For much of its running time, Avatar: The Way of Water resembles nothing so much as one of those screensavers from the early 2000s that turned your computer monitor into a simulated aquarium. Remember? Fish floated by, there were some bubbles, it was very colorful and completely unrealistic. Soothing, though.
For a solid hour of The Way of Water—it’s the movie’s second in a complete running time of 3 hours and 10 minutes—we are treated to tall blue and green cartoon characters swimming and diving and riding on the backs of alien seahorses and having sign-language conversations with whale-like creatures. It’s like a nature documentary, only there’s no actual nature, just the world’s most unimaginably expensive computer-generated imagery blended with live-action performances the computer then draws over. (Kate Winslet is in this movie. You’d never know. It could have been me.)
I’m not sure I can convey to you how boring this all is except to say that it’s, you know, like staring at a fish tank on your computer monitor. "The way of water has no end and no beginning," someone says—and writer-director James Cameron thinks the line is so important he has another character repeat it later in the film. The problem with dialogue like this is when you’re at minute 100 and you’re watching a CGI person smiling as she gazes at a coral reef for what feels like forever, you fear there really will be no end.
The first hour is better, but not much better. In this sequel to his mammoth box-office hit of 2009, the most financially successful movie ever made, Cameron proves uncharacteristically choppy and uninspired in his plotting as he brings us up to date on what’s been happening to his hero Jake Sully, the human turned alien.
I was not a fan of the first Avatar, but I recognized Cameron’s expository brilliance, which is a hallmark of his work. People these days tend to scoff at Titanic, but what Cameron does there is extraordinary: He begins the movie with a present-day sequence in which we are told how the ship went down in 1912. As a result, when we travel into the past and the Titanic hits the iceberg 90 minutes later, we know everything we need to know technically about the sinking and can just experience it in real time. Cameron may write horrible dialogue, but in almost every movie he’s ever made, he has proven himself a master at storytelling.
Case in point: In the original Avatar’s opening act, Cameron unwinds and unfolds an incredibly complicated plot with off-handed mastery. We learn that the paraplegic Marine Jake Sully had an identical twin brother scientist who had been training for years to man a manufactured alien body—the avatar of the title—so that he could go to work with the natives on the alien moon called Pandora. His brother dies, and Jake can take his place because of their identical genomes—but he doesn’t have any idea what he’s getting into because he hasn’t had the training. Along with him, we learn about the company that was doing the work, the military people protecting them, and the culture of the Na’vi, the people of Pandora. Any single element of these strands could have been its own movie. Cameron weaves them together with remarkable economy.
Not so here. As the new movie begins, 13 years have passed since we last visited Pandora, just after Jake became a full-time Na’vi and the bad humans were expelled from the place after their unscrupulous efforts to mine the incredibly valuable mineral Cameron called "unobtainium." Jake and his wife Neytiri have four kids. They’re happy. They run around and hunt and jump and stuff. Then the bad humans come back and Jake turns into a guerrilla leader whose band of giant Ewoks attack bad human military convoys. The bad humans make new avatars, only this time they’re bad military guys who are supposed to stop the guerrillas. So Jake and his family go on the run, leaving the forest to hide among the water people elsewhere on Pandora.
All of this could have been told in 10 minutes. It takes Cameron five times that long. And it’s not until much later that we find out the reason the bad humans are back on Pandora is to obtain a new natural resource—which comes from the brain of Pandora whales who compose music and are very emotional and are smarter than we are. The substance that comes from their brains is yellow and goopy and it stops human aging. It doesn’t have a stupid name like unobtainium, and so, as a result, I cannot tell you what it’s called.
I also can’t remember the names of any of Jake’s and Neytiri’s children, who are the central characters of The Way of Water. And that’s even with the fact that the version I saw in the theater on Thursday night actually had captions, just like on Netflix or Prime Video (including non-dialogue captions like "ENTHRALLING MUSIC" or "SCOFFS"). You’d think seeing the names in type in front of me would have made those names more memorable, but it turns out it’s important for characters to, you know, be even remotely interesting for you to remember them.
So I’m watching the screensavers, and not caring about the characters, and wondering what the hell I’m doing in this theater. And then the movie’s third act begins, and Avatar: The Way of Water catches fire. The last hour is a nonstop action bonanza, one of the most exciting feats of filmmaking you will ever see. The way in which Cameron’s technical wizardry combines CGI and ultra-realistic real-world ships and planes as bad humans do battle with saintly Na’vi is just staggering to behold and even more staggering to think about.
"How on earth did he do that?" barely describes the feeling you have throughout much of this sequence. This is now Cameron’s third movie centering on watercraft—Titanic was preceded by The Abyss—and you’d think he’d be tired of it by now. But then he does something almost comically delightful not by evoking his own ship-goes-down epic but rather doing a quick remake-redo-outdoing of The Poseidon Adventure.
Cameron is a true showman, as evidenced by the fact that he maybe doesn’t even care about the boredom evoked by the movie’s first two hours because maybe he knows they will make the final hour seem all the more amazing by contrast. Avatar: The Way of Water does have an ending, thankfully, and it almost justifies the beginning.