Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water ★★★

If one thing is true in relation to the monolithic, thirteen years in the making Avatar: The Way of Water, it's that it really isn't worth betting against James Cameron. With a towering filmography where the only notable failures are a film he barely directed and another that serves as a messy, hazily coherent extraterrestrial precursor to his trip to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, there's little reason to ever imagine that he can't deliver a stunning product that will inevitably shatter box office predictions. His unstoppable ambition has resulted in a lineup of films that exist in a realm completely separate to most others, his vision and execution of jaw-dropping setpieces and legendary action choreography lingering in the mind far beyond everything else that surrounds them. Even when the ultimate result fails to meet the mark of narrative success his imagery remains, whether it's the mushroom cloud kiss of True Lies, the hypnotic watery descent of The Abyss, or even the ravenous flying piranhas in Piranha II: The Spawning, there are always bold new visual explorations in the universe of James Cameron.

2009's earth-shattering Avatar has existed in a bizarre space since its release, the film-going populace split into either camps of fervent defense or perpetual dismissal, but the ongoing sentiment that seems to circle the film is of its shockingly forgettable nature despite the cutting edge effects and immense world building. Through the lens of its own endeavor to construct the living, breathing existence of Pandora, its listless and hollow environmentalist narrative fails to find footing and its characters become empty vessels for rote and underwritten dialogue, ultimately lost to time as barely memorable footnotes within the highest-grossing film of all time.

The sequel's challenge, then, is to rectify both of these more glaring issues. To find the story truly worth telling in this lush and vibrant world, and to cement the legacy of its characters and place them among the ranks of Jack and Rose, John and Sarah Connor, and Ripley and Newt. The Way of Water makes a valiant effort, but what is here is largely the same result as its predecessor. Hollow and empty, lacking in emotionally resonant characters or worthwhile arcs, and packed full of beautiful visuals that stun in the moment but likely won't leave the searing impact of Cameron's best.

The attempt truly is valiant, though, because it does elevate every motion of Avatar - but perhaps what we needed was closer to reinvention than elevation, heightened translations of mediocre plot devices still ultimately lacking any real punch. The environmentalist core is more extant and believable here, but it's still the same simplistic structure of resource colonialism only now given soul through sea life, certainly more enticing but it's such a rushed tertiary notion in the midst of its focus on family that it almost feels unnecessary, never finding an actual drive for the core conflict outside of brief notions of human avarice and vanity.

It's hard to bet against James Cameron because there's a persistent natural affinity for his command of cinema. Whether we're looking for another sequel as magnificent as Aliens or T2, the romance of Titanic, or the sheer ambition of The Abyss, we're always hoping to fall in love with another James Cameron film. The Way of Water attempts it all, as visually glorious as anything he's made with an hour-long action climax for the ages, and featuring a closely tied family deeply devoted to protecting each other through the tumult and the chaos that continues to unfold. It never quite lands in the way Cameron's best does, but it's damn clear that his devotion to Pandora will outlive us all. In a world that should feel expressive and rich with possibility it continues to feel shockingly artificial, paper-thin characters and hazy narrative threads never living up to the space they exist in. It's a shame, but I'll be back for the next one. Let's go back to basics and send Stephen Lang back in time to a neon eclipse slasher on Pandora.

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