Avatar: The Way of Water – An Insipid and Uninspired Sequel

20/02/2023

Ben Jordan returns to Pandora to critique James Cameron’s new blockbuster

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Image by IMDb

By Ben Jordan

When it comes to Avatar (2009), I am a bit of a cynic. Part of me was excited by the prospect of revisiting Pandora after all these years, but I was also sceptical. The original Avatar was my favourite film at one point – albeit 12 years ago, when I was 10 – so although I was eager to see what Cameron and co. were going to make of the sequel, I also had my doubts. Had it been too long? Last Friday, after a 12 year wait, I finally got an answer.

For the first 15 minutes of The Way of Water (2022), I felt a profound sense of disappointment. Cameron practically throws his audience back into Pandora with no more than five minutes of exposition, and as a result I felt no connection to its characters. It also structures its conflict around the return of a pivotal character from the original film, in a way that makes about as much sense as the return of Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker (2019). Though the audience has to suspend their disbelief to a certain extent in a film like The Way of Water, Cameron drops this character back into Pandora with no exposition or context, and as a result I did not care about him either. Like in the original Avatar, he is a cookie-cutter villain, a caricature of a colonel – only this time, Cameron tries to make us care about him. People do not watch Avatar for its psychologically complex characters or subversive plot (it is a clear white saviour narrative), and in this respect it appears that Cameron has failed to understand his audience. Relative to the original Avatar there is arguably more to pick apart in The Way of Water, but this does not necessarily make it a better film. For a film that has taken the best part of a decade to develop it is not as much of a significant step forward as fans of the original might hope, and there is a sense throughout The Way of Water that the plot is ultimately secondary to the spectacle.

But what a spectacle it is. Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Way of Water is that it never once bored me. I sat in delight as we were transported from the lush verdure of the jungle to the tempting turquoise tones of Pandora’s oceans, and this sense of awe at the sheer scope and grandeur of this film never quite left me. Some of the underwater scenes in this film are sublime, particularly if you had the pleasure of seeing them in the cinema. But this emphasis on spectacle also comes at a significant cost, and the sense of awe that I experienced was often accompanied by the feeling that something was missing.

The plot of The Way of Water is paper-thin, and like the unenviable Dune (2021) it appears to only exist to justify the creation of more sequels. Throughout The Way of Water Cameron reiterates the same points ad nauseum about the sanctity of the nuclear family. However, the dynamic between the members of the Sully family is ultimately trite, and there are few surprises throughout the film. There is the typical rivalry between a rebellious younger brother (Lo'ak) and a more conventional older brother (Neteyam), who is the pride of the family (I had to ‘Google’ their names). There is also an outcast adopted child (Spider) who tries to fit in, and the film somehow dedicates way too much of its runtime to the moral conflict experienced by this character after they are kidnapped by their biological father without ever exploring it in any depth at all. The film is underpinned by these insipid tropes, and its conception of family feels as if it was generated by an AI which only had access to a series of clichés. The characters of The Way of Water are also paper-thin, and as a result I simply did not care about most of them. The only relationship in the film I felt even remotely invested in was between the younger brother and the whale (Payakan), and probably only because it was the raison d’être behind some of the most spectacular underwater sequences in the film. It says a lot about a film when its most compelling character is a whale.

Furthermore, like in the original Avatar, the human infrastructure on Pandora is exceedingly ugly. It feels sanitised and soulless in a way that only big-budget sci-fi can. Though I can understand the impulse to juxtapose the unnatural human infrastructure with the natural beauty of Pandora, the result is a film that is as ugly as it is beautiful. This sense of contrast and the conflict that arises from it is apparent throughout the film. For everything I liked about The Way of Water, Cameron counterbalanced it with something I disliked. The result is a muddled mess of a film which appears to be governed by Newton’s third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Part way through this film I was struck with a thought, and suddenly found myself questioning who exactly Cameron was making it for. The bottom line is that The Way of Water exists to make as much money as possible, and as a result it tries to be universally appealing. There are things in here that feel targeted towards teenagers (the incessant use of teenage vernacular comes to mind), but unlike in a Pixar or Studio Ghibli film, there is not much subtext behind them. It is designed to be a crowd-pleaser, and though it certainly does please a crowd, there is ultimately little more substance to The Way of Water than the transitory entertainment value of watching some blue-people frolic about in an ocean, and perhaps some screensavers.

However, as it turned out, the answer to this question had been staring me in the face all along. There was a guy in front of me, with a seemingly endless bag of snacks: chicken wings, cocktail sausages, cheese sticks, blueberries – over the course of this film he devoured them all. He appeared to be enjoying the film a disproportionate amount, and each time a pivotal scene came on screen his face lit up with a sense of recognition. Perhaps this truly was his first time watching The Way of Water – I do not know – but I got the impression that he had seen it before. Though the spectacle of this film is sure to bring people back to it, it is ultimately not enough to distinguish it. Over the course of The Way of Water I often found myself feeling a lot like the guy in front of me: my hunger was never truly satiated. But that is okay, because that is what the endless sequels and spin-offs are for – right? In a cinematic climate that is designed to propagate blockbuster content, The Way of Water barely makes a splash.