Avatar: The Way of the Water is arguably better than its predecessor at least from this angle: for what’s proceeding a mega project hindered by James Cameron’s poetic ambition to be thematically rich and at the same time a crowd-pleaser, this follow-up is surprisingly lightweight in regard to its themes. The pairing of predictable AI-generated blockbuster writing goes down smoother here than before given that it’s less interested in suffocating its audience with critical ideas. Yet, the long-awaited sequel counteractively ends up being far less interesting than the original as a result. The name “Avatar” barely has any meaning anymore like it did previously, except for its involvement with the main antagonist that’s merely there as a plot convenience for him to exist and perhaps vaguely its underlying presence in a “relative” of his. Jake Sully’s journey — and a little of Neytiri’s for naturally connecting more with an outsider than anyone from her own clan — was fascinating in the first movie because it dealt with the conflict of tribal mentality: uploading your conscious into a new body and becoming more comfortable with it than perhaps the one everybody expects you to stand ground with; a poignant concept that felt very dystopian at the time of its release yet more relevant than ever post-COVID.
Now, the focus is on something far more traditional, but at the same time, easy-going and straightforward: coming-of-age in the face of war. The opening of this movie is sequel 101 but amplified, designating kin to literally three OG characters to take the spotlight in the battle, but their journeys are nothing genre-pushing and merely dramatic formulas encapsulated by immaculate visual backdropping — i.e. blissful distraction. You know from the gecko which already perfect characters are getting sidelined for tragic weight later on and which ones are here to grow and experience the same conventional “minority” arc that Sully had to endure. Given that I’ve always found the original movie to actually be far shorter than it should’ve been due to the hefty amount of plot and agenda it covers, it’s ironic that the simpler narrative gets thirty minutes more screen-time than the one that really needed it.
Regardless, for three hours, it’s not that rough, and in competition with the rest of the American blockbusters that have come out this year, this is certainly one of the funnest to goggle at in awe. Just try not to think about how unexceptional it is beyond the visual craftsmanship. This is Cameron’s second time remaking The Abyss (1989), but at least now he really wants you to know that’s the case by bringing back his love for sinking ships!
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is now playing in theaters.