The sequel to the most successful film of all time comes out this week, but despite very little competition at the multiplex, the hype has been muted. For years, Avatar has gained a reputation as an anomaly: the most successful film no one remembers, it’s rarely in any best-of lists, or even talked about when mentioning classic scenes or quotes.
That should concern James Cameron and Disney, who have devoted 13 years and a reported $1billion for four planned sequels. So, can Cameron recapture the magic of 2009, or will this be remembered as his first real dud?
The film returns to the distant planet of Pandora, where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has lived with his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) after transferring from his human form to his Na’vi avatar.
In the time since the first film, they have raised three children – two sons, a daughter, and an adopted teenager named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). After an attack from a Na’vi clone of Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), Jake takes his family from his home in the jungle and hides out with the water tribe of Metkayina where they struggle to adjust.
Their problems, of course, have a way of following them. Cinema is undoubtedly a visual medium, and in that sense The Way of Water is a resounding success. While the press screening’s High Frame Rate 3D was jarring, there’s no denying the level of detail that’s gone into both the original locations and the new areas of Pandora.
Cameron’s lens sweeps over the vast landscapes, encouraging you to drink in every pixel. From a technical standpoint, it’s clear where the money and time have gone. It’s impressive, for a bit, but the film flounders when confronted with the need to tell a story.
Effects can only go so far, and the Oscar-winning director is far more interested in showing you his sandbox than doing anything interesting with it. Put simply, it’s a dull mix of the original story with even duller right-of-passage subplots. It’s hard to invest in the children of characters you weren’t invested in last time around, and it’s hard not to giggle at scenes like Lo’ak, Jake and Neytiri’s second son sharing trauma stories telepathically with a giant fish.
It’s difficult to feel much from performances filtered through emotionless computer animation but a couple stand out. While Lang is essentially doing the same thing he did last time (and is introduced in a way that removes any jeopardy from future films), his gung-ho energy breaks up the po-faced tone.
He’s accompanied by Spider (Jake Champion), a human raised on Pandora who looks a bit like Disney’s Tarzan and has a peculiar arc in terms of loyalties. Sigourney Weaver has the most emotional journey as Kiri, although the 73-year-old playing a teenager still feels strange.
As for Worthington and Saldana? These broadly drawn characters don’t seem to have developed at all. Jake still fills the plot with questionable leadership decisions, while Saldana’s Neytiri seems ready to punch anyone and everyone, giving little beyond hysterics. Their original story wasn’t exactly gripping, so passing their legacy on to a new generation rings hollow.
The first Avatar found success by stretching the boundaries of what was visually possible with then-new technology. The Way of Water doesn’t have that novelty, and with so much missing in terms of narrative, this sequel serves as a grim portent for the films to come.