‘Avatar 2’: A shallow return for the box-office titan


Shavonne Chin

Illustration by

Jack Muscatello, Associate Multimedia Editor

After “Avatar” revolutionized the theatrical experience in 2009, writer and director James Cameron disappeared from the public spotlight. He devoted the next 13 years to the creation of an increasingly elusive follow-up for his aforementioned brainchild: a formulaic yet visually stunning allegory about climate change and the ever-predatory military-industrial complex, with a comfortable underdog narrative woven throughout.

Now, in 2022, he’s finally done it. “Avatar: The Way of Water” was released in theaters on Dec. 16, continuing the journey of ex-marine Jake Sully and his new family on the moon Pandora.

Even with the ever-impressive visual spectacle, though, this bloated three-hour epic can barely keep its head above water, opting for a shallow retread of its predecessor’s big ideas — and consequently basic story.

The sequel picks up again with Sully and his wife Neytiri, played by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña, respectively, a few years after the human invaders left the moon in defeat. The couple has started a family, quickly growing to encompass four kids and a healthy command of the native Omaticaya clan. However, their peaceful livelihood abruptly ends with the return of the humans, now harboring a thirst for revenge and a stronger military footprint. The Sully family is forced to flee from the forest region, taking refuge with a more remote clan of Na’vi, the blue humanoid creatures native to Pandora. 

As has been the case for most of Cameron’s career, sequels are his claim to fame. The 1986 release of “Aliens” put him on the map for big-budget action with a distinct level of grit and hardy violence. He followed this up a few years later with “Terminator 2,” cementing himself among the best directors in the industry.

So, naturally, when “Avatar” quickly launched to the top of the all-time box-office list over a decade ago, questions of a sequel immediately began surfacing online. But “The Way of Water” largely fails the visionary’s previous track record.

The narrative stumbles along from beginning to end. The script opens with a rush, brushing past much of the emotional set-up for the Sully family and the return of the central villain. The first film, though far from perfect, restrained its cast to a minimum in favor of establishing the world and keeping a strict focus on its themes. “The Way of Water” balloons its number of characters, with many new additions simply getting lost amid the action.

The pacing is also significantly less refined this time around, as most of the second act prioritizes extended showcases of the visual effects work at the expense of advancing the story forward. It’s dazzling stuff, without a doubt, and the care from Cameron and his team toward the visual experience is hard to ignore. But the already thin plot is stretched to a point of absurdity, holding the audience in a state of short-term awe that will likely never hold up the same way on a rewatch.

However, these narrative gripes, though often egregious, don’t trap the entire viewing experience underwater.

The performances are strong across the board, even through the awkward motion capture environment used for the majority of the production. Worthington adopts a more mature fatherly presence, while Saldaña elevates many important emotional moments with a deft sense of trauma that feels proper and earned. Stephen Lang also brings a proper sense of blind aggression to Colonel Miles Quaritch, justifying the character’s haphazard return to Pandora.

The action also plays to Cameron’s strengths, with each set piece standing out as distinct and vibrant. The scale of the final battle doesn’t quite match that of its predecessor, but the emotional stakes are arguably higher, with an added layer of situational tension that is unexpected in the best way. 

The final package overall is neat and clean, opening and closing on familiar cues that tie the two films together nicely. As much as the story annoys with its contrivances, it is difficult to leave the theater feeling completely unfulfilled. 

But after several delays and years of production, “The Way of Water” should stand as something greater than a testament to the power and quality of modern visual effects. Motion capture has never looked this good, and it cannot be overstated how strong the audio-visual presentation is, especially on the big screen. 

However, the timeless action classics of old — some of which Cameron is directly responsible for — have only survived the weight of history because of their stories. Their intricate plots have influenced a generation of writers, visionaries and creatives. Their three-dimensional characters have inspired children and adults alike, and spurred the rise of science-fiction and action-adventure as culpable genres for storytelling.

Simply, “The Way of Water,” and likely the remainder of the franchise, will fall into obscurity if the stories at the centers of these epics aren’t elevated above the bare minimum. Nevertheless, Cameron and crew have the next few sequels to give it a try.