Avatar 2: the Way of Water is busy trying to be so many different movies, it forgets to become one of its own. It also “borrows” from so many, it’s difficult to keep track. Some poor soul will someday go through The Way of Water with a fine-tooth comb and identify all the plagiarised ideas, imagery and subtext. Here are the obvious victims:
Titanic, Cape Fear, Whale Rider, Free Willy, Pinnochio, Blue Lagoon, Waterworld, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Moby Dick, Carrie, The Host, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Catwoman, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Aliens 2, Star Trek IX: Insurrection, Lost in Space, The Lion King, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Baywatch, San Junipero and even the TV show Bewitched.
The first Avatar movie got away with borrowing from movies like Fern Gully: the Last Rainforest and Dances with Wolves because it was the most modern retelling of an environmentalist, colonial invasion story in years. It was also boosted by a revolutionary setting, allowing the colonials to lose without rewriting history, and revolutionary special effects. Game of Thrones, the Marvel multiverse and the Star Wars reboot owe their existence to Avatar, and a bunch of less celebrated works besides.
The Way of Water, another luxurious artistic achievement, still feels more like the next-gen iPhone, the same product with some new apps and bonus features. Or the same crass commercialism it’s arguably fighting against. Its predecessor used special effects to drive its colonial invasion plot, The Way of Water uses its special effects to gloss over plot holes, big ones.
Spoiler alert: Earth is “dying” offscreen, a motivation for a cast of humans to affect the most artless villainy since Elmer Fudd. Their return to Pandora, with the same vast resources they apparently can’t save Earth with, causes past heroes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), and his now intellectually neutered spouse Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), to leave their tribe and find their family a new home… and their movie a new backdrop. The humans have also ditched unobtanium and are now after a “whale” serum that doubles as the fountain of youth, somehow not the kookiest plot point.
It’s an eternal (192 minutes) voyage from the sublime to the ridiculous. At one point, Australian stage actor Brendan Cowell raps out a crisp: “shut your mouth, c*nt”!
The Way of Water, for its myriad, glaring faults, is still wall-to-wall action. A cast of scantily clad, OnlyFans-ready teens vying for airtime (18-year-old Jack Champion spends the movie in a loin cloth for no reason). A questionable voice cast (the Metkayina tribe are a brazen clone of Pacific cultures, so Kate Winslet and Britain Dalton put on “Islander voice”). A battle royal. A father-son journey of acceptance. And the promise of a sequel with even greater drama ahead.
Avatar’s sequel is for James Cameron what The Matrix: Reloaded was for the Watchowskis. It sets up the franchise for a series of questionably chosen showdowns. As the plot stands, Avatar’s eventual final chapter will see Pandora’s answer to Samantha and Darrin Stephens (Sigourney Weaver and Jake Champion… no, really) find their interspecies magic and neuter the metaphorical, dissenting boomers by playing out the climax of Jodorwosky’s Dune.
I wish I were kidding.
A generation will exit theatres (spring for Imax, it makes more sense in Imax) enraptured by this hot mess because it’s an event. Blockbuster movies are now about superheroes, gods and Death Stars. An epic about a boy making friends with a whale, or a family coming together to fight, or a girl who can move things with her mind, or lovers from two different worlds, or a hunt for a monster, or a race to find a new home… they go to streaming platforms. The Way of Water is the first time millions of people will have the joy of seeing such stories told in an epic form, on the big screen.
You have to hand it to James Cameron for rendering every genre less than total spectacle redundant, and then putting them all into a total spectacle. With three more movies on the way (Avatar 3 is already in post-production), this space opera franchise is fast becoming Wagnerian in scale, and no doubt releasing a mass of earth-heating carbon in the process.
It’s either meta, or pointless. At some point, you have to wonder which.