If you don’t pay attention to the business side of the film industry, you might not be aware that the highest-grossing film of all time is the original “Avatar.” At nearly $3 billion in lifetime earnings, James Cameron’s 2009 CGI spectacular has kept the top spot for years, despite strong efforts by Marvel and Star Wars to unseat it. But “Avatar” didn’t just make money, it made enemies. It’s hard to imagine a film people have loved to hate more than this one. Now, after 13 years, part two is finally here.
Out now in theaters, “Avatar: The Way of Water” picks up the story of Pandora some years after the climactic events of the first movie. The worst of the humans have been sent packing and Jake Sully (fully a Na’vi now, in case you forgot) is raising a family in relative peace with Neytiri, played again by Zoe Saldana. It doesn’t take long for the earthlings to return in force, of course, with new ways to exploit the magical moon’s natural resources and settle old scores from the first go-around. It was reasonable, I suppose, given its worldwide popularity, for “Avatar: The Way of Water” to expect us to bring a baseline understanding of the lore and world-building from the first movie. But so much time passed between their release dates. Thankfully, there are some clunky expository devices to get us up to speed.
Clunky, in fact, is s good word to describe most of “The Way of Water”’s plot and script choices. The themes of family loyalty and cultural tolerance exist fitfully under the meta-morality of environmental devastation. This is the risk of using such a big, often overwhelmingly evocative canvas: Your characters better live up to it. Their dialogue can’t be corny. Their arcs can’t simply trace some rote heroic or villainous cliché. They can’t be fake. This is where “The Way of Water” falls down most frequently. Neither Sully nor his cut-and-paste enemies say or do anything that elevates the stakes beyond petty grievance, which makes the ongoing threats to Pandora feel distant and perfunctory. It’s true that a new whaling menace is introduced in “The Way of Water” that will get your dander up a lot quicker than the search for “unobtainium” ever did, but it’s not enough to lift the blunt, inch-deep story.
How much does any of that matter in the end? Very little, it turns out, at least in terms of pure, movie-going enjoyment. Just like the original “Avatar,” “The Way of Water” looks incredible and is an endlessly fascinating imaginary space in which to experience these stories. Once again, the moon itself is the best character in the film, with landscapes and creatures that look as real as a documentary. And, as far as the “people” go, the advances in motion-capture technology give the facial expressions of the humanoids more emotional fidelity than ever. There’s a lot of chatter in the critical press about James Cameron’s use of HFR (high frame rate) for the action sequences, but the regular switches between 24 frames per second and 48 will only bother the most discerning viewers.
Most of the things that made the original “Avatar” so easy to pick on — the on-the-nose messaging, the shallow showiness of the tech, the too-thinly-drawn characters — are present in “The Way of Water.” But they don’t ruin the evening. Not at all. At over three hours, this movie is a long sit, but it rarely drags and it never disappoints, visually or emotionally. I don’t think it will earn as much cash as its predecessor, but it probably won’t engender as much online loathing either. It’s fun and it’s gorgeous. We shouldn’t overthink it.