“Avatar: The Way of Water” — A CGI Indulgence to Drain From Short-Term Memory

The sequel to “Avatar,” the highest-grossing film of all time, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a beautiful, yet lackluster movie. While retaining the excellent CGI of its predecessor, it struggles to develop emotional attachment to characters and delivers an unsatisfying conclusion.

Released on December 16, 2022, “Avatar: The Way of Water” returns to the sprawling home of the Na’vi alien race on the planet Pandora, greeting returning viewers with the familiar floating forests and exotic species. 15 years following the events of “Avatar,” Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) once again rallies the Na’vi against human encroachment, struggling to remain together with his newfound family of six as they are hunted by enemy war leader Colonel Quaritch (Stephan Lang) and his comrades. Accompanied by Spider (Jack Champion), an inseparable friend to Jake’s children, the group embarks on a journey testing bonds between friends and family. Caution: spoilers ahead.

The exploration of an Earth-like alien planet offers a fantastic setup to deliver intricate special effects — undoubtedly one of the the strengths of the original “Avatar.” The sequel’s three-hour and 12-minute runtime tries to emulate this, dominated by wide-angle shots of digitally rendered water and forestry. There is, however, one problem: the world of Pandora has already been explored in the first movie. Though an effort was made to avoid redundancy by shifting the setting from a jungle to an archipelago environment, a mere expansion of Pandora cannot generate the same interest as its introduction. Despite some visual differences, conceptually, the environment remains largely the same. There are many repeated instances, such as Na’vi connecting their hair to the animals acting as mounts or to the world tree in a spiritual experience. Without the novelty of Pandora’s flora and fauna, viewers inevitably devote more attention to characters and plot, which, in that light, reveal themselves to be subpar at best.

Yet, despite lacking the freshness as the original “Avatar,” CGI scenes still remain as the emphasis of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” often pushing aside key opportunities for storyline development. The effects of neglecting character and plot development are felt strongly towards the conclusion of the movie. Frequently throughout the film, confusedly impassioned lines or actions of characters seem to come out of nowhere. Lacking emotional primer robs critical scenes from their impact. A personal stand-out example of this was the death of Neteyam (Jammie Flatters), one of Jake’s children, which was supposed to serve as the impetus for the final battle. As a character, Neteyam was only superficially explored, so the extreme reactions of the other characters created dissonance with my comparatively mild feelings. The directors of “Avatar: The Way of Water” failed to foster adequate emotional attachment between Neteyam and the audience, and thus could not elicit the strong reaction they were aiming for at his death. When engaging with serious topics, proper preparation is required for scenes to be successful, otherwise they deliver a product that is either corny or disconcerting.

Many movies can compensate for weak writing by delivering a satisfying conclusion that resonates with audiences. In this aspect, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” unfortunately, fell short once again. In a flagrant setup for another sequel, Spider, characterized by his attachment to the Na’vi despite being human, saves Colonel Quaritch from drowning simply because he claimed to be his absentee father — compromising the consistency of Spider’s character. Even if Spider is only a teenager, is one exchange really enough to sway an allegiance developed by an entire lifetime of memories? This left the movie, which would have tied together perfectly as a self-contained story, with a vague and messy ending that stuck out like a sore thumb.

For me, “Avatar: The Way of Water” falls under the type of movie to watch more for aesthetics. Like Marvel movies, I’ll have a better experience if I give no regard to the story and simply allow myself to take in the special effects. With a truly enormous budget, “Avatar: The Way of Water” does this really well. However, these movies are never ones that stick with me, serving only as a temporary mindless indulgence.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” earns two out of five stars — one for cool water effects and another for childhood nostalgia of the original.

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ji ’24 is a Commentary Associate for The Phillipian.