At three hours and twelve minutes, reviewing Avatar: The Way of Water is much like watching it; a difficult slog with occasional bright spots marred by lots of confusion and too many subplots to comprehensively talk about. This review will aim to have a little more clarity than the film. Though the quality of the imagery is not of object, once again, James Cameron seems to have forgotten basic storytelling principles.
The story of the film’s making is certainly one to admire. This is truly Cameron’s passion project, and he spent thirteen years creating technology, filming, and doing extensive special effects to create a film whose aesthetic is an exemplar of modern moviemaking. Motion capture has never been better. (It’s a wonder Andy Serkis doesn’t star in one of these.) The underwater scenes are gorgeous, the Navi look photorealistic, and Pandora continues to impress.
Yet in the course of building his rich tapestry of visuals, and showing a continuing commitment to developing the lore of the world and a love of preserving nature, Cameron’s writing has lost the ability to tell a simple story with good characters. As in the first film, The Way of Water is full of bland, uninteresting characters who each manage one characteristic at most. Jake Sully is mildly more interesting here, but his character arc, like so many, get lost in the endless tides of the film’s runtime.
Far too many concepts are thrown at the viewer and then left unexplained for the film to work effectively. For all of the complaints of folks like Martin Scorsese that Marvel films are like theme park rides, they are beacons of characterization and storytelling compared to this abscess of a film. Concepts like Sigourney Weaver‘s nature powers, giant whale creatures and their culture, and the nature of how Avatars work are tossed at you without any buildup and are rarely followed up on.
The film simply tries to do too much. That’s maybe an odd complaint for a film this long, but it doesn’t use its runtime effectively. It’s a work of excessiveness and self-indulgence the like of which would make George Lucas blue in the face.
The cast do a fine enough job. Zoe Saldana has a few standout scenes as Neytiri in which her character suffers true anguish. Stephen Lang — who manages to return in this film in a dumb manner that nearly destroys the entire premise of the first film — has a fun, scenery-chewing performance. He even flirts with an interesting character arc, but as was mentioned before, the characters arcs in this film are all half-done, underbaked, and unsatisfying.
Avatar: The Way of Water can’t even claim to be the best movie with blue-skinned sea-dwelling people from Disney this year. Its visuals are a masterclass, there are fun scenes, and the action set-pieces stand out. But a three-hour walk through an aquarium would still provide a more engaging story than watching this film.