Avatar: The Way of Water review – a thunderously underwhelming damp squib of a return

Astonishing! Enthralling! Exciting! Immersive! None of these words could sensibly be applied to the three-and-a-quarter-hour Wet Smurfahontas stodgeathon that is Avatar: The Way of Water. A lumbering, humourless, tech-driven damp squib of a movie, this long-awaited (or dreaded?) sequel to one of the highest grossing films of all time builds upon the mighty flaws of its predecessor, delivering a patience-testing fantasy dirge that is longer, uglier and (amazingly) even more clumsily scripted than its predecessor, blending trite characterisation with sub-Roger Dean 70s album-cover designs and thunderously underwhelming action sequences. In water.

We pick up several years after the wholly forgettable antics of 2009’s Avatar. On the distant world Pandora, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has gone native, raising a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) after shedding his human skin to inhabit his alien avatar (see previous film). When the “sky people” of Earth come looking for a fight, among other things, the forest-friendly Sullys are forced to flee to distant archipelagos where the water-tribes dwell. Here, they must abandon their tree-hugging lifestyle and learn the ways of the reef people, who have thicker tails and are a bit more turquoise. Really.

The Metkayina tribe are led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his partner, Ronal (Kate Winslet), whose kids don’t click with the Sully brood, setting the scene for much teen-movie style internecine squabbling followed by inevitable boring bromance bonding. En route, our blue heroes will learn to ride amphibious skimwings (imagine How to Train Your Dragon as retold by the writers of Star Trek and Stingray), to speak the language of the seas in all its wondrous wetness, and to befriend a damaged, whale-like creature (think Free Willy in space) who will become a key player in the film’s emotional baggage handling.

There are moments that are meant to be thrillingly exciting. These are easy to spot because the characters on screen shout “Woohoo!” in the same way that young Anakin shouted “Yippee!” in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. Sadly, the comparisons with Lucas’s ill-fated space opera prequels don’t end there. Like Jar Jar Binks, the residents of Pandora appear to have been designed by a stoned sixth former while listening to Tales From Topographic Oceans, all wide-eyed Middle-earth wonder mixed with cod FernGullystyle fairytale heroism. There’s also a feral human child (he speaks normally, but occasionally growls annoyingly) whom James Cameron presumably imagines to be a thematic descendent of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli, but whose irritating presence simply reminded me how much I preferred the lush worlds of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book and Andy Serkis’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.

Of course the joyous watery wibbling (“Woohoo!”) cannot last, and the sky people come calling, leading to a hyberbolic action showdown that bolts the third act of Aliens (against-the-clock sprog hunt through exploding/collapsing metal structures) with the first act of The Poseidon Adventure (watery world turned upside down) and the second half of Titanic (breath holding and personal conflict-solving combined!).

As for the 3D – a moribund format that has risen and fallen like the tide on umpteen occasions throughout cinema history – the only thing it immerses us in is the harsh realities of the Chinese theatrical marketplace, where spectacular stereoscopy still rules the roost. Let’s face it, with very few notable exceptions (Creature From the Black Lagoon in the 1950s, Flesh for Frankenstein in the 1970s, Gravity in the 21st century), 3D has done precious little to “enhance” anyone’s viewing experience. But when the financial stakes are this high (The Way of Water reportedly needs to take around $2bn – £1.6bn – to wash its face), Cameron simply cannot afford to abandon a gimmick for which he has become chief gong banger, standard bearer and book-keeper.

Underneath it all is the same honkingly bland anti-imperial/anti-colonial/eco-friendly metaphor that gave the first Avatar the illusion of gravitas, although it’s hard to overlook how much Cameron enjoys the human hardware sequences, which have a rough physicality that stands in stark contrast to the floaty computer-game visuals of the rest of the film. Whether things will improve over the course of subsequent movies (two more sequels are already in progress) remains to be seen. On this evidence, I doubt it.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/-tohYPKa_ag?wmode=opaque&feature=oembedWatch a trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water.

This post is from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/dec/18/avatar-the-way-of-water-james-cameron-3d-sequel-review-damp-squib-return-to-pandora




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