‘Avatar: The Way Of The Water’ Is Technologically Ambitious And Thematically Inert

Well, folks, I played myself. I was so excited about the prospect of an Avatar sequel that I felt like I needed to defend the feeling. I ended up writing an entire post about it. About how this time, it seemed different. About how it felt like we were actually being sold a movie again, and not a type of fandom, or a corporation’s five-year plan.

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the movie, once I saw it, would leave me feeling like the story was only a chapter and not much had been resolved. Beyond the visual trappings and the James Cameron persona, Avatar 2 (minus points for not just calling it that) feels a lot like what I had hoped it was not: a typical franchise movie, a glorified tease for some future sequel. It’s a technological grand slam and a thematic sacrifice bunt.

The first Avatar was released in 2009, which feels like a lifetime ago now, basically because it is. There being sequels was assumed almost from the beginning, and much has been made of the idea that James Cameron had to wait for technology to catch up to his imagination. As Cameron told GQ in a recent profile, “They needed new cameras that could shoot underwater and a motion-capture system that could collect separate shots from above and below water and integrate them into a unified virtual image; they needed new algorithms, new AI, to translate what Cameron shot into what you see.”

That’s right, the guy who made The Terminator had to use artificial intelligence to “translate” his new movie to our eyeballs. More:

“The process for how Cameron builds the Avatar films is complex; it involves creating a data-rich but visually undistinguished package that Cameron calls a template—on which he captures the lighting, performances, and camera moves he wants—which then gets handed over to Wētā to apply algorithms and layers of animation to bring the template to life. ‘It’s not animation in a Pixar sense where they’re just making stuff up,’ Cameron told me. ‘The actors already defined what they did, but it has to be translated from the captured data to the 3D-CG character. And there’s all sorts of AI steps in there.'”

That’s all very complicated, but the end result… well, it looks a lot like animation. Largely that’s due to the fact that Cameron employs a high frame rate system, whereby The Way Of The Water uses 48 frames per second (double film’s usual 24) for the action sequences, then clones frames during other sequences to mimic normal, 24 fps film for slower moments with fewer camera moves. The point is to avoid the blurring and strobing that can happen when 3D action moves too fast, but avoid the hyperreal effect of the high frame rate when it isn’t necessary.

That’s a lot of work just to jerry-rig a functional version of 3D. I’m not sure it was time well spent. The high-frame rates still look weird and hyperreal, a conspicuous conceit rather than a streamlined reality. There are some wild set pieces, especially early in the film, that are hard to be invested in because they just look too much like videogame animation, and not in a good way. Things like an exploding train on an alien planet look more like miniatures or animation, which is the opposite of “big” and “real,” presumably the effect they were meant to have. There are recognizable actors listed in the credits (Kate Winslet!?) that I don’t remember being in the movie. “Actors” are largely irrelevant in the traditional sense. It all feels like animation by another name. Why do I feel like the pre-fx version of this shot would be more compelling than the post?

Avatar way of the water ball tank motion capture Winslet Worthington
20th Century Studios

Yes, I’m already bored of talking about technical stuff. Yet with Avatar: The Way Of The Water, technical stuff is most of what there is. In the first Avatar, the disabled Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) goes to Pandora to replace his deceased brother in the native pacification project (I remember almost all of this, even though I only saw the movie once, 13 years ago). He ends up going native, and helping his new tribe of Na’vi defeat the evil mining corporation that want to kill Pandora’s magical tree and mine the spirits of Na’vi ancestors for unobtanium to power their quad bikes or whatever.

When we catch up to Jake in The Way Of The Water, he seems to be living a pretty good life on Pandora with his new cat-monkey family, catching fireflies and hopping all nimbly pimbly from tree to tree and whatnot. He’s the leader of his tribe and has a family, which now includes not only his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) but an indeterminate number of kids. Three? Four? He has at least two boys, plus a younger daughter and another maybe-adopted girl who is the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s character in the first. “Her conception is a bit of a mystery,” we’re told in a voiceover, which are now just there, without the “letters home” framing device to justify them.

Frankly, all of these children’s conceptions are a bit of a mystery. We probably could’ve used a refresher on that. The movie is three hours long. There’s a malformed plot point about the human-Na’avi hybrids having four fingers like humans instead of three like pure Na’vi, but the movie doesn’t really land the explanation and who really cares anyway.

Suffice it to say, Jake’s cat-monkeys and their dreadlocked chill are shattered when the once-dead Marine thug, Quaritch (Stephen Lang), returns to Pandora for revengel. He and his crew’s consciousnesses have been uploaded into nine-foot, feline Na’vi bodies, bringing them back from the dead with new powers. They show up on Pandora and wreck shop, and Jake and his family are forced to flee the forest Na’vi tribes to seek protection among the Polynesian-coded island Na’vi tribes. It’s there that they learn, you guessed it, the way of the water. That’s basically the entire movie.

The first Avatar was simplistic, but it was about a clash of civilizations. It was about settler colonialists like Jake trying to unlearn the assumptions of the extractive society in which they’d been raised. The Way Of The Water is even simpler than that, and missing a lot of the broader implications. It’s mostly just about Quaritch seeking revenge and Jake’s family learning to love the ocean. Sure?

The Way Of The Water‘s finest moments are under the water. One of Jake’s sons (that I don’t remember which son, or the names of either, and could barely distinguish between the two is a flaw of the film) gets stranded outside the reef by the Polynesian Na’vi, playing a trick on him. Out in the open ocean he befriends a whale creature. Wikipedia tells me the boy’s name is Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and the whale creatures are called “Tulkuns.”

The sequences underwater truly are magical eye candy, and the movie comes closest to finding a reason for existing in the conflict between these pacifist, spiritual sea creatures and the whalers trying to mine them for their brain goo. Which apparently can stop human aging (see Sea of Shadows for real-life analog here). Jemaine Clement (one of a handful of actually recognizable actors, including Edie Falco’s nice turn as the commander of the humans’ Pandora base) plays an expert Tulkun scientist forced to help kill them in order to fund his research. “And this is why I drink,” he says.

It’s the most memorable performance and line in what should’ve been the main storyline in The Way Of The Water. Instead, it gets shunted aside in favor of Quaritch’s thin revenge story. One question The Way Of The Water needed to answer is, why wouldn’t this guy just go native too? Likewise, when Lo’ak befriends a rogue Tulkun who had been exiled from his pod for killing, you’d think this storyline would have a big payoff. Instead, it lasts about three minutes (I mean what is this, my sex life?!).

There’s a big, elaborate battle at the end, and visually it’s not nearly as fun as Lo’ak whale riding, and conceptually you get to the end sort of wondering what actually got resolved in this 13-years-in-the-making, billion dollar movie. Jake Sully learned “the way of the water?” Which boils down to a few lines of space age-y mumbo jumbo, about how water connects birth and death, light and dark?

For a movie that’s so epic in its technological ambitions, The Way Of The Water feels very timid in the scope of its storytelling. It feels momentous only in the context of an assumption that there are going to be more of these movies, which is precisely what I had hoped to avoid. Oh well, at least there was no post-credits sequence. Small mercies.

‘Avatar: The Way Of The Water’ is out now in theaters everywhere. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.