Beautifully Boring

“Avatar: the Way of the Water” delivers on stunning visual effects but falls flat with an overdrawn plot


Image via 20th Century Studios

In the 13 years since the original Avatar movie was released, the writers have somehow failed to come up with any semblance of a captivating plot for its sequel, leaving me reevaluating my life and financial choices. 

For those who don’t know, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a sci-fi/action movie serving as the initial sequel to the original Avatar, released in 2009. The first film follows Jake Sully, a Marine paralyzed from the waist down who gets a chance to become mobile again after he is selected to have his mind linked with an “Avatar,” an extraterrestrial hybrid between the native humanoid Na’vi and colonizing humans. Living on the planet Pandora, the Avatars are created to allow selected humans to more easily move on the surface of the moon, which has an otherwise toxic atmosphere. Jake is sent by humans to infiltrate the Na’vi and reduce their resistance to the harmful mining practices of a material called “unobtanium,” but after the Na’vi’s home is destroyed he decides to side with them and kick the humans off their moon in the final showdown. The plot of the second movie is a carbon copy of the original: Jake (now integrated into the Na’vi) is forced to prove himself to strangers (another tribe) who judge him as an outsider, while being threatened by humans who want to harvest rare resources (this time it’s immortal whale juice), but after the Na’vi suffer a great loss (their pets being killed), they kick the humans out with a final showdown (brutally). Now that the plot is understood, let’s get into the pros and cons of this movie. 

The most obvious pro: the movie is absolutely beautiful. As expected for a movie with  13 years of work and a budget of a quarter of a billion dollars, the producers did not mess around with the visual effects. Everything is rendered immaculately and immerses the audience in the world of Pandora. You can almost imagine what brushing your hand against every piece of alien fauna or high tech machinery feels like—almost as if James Cameron actually traveled light years away to film this movie. Watching it in 3D only heightened this effect, with the film almost feeling realer than the real world. Additionally, the worldbuilding was incredibly interesting. The spaceships were among the most realistic portrayals of space travel I’ve ever seen in cinema and the ecosystem of Pandora is filled with fascinating creatures—ignoring the slightly bland, big, blue cat people that are the Na’vi. 

Now for the cons. The film’s most glaring flaw is its ridiculous run time of over three hours. It felt as though the writers were trying to make some massive-hit-finale-epic, but didn’t supply enough substance to the plot in order to make it work. New characters weave in and out of the 192-minute run time, many of whom the audience do not care much for or even remember by the end. 

Additionally, the story is bland and played out. It’s about evil, mustache-twirling space capitalists who, due to their greed for Pandora’s resources, want to destroy all of the forests, oceans and nature-worshiping totally-not-Native-American natives (who literally lived in a giant tree). Most of the symbolism and themes are about as subtle as a brick to the face. All of this adds to the idea that the creators didn’t make this movie because they wanted to make a movie but rather because they wanted a quick buck. Considering that 20th Century Studios already greenlit Avatar movies #3-5, it’s an odd decision to quadruple down on this franchise. It looks like the producers saw “Avatar” at the top of the box office and figured they would do it 3 more times in order to milk as much money as they could out of a world that didn’t have the substance to sustain all of that additional content. Furthermore, both movies have been criticized for racist themes; the designs of the Na’vi are specifically referenced as appropriation of indigenous culture. With this in mind, the plot of Jake going to live with and then eventually save the Na’vi follows a white savior trope, which is just…yikes.

Your enjoyment of Avatar will come down to  what you expect from it. If you want a movie with a storyline that will keep you engaged throughout the 3 hour runtime…this movie is not for you. From a narrative perspective it is a complete failure. If, however, you are content watching a strange conglomeration of machinery fight scenes and blue cat people learning about the ocean, “Avatar: the Way of Water ” certainly has you covered.