The Way Of Water’ Boasts Breathtaking Spectacle, Shallow Worldbuilding

James Cameron’s long awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water is a technical leap forward, boasting incredible, imaginative action sequences, but the world of Pandora feels smaller, somehow.

The film begins with a quick recap of the events of the first movie, and shows how the humans returned to establish a colony, bulldozing more sacred trees to build a grimy industrial city, with the help of some cool bug robots.

Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villain of the first film, has returned as a Na’vi clone. The in-universe explanation for his resurrection is solid, but it is a little strange to see that grim, scarred face reshaped as one of the big blue boys; this time around, there are lots of ever-so-uncanny Na’vi faces. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell them apart.

We’re plunged into the same situation, with a different precious resource, the big difference is that Jake has a family now, and Quaritch has a son, Spider, a human child who has been raised by the Na’vi.

I found Quaritch to be the most fascinating, conflicted character in the film, enduring some pretty drastic changes, forcibly reborn as a member of a species he despises, yet younger and stronger than his human form. Quaritch is tasked with hunting down Jake Sully, as a mission and an act of revenge, and ends up attempting to mentor Spider, desperately trying not to alienate the boy while still engaging in vicious acts of colonial destruction.

Like Jake in the previous film, Quaritch must learn how to navigate Pandora on its own terms, by getting in touch with nature, to a certain degree. His tightrope walk, between going native, being a mentor and an oppressor, is fascinating.

Jake (Sam Worthington) has matured, and acts like a very responsible, if distant dad for the majority of the film, while Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) doesn’t get much in the way of characterization, but does star in the most brutal, slick action sequences. Saldaña is still the best at being a Na’vi, with her pantomime cat hisses.

But the real stars of the film are their children, who will likely lead the franchise moving forward; there’s the youngest one, Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li), and two brothers, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) who are, physically, almost indistinguishable from each other.

Then there’s Kiri, a teenager played by Sigourney Weaver, in the most gloriously baffling creative decision in the film. Her voice never sounds quite right, but Weaver’s performance is haunting, and Kiri proves to be one of the film’s most compelling characters.

Kiri is born via a seemingly immaculate conception, from Weaver’s dead body (don’t overthink it), and is set up to be a Messiah who is in direct communication with Eywa, the goddess of Pandora. If nothing else, this film is Kiri’s origin story; Jake’s time as a leader seems to be receding, and Kiri is likely going to take the reigns from here.

After a confrontation with Quaritch, Jake moves his family to a small island, attempting to hide from the humans; of course, it’s only a matter of time before they are discovered. In the meantime, the family has to learn to fit in with the sea people, who are initially resistant to their arrival.

Visually, it’s all spectacular. Pandora looks like a real location, and it is, frankly, intimidating to imagine the challenges that came with working with that much water in VFX. Cameron’s passion for deep-sea diving is well-documented, and this film plays like a heartfelt tribute to the wonders of the ocean, and a fierce condemnation of mankind’s polluting, exploitative ways.

In truth, The Way of Water rehashes much of the plot of the first film, switching to a watery biome and showing the evils of whaling. At times, it feels less like an expansion of this world, and more of a sidestep.

The coastal village is beautiful, and the new clan, the Metkayina, are visually distinctive from the forest-dwelling Na’vi, boasting sharklike fins, powerful tails and different markings on their skin. But we’re missing something about this tribe; it’s hard to get a sense of who they really are, and what they believe. They feel two-dimensional, another perfect tribal society with no unique quirks or edges that set them apart from the forest dwellers.

While Cameron aims to build a world on the same scale as Lord of the Rings, he’s missing the sense of depth, the weight of culture and history that Tolkien imbues in his work, and Peter Jackson managed to convey. One scene in particular, in which the Metkayina mock Kiri’s unusual behavior, didn’t feel like it was taking place in an alien world at all; it could have been ripped right out of suburbia.

The scene sees Kiri quietly contemplating nature, which prompts the Metkayina to, essentially, act like bullies from an 80’s movie, calling her a “freak,” which leads to a nasty fist fight, as Kiri’s brothers attempt to defend her honor. The conflict is a weirdly unimaginative moment in such an imaginative setting.

After all, Kiri is in direct communication with the almighty goddess that this tribe worships, acting like a tree-hugging flower child – would that really be seen as so strange, in this context? The coastal background could have been swapped out for a concrete skate park full of jaded teens, and the conflict would have played out exactly the same.

Jake Sully’s family are alienated not by cultural differences, but by their inability to hold their breath, tasked with learning to “drive” the sea creatures without wiping out. Admittedly, these movies are made for mass consumption and are supposed to feel relatable, but aside from the spectacular visuals, Pandora can feel a tad flat; Denis Villeneuve’s Dune felt like a more convincing alien civilization, an otherworldly, almost unknowable place.

Sometimes, Cameron’s world echoes a Joe Rogan ayahuasca hallucination, unable to imagine indigenous life beyond dream catchers and energy crystals, where just about every inhabitant of Pandora has the heart of a “bro.”

The Way of Water might suffer from shallow worldbuilding, but when it comes to sheer spectacle, the film excels; no other blockbuster this year comes close. In a way, Cameron’s Avatar movies are better Marvel movies than Marvel is capable of making, showcasing flawless VFX and perfectly choreographed fights, set against epic, tumultuous landscapes.

When it comes to the characters, the script is solid, if simple, and while the pacing drags in the middle, the story really picks up when the film introduces a race of sentient alien whales.

The big satisfaction comes from watching the whalers get their comeuppance, in increasingly unhinged and creative ways. This is a sequel that builds on the foundation of the first, delivering more environmentalist warrior porn, with higher stakes as Jake’s young family is pulled into the conflict.

But one thing The Way of Water lacks, that made the first film so appealing, is a large group of human characters to ground the story, one foot in the dreamworld of Pandora, and the other in the cold, sterile corporation. The contrast between Jake’s two lives was a nice metaphor for escapism, for the transcendent experience of good fiction.

This time around, the vast majority of the characters are Na’vi, and fully CGI; it’s harder to grow attached to them, harder to immerse in a world that is no longer an elusive dreamscape, but the main setting, one that doesn’t really delve into the culture of the Na’vi.

That being said, I’m rooting for this film to succeed, and curious to see where the franchise goes from here, as the scale of the story grows more ambitious. The Way of Water feels too much like a repeat of the first film, a bridge between this and the next installment.

However, the space whales alone are enough to justify the price of a 3D ticket; if nothing else, this is the awe-inspiring spectacle that the big screen was made for.