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Avatar's Way of Water: glitzy graphics mask major flaws
Film review

Avatar's Way of Water: glitzy graphics mask major flaws

by Tómas Atli Einarsson 4 min. 12.01.2023
Stunning animation effects are let down by a stale, tired narrative in this underwhelming sequel to the 2009 hit
The Way of Water is a follow-up to Avatar's box office hit from 2009
The Way of Water is a follow-up to Avatar's box office hit from 2009
Photo credit: Warner Bros

The original Avatar, which rocked box offices and caused mass post-viewing depression in 2009, has finally gotten an equally dazzling animation-fest sequel. 

But The Way of Water, like its predecessor, relies on pure animation glitz to stretch a straightforward story into over three hours of special effects that appear more realistic than their real life equivalent, and a plot that neither breaks any boundaries nor feels like it needs that long a runtime to be fully elaborated upon.

A few years after the events of the first film, Jake Sully, in true Avatar form, has fully ingratiated himself with the native Na’vi of Pandora. He’s had children with Neytiri and is now chief of their clan - until humanity returns to the forest moon with colonial intentions. 

He leaves his clan to hide amongst the water tribes of Na’vi in the south for (quite) a while so as to not lead heavily armed humans to their friends and family.

So far, so good, although all this happens within the first half hour. What ensues is an extremely long-winded narrative beat that takes up most of The Way of Water’s plot. Jake and his family unit arrive and beg for food and shelter, citing an ancient tradition amongst the Na’vi. Things are bit tense between the Sullys and their hosts, the Metkayina, due to cultural differences.

There’s the mandatory moment when the children of Jake and the Metkayina chief fight, causing something of a Na’vi diplomatic incident. Another narrative box is ticked when the Sullys, used to the high tree tops and floating mountains of Pandora’s jungle, struggle with integration before discovering the beauty of the environment and culture they now find themselves in. 

Of course, there eventually comes an incident where the humans track down Sully to the coastal tribes, putting his children as well as the hitherto neutral Metkayina at risk.

Lots of action, but an undercooked plot

Avatar 2, in a very basic sense, is a film which has a plot in which things happen - and not much more. The opening act is fast-paced in order to ship off the heroes to a new Pandoran environment, at which points it slows down drastically.

The narrative, for the bulk of The Way of Water, really only plays second fiddle to photorealistic special effects. The computer-generated imagery (CGI) is genuinely astounding, with the Na’vi having almost completely crossed the uncanny into familiar territory. 

There are times when their facial expressions are strikingly strange to look at, not because they’re aliens but because they’re very clearly computer generations based on real human faces.

Stunning graphics, created through computer-generated imagery, is a feature of the latest Avatar film
Stunning graphics, created through computer-generated imagery, is a feature of the latest Avatar film
20th Century Studios / dpa

But people didn’t leave theatre back in 2009 with post-Pandora depression because the aliens’ faces looked passable. As with its predecessor, Pandora’s lush, digital environment is really the main character of The Way of Water

Lush jungles and fantastic flying boulders have been replaced with ultra realistic water, alien coral reefs and plenty of fish in the CGI sea.

In fact, most the action takes place in or under water, making for a very wet (and at times strenuous) viewing. 

Over three hours of almost too beautiful underwater vistas is the only thing saving The Way of Water from being an otherwise wholly mediocre story in which nothing all too much happens besides the necessary plot points.

Tired and flat

But entering the second hour of CGI glitz, there’s a real risk of tiring of the Avatar aesthetic. Underneath the hood, one finds a story about essentially perfect beings, as the Na’vi are intimately in touch with nature and totally without fault until humanity arrives.

One can never quite shake off the notion of the ‘noble savage’ trope which positions the faultless, uncorrupted indigenous peoples of Pandora against an industrial and resource-hungry humanity - a tired and nowadays tricky cliché you’d think would have been retired sometime last century.

That may be why, despite the 3D glasses required for most viewings, The Way of Water feels flat when it could’ve been a more thorough and honest look at Pandoran life. The human invasion plot of the first one is repeated and the bad guy simply resurrected.

Hence why all popular discourse surrounding The Way of Water (and the franchise more generally) never really graduated beyond just how good it looks. There’s a sense of glassy-eyed hollowness not just to the computer-generated characters, but to the whole premise itself. A lot of the time, it feels like you’re watching a HD TV screensaver from the future instead of a space borne epic.

Being top of the line of films that cost an unbelievable amount of money and make an unbelievable amount of money in return necessarily favours CGI shock and awe over dense plotting. But that doesn’t mean it’s not noticeable when, after 13 years, that’s the story they went with.

Avatar: The Way of Water knows that it’s a cinematic event that is worth seeing at least once on a huge, IMAX screen - if only as a means to scramble your brain for a few hours. And while the graphics (and especially the water) really do look more realistic than the real life version, Pandora at times feels more like a commercialised theme park than the planetary Eden where a blue Adam and Eve ride around on flying lizards.

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