‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Review: A Jumbled Slog Through the World of the Na’vi

Once we’ve settled into its beautiful world, ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ feels a bit like a slog through every possible sickly sweet theme that can be crammed into it.

20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water opens years after the first film ended. After committing to living permanently as a Na’vi, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) now has a sizable brood of little “half-breed” Na’vis with his partner, Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), and spends his time quietly thriving on the land. Life is simple and happy, a sort of nature-based utopia — up until the “sky people” (humans) return with a mixture of vengeful personal vendettas, military-industrial complexes, and colonization-oriented plans. 

What does work in the film is its most basic tenet: the general promotion of the idea that we should love, connect, protect the land, and push back (radically, revolutionarily, or even violently) against a gargantuan military-industrial complex and its destruction of land for material means.

The world that the Na’vi live in and protect is objectively beautiful.  The best moments are the ones where we are introduced to some new creature or landscape and the ways the Na’vi interact with them. I, too, would like to walk along floating mountains and little waterlogged pathways or learn to bond with and ride their various flying and swimming creatures. To be frank, I could watch the Na’vi soar about or dive into watery depths on flighty fantastical creatures for much longer than the movie even permits us to. 

But the visual richness of the space alone does not withstand three hours of runtime, and the storyline is, frankly, weakly structured and poorly executed. Once we’ve settled into its beautiful world, the new Avatar feels a bit like a slog through every possible sickly sweet theme that can be crammed into it. Our storylines and ethical lessons range from the importance of family and the need to protect our environment to the difficulty of father-son relationships and adolescent feelings of insecurity. The plot sling-shots us about from theme to theme, and many of the storylines opened are not closed, presumably to prepare stories for the upcoming trio of films that have been slated. Aside from the throughline of a military pursuit of Jake Sully, now Na’vi leader, Avatar feels pretty jumbled. 

I enjoy portions and moments fleetingly: Kiri’s (Sigourney Weaver) occasional communion with the Great Mother and the planet are moving enough, the killing of the Tulkun feels tragic, and the final battle is exciting and immersive. But I don’t feel connected with any sort of throughline — if anything, I feel a little bit like I’m moving through small, partial stories in a video game (a feeling heightened by the 3-D visuals and high frame rate of the film). 

Avatar: The Way of Water tries desperately to tap into a sort of earnestness without ever fully reaching its goal. It constantly feels like there’s too much movement and too much going on, with nothing to truly hold onto in a meaningful or impactful way.

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