just be ready for really big portions.
194 min. PG-13. In theaters.
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