Wet and wild

The long-gestating (and technically impressive) sequel ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is a theme park in search of a movie

Courtesy: 20th Century Studios

Everything was going so well for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). He became a full-fledged Na’vi, the leader of the Omatikaya clan, married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), fathered two boys (Jamie Flatters and Britain Dalton), a daughter (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the teenage daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine (also Weaver) conceived via immaculate conception. Ah, the salad days of Pandora. But then “the Sky People” return, and all hell breaks loose.

Before we continue: How is this vocabulary tracking with you? Pandora, Neytiri, Na’vi, Omatikaya — familiar, right? It seems that when we talk about entertainment franchises in 2022, we talk about characters as if they are friends; plot points as if they are news. It’s hard to go a day without seeing someone around town wearing a T-shirt with a Star Wars or Marvel character, but Avatar? Not so much. 

It’s curious that the 2009 CGI extravaganza became the then-highest-grossing movie of all time, completely reshaping how studios approached popular entertainment, but still struggles to track with U.S. audiences. Down in Walt Disney World, there’s a whole section in one of the parks themed to Avatar. Guests wander among the floating rocks and bioluminescent world of Pandora and ride an ikran in Flights of Passage, a flight simulator in front of a massive 3D screen that gives you an immersive experience unlike anything else. It’s a trip. But, unlike other Disney parks, there aren’t characters in costume to meet; little to see that relates to Avatar’s particular plot points. It’s like walking around one big movie set without the script. That might speak to one of the key criticisms of filmmaker James Cameron’s initial installment: technically innovative, narratively conventional. 

So, does a 13-year gestation period between Avatar and The Way of Water, the first of four planned sequels, correct that imbalance? Not really. For reasons I probably shouldn’t get into, Sully and his family have to leave their forest surroundings and seek refuge in the watery village of the Metkayina, led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis). The Metkayina are to the seas as the Omatikaya are to the skies, so the Sullys must learn to swim, ride flying fish and bond with tulkuns — massive, armored whale-like creatures that are the Metkayina’s spiritual cousins.

It’s all pretty impressive. The 3D technology is crisp and clear, the underwater sequences — there are many — have a breathtaking grandeur and the CGI character designs have personality and identity. Yet, it still feels more theme park than movie.

As to Kiri, the Na’vi born to no father: The Way of Water tosses that nugget out in the first few minutes but never cashes in on it. Her character builds in mystery, but those moments are sprinkled throughout the movie like seeds for future installments. That’s franchise 101 stuff, sure, but it also feels like Cameron and company don’t know where the ship is headed. 

Yes, there’s a ship in The Way of Water, a big one, and it plays a significant part in the movie’s final third. That’s when the film goes from a ho-hum revenge tale to a climax lifted from another extremely lucrative Cameron movie. They’ve stretched the story so thin you can see right through it.

ON SCREEN: Avatar: The Way of Water opens in theaters everywhere on Dec. 16.