13 years have passed since James Cameron last took us to the lush planet, Pandora.  The original “Avatar” was hailed as a leap forward in 3D and CGI effects.  Nothing back then even came close. Unfortunately, the story left much to be desired, copying other white-savior classics like “Dances with Wolves.”  “The Way of Water” lives up to its promise and delivers a better story and visual effects.  But with a high bar in one area, and a low bar in another, what kind of film does that end up being?

Roughly the same amount of years have passed on Pandora.  Jake(Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have a family of their own.  Two older boys, a younger daughter, and an adoptive daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver).  Kiri is the product of an immaculate conception, spawned within the avatar kept in stasis that the Sigourney Weaver character used in the first film.  All of the Navi have a special connection to the planet, but Kiri’s seems to run even deeper.

Life has been pretty good for the Sully family, until humans suddenly appear again, en masse.  The Navi seem to be doing a pretty good job at battling them until one year later a handful of new avatars show up.  These aren’t the same avatars from the first film, dependent on a connection to a human plugged into a computer.  Instead, these avatars have the memories and personalities of dead soldiers uploaded directly into the hybrid body.  Most of these soldiers have a personal vendetta against Jake and have no qualms about who they have to kill to exact their revenge.

In a surprising change in character, Jake decides the only way he can protect his family unit is to run far away, abandoning Neytiri’s tribe that they were sworn to protect. They all jet off to a group of islands where an offshoot race of Navi resides.  What follows is an extended montage of the various characters trying to find their place in the new culture and absolutely stunning underwater cinematography of fictional characters.

The rest of the movie plays out pretty much as anyone familiar with story structure would expect.  But in the interest of not divulging spoilers, here are some important bullet points:

  • The CGI, 3D, and visuals are absolutely stunning. INCREDIBLE. I’m not a fan of High Frame Rate format, but I believe it reduces the chance of motion sickness and can be a big help during some of the action scenes.
  • The story is better than the original, but it’s still not good.  It’s packed to the brim with cliches and attempts to wrestle emotion from the viewers.
  • The movie is FAR too long.  If they cut 45 minutes from the movie, it would still be 2 1/2 hours long.
  • At least 20 minutes of the movie are just underwater shots of a fictional world.  It’s gorgeous and breathtaking but belongs on National Geographic more than it does in the middle of a narrative film.
  • There is an abundance of exposition.  A big rule in screenwriting is “Show don’t tell.”  In “Way of the Water” they do both.  In multiple scenes, they show what’s going on while another character (or two) explains it.  This is often coupled with a completely unnecessary narration from Jake.
  • The action sequences are great, but especially near the end, begin to stretch all reason.  Characters often immediately rush back into danger after being saved.  In an attempt at levity, one character even says “I can’t believe I’m tied up again!”  You and me both, kid.
  • The final line of dialog is so atrocious that it makes the previous 3+ hours feel like a waste. Is this just an advertisement for Avatar 3? If you consider where we left off at the first one, and where we end up at the end of this one, why is this entry necessary at all?

It’s incredibly difficult to score a film like this.  It indulges in so many cinematic sins, but it also showed me so many things that I’ve never seen before.  For at least an hour of this movie, my jaw was on the floor.  But for an equal amount of time, I was yawning.  The good news is, we’re starting to hear reports that Avatar 4 will be absolutely stunning…

Avatar: The Way of Water