December 19, 2022

After nearly a decade of setbacks, James Cameron’s return to Pandora has finally arrived.

Seeing Avatar: The Way of Water on the big screen makes it abundantly clear how this immense vision had no hope of being birthed in 2014, which is when it was first slated for theatrical release. With the bulk of the film shot underwater, where motion capture is no simple task, it features such scenes as the Na’vi aliens swimming through waves and currents alongside varieties of imaginary underwater species and later resurfacing into flight. All of this appears convincingly real, closer to a National Geographic documentary than a CGI-fueled blockbuster.

But its visual triumphs aside, for the bulk of its hefty, three-hour run time, The Way of Water is also about as exciting as a National Geographic documentary.

Sam Worthington reprises his role as Jake Sully from the 2009 Avatar film. No longer a handicapped veteran, he has been made a permanent 10-foot-tall, muscle-clad Na’vi. Sully and his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), now have children, the oldest of whom are teenagers.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Earth can no longer sustain human life. The only chance at saving humanity is relocating the entire population to Pandora. This is where Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) makes his return. His mind and memories saved in a Na’vi, the Full Metal Jacket marine caricature is reborn and sent back to Pandora to help ease relations with the native alien population in preparation for the reams of human refugees.

It’s never divulged exactly how dire the situation on Earth is, but the colonel, and the entire human presence on Pandora, focus the film’s full three-hour run time on hunting down Sully, indulging the colonel’s personal revenge scheme. Sorry, Earthlings. Revenge comes first.

Reluctant to keep his own tribe in the colonel’s crosshairs, Sully decides to uproot his family and move to an unexplored territory, inhabited by a different, water-based Na’vi tribe. As a prerequisite to joining the new tribe, Sully and his family must learn to swim and breathe underwater. Director James Cameron took the process of climatizing so seriously that nearly two hours of the film are occupied by Sully’s children learning to dive, swim, water-ski, and ride fish. Unless gawking at photorealistic graphics for hours is your thing, it can feel like watching the world’s biggest-budget televised swim meet.

There is also no shortage of evidence that Avatar’s screenwriting budget was heavily slashed in lieu of more special effects. At one point, Sully’s second son develops a relationship with a giant, indigenous fish. “I know how you feel,” he confesses to the fish. “I’m an outsider, too.”

When the colonel inexplicably tracks Sully down, he takes the children hostage, and the ensuing confrontation, which comprises the film’s third act, is a visceral battle aboard the colonel’s ship. Cameron’s filmmaking prowess shines through as the humans and Na’vi exchange fire and trade blows.

Like the climax from Titanic on steroids, the battleship begins to fracture and topple, entrapping the belligerents in narrow compartments. They make their final, deep breaths as the water rapidly engulfs them, and Sully is forced to choose between saving his family and pursuing his enemy. The tension finally heightens in a welcome respite from the bulk of the film.

Visually, Cameron’s The Way of the Water puts most modern blockbusters to shame.Demonstrating the full potential of modern tech in filmmaking, it’s an experience entirely deserving of the big screen. But in terms of storytelling, Avatar is a hackneyed environmental sermon, yelled at you by bland characters from behind the glossy sheen of Cameron’s idyllic and undisturbed Pandora.

Sully might be the protagonist on the posters, but at its core, Avatar’s protagonist is its fabled world where indigenous tribes wondrously coexist with their natural environment, and, other than hunting, nobody needs to work; nobody needs to make any money or even pursue an education. It’s a vapid fantasy, and just another reminder that Avatar serves best as a demonstration of technical talent, not groundbreaking storytelling.

Originally Published at The Washington Examiner