REVIEW: ‘Avatar’ sequel is always great to look at, but not always engaging

After more than a decade of waiting, director James Cameron has brought audiences back to the moon of Pandora.

Just as time passed here on Earth, so too did it there. The film picks up with Jake (Sam Worthington) now living as a Na’vi, raising four children with his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Their children include Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).

Jake and Neytiri are trying their best to raise their children in peace but that is shattered by new military forces from Earth looking for revenge after what happened in part 1. Knowing they are targets in particular, Jake and Neytiri flee to live in asylum among the Na’vi ocean tribes. However, the enemy is still out there, including an old foe who returns.

“Way of Water” starts with some promise. Having some new, young characters join the series offer a fresh perspective and invasion from Earth gets an audience’s attention fast. In addition to the new characters and the battles, the audience also gets to see how Jake act as a father, influenced both by Earth and Na’vi culture.

There are some interesting dynamics introduced and it makes for an exciting first act. Then the blue family troupe get to the ocean, and the whole movie slows way down. Not exactly a good thing for a movie well over three hours long.

There’s certainly plenty to explore in the middle of the movie, from seeing more of Pandora to the mobilization of the military from Earth. That’s not entirely what viewers get, though.

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Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

The family, especially the kids who have five fingers rather than the normal four for the Na’vi, amkes them outcasts in the ocean tribe. This becomes sort of a focal point in an after school special kind of way, where the kids are bullied for being different and get pranked.

It’s something out of a kids movie where children hate the new town they moved to. When they’re not dealing with bullies, the main characters spend a good deal of time making friends with whale-like creatures and becoming better swimmers. Another thing that isn’t all that engaging for long stretches.

It unfortunately ends up being boring for a good period of time. It’s understandable that Cameron wanted to explore the lingering impacts of Jake’s background to other Na’vi. Cameron has also made clear in past projects how much he loves the ocean in our world and wanted to capture that wonder.

But the execution leaves a lot to be desired as the second act becomes a slog. It doesn’t help that there’s a sub-plot involving some human characters that doesn’t work entirely well.

It’s really fortunate that the final part of the picture is as thrilling and exciting as it is. It also helps that the characters, while they could sometimes use more depth, are all quite likable.

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It’s easy to support the protagonist and seeing them in either moments of battle or sequences of peril makes for compelling stuff. The action is highly entertaining, which mixed with enjoyable characters, makes for a good third act.

As expected, the movie is also gorgeous to look like. The creatures featured are lifelike, the world is exceptionally detailed and the action is exhilarating. Like the last film, the visual goodness extends past the natural wonder of Pandora and exists with the sci-fi technology. The spaceships, mechanical suits and more all look great.

As for the performances, they can be a little hit or miss. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana work as the returning characters, as does Sigourney Weaver, who returns to the franchise by voicing a new character.

Stephen Lang’s return doesn’t work as well, though. He comes back as a new foe in this movie and is required to do more with the role than just his ‘hardened soldier’ persona, which doesn’t really work out in the more dramatic scenes. The performance is just a bit awkward.

I came away from the first “Avatar” with the perspective that it was full of spectacle and had some characters that were easy to root for, but underwritten and lacked depth. The feeling is similar for “Way of Water.” It looks great and a viewer wants the heroes to succeed, but it’s lacking in plenty of areas, including a stronger second act. 3.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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