Welcome back to TOSRC, and for today’s review we’re taking a look at Avatar: The Way of Water. Avatar: The Way of Water was the cinematic event of the season. Because I don’t usually go the theater, since most available productions are garbage, I made this release into a whole event and went to the best IMAX in my city—and boy, was it worth it. In this sense, Cameron did succeed in making Avatar a 3D oblige experience and a reference in the technology, because the experience highly immersive and hyper-real. It almost felt like an open world video game in third person perspective, where you’re out exploring with your companions.
Despite that, the movie drew a lot of mixed responses. Critics were divided into two sides: those who adore it, and then those who dismissed it, claiming it had no plot and terrible pacing. I’m a little bit of both. While I think Avatar 2 was not as revolutionary as the first one, I also feel that it holds up its own as a sequel. If production quality continues to improve, and if Avatar 1’s narrative pace comes back, as we’ll see later, I’m both hopeful and confident the franchise will go in the right direction—we’ll just have to revisit this review when the time comes, and see if my faith wasn’t misplaced.
The original message of the series is preserved. Which I believe is the most important part of the experience. Avatar is first and foremost a metaphor conveying an ecological message regarding our own planet, which comes through just fine. Everyone and their grandmas understand by now the clear idea told by this franchise, that us humans are destroying the ecosystem, as well as the warning that if we don’t stop there, we might not only be dooming ourselves, but we might destroy other potentially habitable worlds in a very near future.
Scenes of destruction are getting a tad redundant, and are a bit rushed compared to the previous film (we’ll we’ll explore that below in Pace & Plot), which makes them less impactful. But I still just love getting my heart snapped in half when the local fauna or flora I just spent an entire hour bonding with gets callously killed off for profit. ✨
Finally, one perk of Avatar that I’ve loved since the first film, is how historical expectations are completely subverted (subverting expectations done right). Looking at our own history, we’d expect the stereotype of the peaceful and spiritual native group to be severely lacking in the areas of callous and uncouth violence, rendering them incapable of proper self-defense against an third party who doesn’t share in the same restraints they do, and is ready to exploit it. That simple distinction already turns a “third party” into -> “an invader.” But Avatar has been flipping that dynamic upside down since the first film. That is what made the movie so impactful, in my opinion, and what drew me to the franchise. While we’ll never get that kind of catharsis in the real world because history can’t be re-written and the consequences of colonialism around the world can still be felt to this day, Avatar, much like Django Unchained, unleashes our fantasies for righteousness and restoring balance when things go blatantly wrong.
In Avatar 1, in a surprising twist, the Na’avi successfully pushed back against the caricatured corporate human invaders (to remain stereotypical, they are all white), to the point even Eywa, an organism we associate with passivity and detachment from human affairs much like the figure of God in the real world, rouses to defend Pandora. We leave the shores of feeling forsaken by God or the Universe, when an allegory of the Universe itself takes active steps towards placing a boundary against evil. The Way of Water continues in that direction, with one of the tulkuns, a hyper-intelligent whale-like animal, putting a firm and brutal stop against destruction, with a bit of Tarantino like violence thrown on top (which certainly delighted my vengeful heart). It’s also interesting to see the subtle and quiet intelligence we know animals to possess, highlighted and heightened; either through the bond, a spiritual connection made physical through the connection of nerve endings at the end of the Na’avi’s tails, and as I wrote, through creatures like the tulkuns who are hyper intelligent, to the point it almost felt insulting to dub them “animals.”
The Way of Water also hints at a much larger conflict, as we’ll also discuss below, which I’m hoping will also go in the same direction. Avatar freely expresses the discontentment we feel towards corrupted persons in power who have an active hand in destroying our ecosystem and social structures, and turns our hopelessness against it around by delivering the backlash we wish we could deliver in the real world. Under this umbrella, violence against nature becomes gratuitous propaganda against real life destruction of the planet, and only prepares us better for the defeat the destructive party is going to receive within the story. It also points a resounding, accusatory finger at whomever is responsible for this destruction, although it does caricaturize them a bit too much. The film shows the real world obstacles we face, to eliminate them the way we feel they should be eliminated. I’m seeing a bit of a revenge flick undertone underneath the floorboards of the main spiritual and ecological themes, and I’m loving it.
I also believe that it is convenient Avatar began production when it did. While ecological concerns have been around since before the 90’s, they are more and more prominent, and have become pressing today. This makes Avatar a warning in real time, making our current ecological concerns coincide perfectly with the message that the franchise wishes to transmit.
Avatar 2‘s biggest issue is that it breaks away from the story’s outline.
Avatar 1 gave the whole story a clear outline. A Nature vs Capitalism showdown. it sported a Human vs Na’avi, Earth vs Pandora showdown, that ultimately told us of the story of capitalism and corporate profits pitted against the ecosystem and nature’s well-being. The message itself was profound, and had clear arcs telling different chapters of that story, with a start, a middle, and an end: like any traditional story.
