For 10 years after it was released in 2009, James Cameron’s visionary epic Avatar was the highest grossing film, to be dethroned only by Avengers: Endgame. Thirteen years after the original Oscar-winning science fiction fantasy adventure comes Avatar: The Way of Water. The futuristic tale opens a decade later on Pandora, which is inhabited by the Na’vi – blue-skinned humanoids over nine feet tall – who were attacked by humans seeking habitable planets off a dying planet Earth.
Previously, US Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) had become the hero of Pandora, leading them to victory as they defeated the Resources Development Administration that had set out to colonise Pandora. Sully was inculcated into the Na’vi and now lives blissfully among the Forest People in his avatar, along with his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their four children.
There is danger on the horizon when the colonisers return to Pandora, with Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) in his avatar form leading the mission as well as seeking to avenge his own death by Sully.
The sequel explores the themes of family values, identity, expulsion and responsibility. While these concepts form the film’s emotional core, they also contribute to the schmaltz. There is an additional philosophical, karmic layer, when a character says, “The way of water connects all things. Before your birth and after your death.”
On the run, the Sullys seek refuge with an amphibious clan that opens up the wonders of Pandora’s oceanic life and its myriad fanciful species and plant life. The palette shifts from browns and greens to blues, aquamarines and whites. New characters include free divers Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari, leader of the Reef People clan of Metkayina (Cliff Curtis).
A planet rich in natural resources will attract fortune-hunters. Cameron makes a pointed comment about the wanton killing of species to satisfy humankind’s insatiable greed, vanity and desire for immortality.
The cast includes Jack Champion as Spider, a human residing on Pandora, and Sigourney Weaver as Sully’s teenage daughter Kiri. Many of the actors have been filmed through performance capture, with their appearance modified with visual effects.
The 192-minute film, released in 2D and 3D, spends half its runtime on setting up the battle lines. The plot is an oft-repeated tale of exploiters, outsiders, revenge seekers and protectors. The difference here is Cameron’s ambitious vision, his love for spectacle and unarguable passion – but also his indulgence.
Although replete with formulaic tropes, Avatar: The Way of Water is augmented by highly advanced and impressive technology, achieving its wow moments during the expansive climactic fight sequence. There are also delicate touches – the grace of underwater movement, the connection between humanoids and natural life, the incredible colours, especially when they glow in the dark. The dips, dive, spins and acrobatics of a whale-like creature called tulkun make you whoop with joy.
This is the second of a planned five-installment series, so there are many more worlds and wonders of Cameron’s imagination and capabilities of technology yet to be explored. Perhaps in subsequent films there might also be greater attention to the script. While the new film is a successful and sometimes wondrous visual experiment, as a story, it treads in shallow waters.