“A glorified South America” was one of the odder dismissive takes on Pandora, the alien world of the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar, that I heard when the movie was in theaters. After all, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to see a glorified South America? Yes, the characters were generic and unmemorable, the plot ultra-tropey, the themes hackneyed, the dialogue humdrum. But the world … ah, the world was an unprecedented revelation. Now, over a decade later, Cameron has labored obsessively over the return to Pandora, in the process posing a new rhetorical question: Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to see a glorified Caribbean coral sea?
There are two things Avatar: The Way of Water does supremely well — more about that in a bit — but let’s acknowledge up front that, in all the ways Avatar was mediocre, The Way of Water represents no great step forward. The Na’vi cast is larger and more diverse, and there are conflicts and relationships of new kinds, but the characters are still generic and their names still blur together. At least I now know the names of the major characters from the first film, notably Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the ex-Marine ex-human whose crippled body died and whose consciousness has been permanently transferred to his big blue avatar body, and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the Na’vi warrior princess who was Pocahontas to Sully’s John Smith. But time has passed on Pandora too, and much of the new movie focuses less on Jake and Neytiri than on the children they’re raising together. It will take me a while to get most of their names down, along with those of the turquoise-skinned reef clan of Na’vi among whom Jake and Neytiri’s family take refuge when the villain of the first movie — Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who died fighting Jake and Neytiri — makes an ambiguous quasi-return in an avatar body, bent on revenge.
The plot is less conventional than the 2009 film, but no less tropey, with a similar thematic blend of eco-spirituality, anti-imperialism, xeno-naturalistic wonder, and thundering action set pieces. In the original, Jake led the Na’vi in a successful war against the pillaging human invaders who wanted a Pandoran MacGuffin absurdly called “unobtainium.” It was something of a white-savior narrative, with a Dances With Wolves twist: The Na’vi were Noble Savages who saved Jake from his own whiteness, but ultimately he became the best Noble Savage of them all. These days, though, Jake is focused on being a husband and father, even if (not unlike many ex-military movie fathers) he needs to be reminded by Neytiri that a family is not a military squad.
For a while I began to wonder if this return to Pandora might not finally be the extravagant folly that so many suspected that Titanic and Avatar would be. Then came the second hour, and then the third: each with very big, very different “Never bet against James Cameron” energy.
Family life has changed him; Jake is more cautious, more focused on safety: “A father protects — it’s what gives him meaning,” he says more than once. Among the family’s four children, the story focuses particularly on younger brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), who resents being overshadowed by his golden-boy older brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), and on adopted Kiri, whose origins are mysterious. We’re told she was born of the inert Na’vi avatar of the late human scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, who played the mother, now plays the daughter); how or when Grace’s Na’vi form was impregnated is unknown. Then there’s a young human tagalong called Spider (Jack Champion) who was left behind in the human evacuation.
Over a decade later, the humans have returned with an even more alarming mission of terraforming to create a new home for humanity, and the Na’vi are waging a guerrilla war of resistance. For most of the first hour the story plays out in the same sorts of locations as the first movie, and little if any of this struck me as super essential. Performance capture and computer rendering are noticeably improved: The Na’vi feel more tactile and organic, their movements and expressions look more natural, and light and shadow fall more convincingly on their blue skin. But the improvements are incremental, not revolutionary. For a while I began to wonder if this return to Pandora might not finally be the extravagant folly that so many suspected that Titanic and Avatar would be.