By Lynn Venhaus
Looks 10, story 3. Regardless of its visual splendor from state-of-the-art effects, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a bloated, confusing mess of a story.
Cinematographer extraordinaire Russell Christopher, who did “Titanic” and “Ant-Man,” and a team of hundreds of animators. motion-capture artists and graphics wizards make this sci-fi world fantastical, but a pedestrian plot can’t muster enough excitement to sit through 192 minutes of a curiously uninvolving scenario.
In a fierce battle to protect their home, the Na’vi must face a familiar threat on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Big bad military = evil territorial bullies, noble blue people = at one with nature.
With some nods to his previous mega-hits “Titanic,” “Aliens” and “The Terminator” franchise, director James Cameron has built a stunning panorama of flora, fauna, and water, lots of water. He’s also showing off in 3D and high-definition rate.
For all his excess, the man knows how to corral a team to create magic. However, his self-indulgences hamper smooth sailing in storytelling. He could have trimmed the film by half, and it would be far more engrossing with less repetition. (Four editors!).
A tribal plot involving family and loss offers nothing new – and five people came up with this unremarkable story that seems to have recycled some familiar “Lion King” beats (Come on! “Circle of Life”? Really?).
The monotonous video-game like screenplay, by Cameron and the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, whose work includes “Jurassic World” and the “Planet of the Apes” reboots, has this smug self-important air, and lacks even a smidgeon of wit.
Even superhero movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have some chuckles, and I’ve seen cartoons that are far more entertaining. Why so serious?
While we weren’t exactly waiting for a sequel to the highest grossing film of all time, it’s been a long time in coming – 11 years. Since 2009, technology has created even more worlds of wonder, and real-world problems of climate change and political colonialism have been added for relevance.
“King of the World” Cameron has planned three more sequels, with principal photography already completed for “Avatar 3,” which may happen in 2024, and others expected in 2026 and 2028. Whether it will be a global phenomenon like the first remains to be seen, but if they are as insipid and interminable as this one, don’t bother.
With the wow factor, this sequel seems headed to only earn Academy Awards nominations in the technical fields. The original won Oscars for art direction, cinematography, and visual effects out of nine nominations. The intricate makeup and hair work is also award worthy.
If you can’t remember much of the first one, here’s the condensed version: It’s the 22nd century and humans are colonizing Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system, because they want to mine unobtanium, a valuable mineral. That threatens a local tribe’s existence – the Na’vi is a humanoid species.
Here, an avatar is a genetically engineered Na’vi body operated from a human brain in a remote location, which interacts with the natives.
Is this making your head hurt? Second one recaps how protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) fell in love with a Na’vi woman Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and converted to that culture. They went on to live a blissful sparkly life and have four children – two boys and two girls.
Because he crossed the line, from being one of the military ‘sky people’ to a sympathetic outsider, his former Marine commander, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), seeks revenge, but the motivation is murky. With a target on his back, Sully has endangered the Na’vi, and the Metkayina clan leader, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), is not too happy about this turn of events. And neither is his snarling pregnant wife, Ronal (Kate Winslet). (Before you think, Kate Winslet is in this? It’s merely a voice-over).
Yet, an army of mighty warriors are ready to double-down, riding on some primordial-looking sea creatures. Only Quaritch has brought a force that look like the Na’vi. Good luck figuring out who are the good and bad guys, for it’s not always clear.
The kids get in all sorts of scrapes, but telling them apart is tough, too, especially the two sons—Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton). Kiri is the offspring of Sigourney Weaver, and they are her guardian. The youngest daughter named Tuk is designed to be the cute little charmer (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). And then there is Miles, aka Spider (Jack Champion), a human who was left behind, and is like an adopted son.
Lots o’ macho posturing, women fretting, outsiders vs. natural-born, and kids being scolded for putting themselves in harm’s way. For three hours and 12 minutes, no intermission.
It is only epic is scope, not in any captivating way, for the imagination seems to have stopped at the art direction. Pretty pictures of ethereal thingamajigs floating in the water, and creatures plugging into energy sources that light them up for some reason are dazzling, so are the skies full of stars, and wavy tendrils that wrap themselves around various shapes, with different results.
Things blow up in spectacular fashion and gigantic whale-shark-looking hybrids, feared for their viciousness and sheer magnitude, wreak major havoc. The battle scenes, with Down Under-accented enemies, are well-executed – wait, did I just see New Zealand comic treasure Jemaine Clement?
With the avatars and Na’vi appearing so similar in looks and expressions, performances fail to register. The characters are one-note without much depth. Outstanding actress Edie Falco is wasted as a general and I’m not sure who ace character actress CCH Pounder plays.
New age-y dialogue is cringe-worthy, sounds like something from blacklight posters in the ‘70s. “The way of water connects all things. Before your birth, and after your death,” one son says. Whatever that means.
For all its posturing as an event film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is unnecessary. It’s a gussied-up mash-up of ahead-of-his-time genius Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” And I would like four hours of my life back.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a 2022 action fantasy film directed by James Cameron and starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet, CCH Pounder, Jack Champion, Britain Dalton, and Jamie Flatters. It is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language and runtime is 192 minutes. It opens in theaters Dec. 16. Lynn’s Grade: C-.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.