It began with the Finding Love in an Alien World trope:
And it continued with the “indigenous”, enemies of capitalism, not being entirely obliterated from day 1. That sudden, drastic shift from real world history gave Avatar the stepping stone it needed to finally transmit its message.
But Avatar 2 is between all that. It doesn’t continue in that established outline; it takes a break in the middle, where seemingly nothing happens—on that front at least. The problem is, this front is the main reason for the franchise’s existence: to speak its message on behalf of nature and the ecosystem.
Beyond this, Avatar: the Way of Water feels like a copycat of Avatar 1. The film follows a similar story model with very repetitive sequences and scenes. The basic chain of events is the same, follows the same structure as the first movie, and makes it feel like The Way of Water is stagnating and has very little narrative progress.
Chain of events:
Discovery of a culture -> two integration with said culture, one upfront, one underhanded, both done initially with the purpose to invade and destroy -> initial and moderately peaceful human involvement -> human involvement escalates into full offense -> the protagonists, now better integrated with the new culture, converge together to go up against the threat -> the conclusion sees the humans thwarted.
Humans settle with intentions to colonize -> meet resistance from the locals offended that their entire existence is being thrown upside down -> conflict escalation involves a form of mass destruction -> The natives suffer great personal losses, exemplifying the cruelty of humanity -> in the beautiful flip we love Avatar for, the natives retaliate against humans -> Finally, in a dissimilar turn of event compared to our own history, the natives win out against the colonizers.
Recycled sequences and scenes:
- Fields experts explaining what they do and why they do it + explaining reason of human presence on Pandora: Parker Selfridge/Dr. Ian Garvin, their search for minerals (Unobtanium/Tulkun brain enzyme) and how it’s funding the whole expedition and settling of the planet.
- Fields experts explaining the local wildlife, how sentient and intelligent it is: Grace speaking of the soul trees/Dr. Ian Garvin speaking of the tulkuns
- Ring leader military personnel being introduced: Quaritch/Frances Ardmore (it was ironic to look at Quaritch meeting Frances after he had been demoted)
- Military underlings following and taking orders from a hierarchical superior in technologically advanced fighting vehicles, which is in both movies a little nudge at how far human technology has advanced.
The story is a repeat of the first movie, in that Jake integrates into another culture than his own, confronts human colonizers again, orchestrates a fight against them although not as spectacularly again, defeats their personification in the form of Quaritch, all over again. The story is essentially the same.
Because of it, there was little narrative progress.
Avatar 1 left off on a human military defeat. I can’t even think that any human nation and their corporate investors would ever let that slide. When the spaceships turned up in the introduction of Avatar 2, I fully expected it to be a declaration of war. That it wasn’t surprised me to no end. It’s simply unrealistic that, after getting green-lighted for another Pandorian expedition following up such a hostile departure, human beings wouldn’t just declare war on the Na’avi.
The lack of open war seems like a delay of the inevitable conflict that now looms on the horizon, especially with narrative tools that didn’t hold the weight of this lack of realism.
In a star system becoming more and more familiar, there is nowhere to run. If humans are coming, with the needed technology to invade, while the Na’avi don’t have the technology to escape, then there is simply no point in trying to outrun the enemy. And so Jake’s departure from his tribe made no sense. It seems like needless avoidance, a plot point there only to delay the inevitable.
Was the human/Na’avi conflict delayed to introduce a new Pandorian culture? Or to give space for Jake’s children to grow? It seems to me that, if Avatar 2 had mixed the slice of life sequences with the human/Na’avi conflict, there could have been a lot more progress.
Like The Hobbit stretched across three movies when the source material was a singular book, Avatar 2 could have been condensed into about an hour of actual content.
All in all, The Way of Water doesn’t feel like Avatar 2, but like Avatar 2.0.
In Avatar 1, the conflict was simple; spearheaded by hot-headed Colonel Quaritch, we had a conflict that may have been financially motivated, but that on the field was clearly personal.
In Avatar 2, we have exactly the same thing going on: a conflict brought on by financial gain and survival, still brought to you by Quaritch who is still intensely personally motivated, and still the ringleader of his unfair trail of destruction. Do you see my point?
I grow fonder of the man by the day, but, Quaritch should have stayed dead.
In the previous movie, Quaritch had been stopped for good. His defeat felt final; the conflict had great pace, and mounted into a super satisfying conclusion. Quaritch was put to rest the way he should have. In the end, he was well and truly dead. So when I heard more movies were in the making, I wondered about who would take over the position of the villainous antagonist. I was very surprised to learn the exact same character would return, and wondered how that would ever happen. So when it did happen, I was rather disappointed, as this plot twist just didn’t make sense.
The Recom Program is too much of a Deus ex Machina when it was suddenly pulled out of nowhere to resuscitate Quaritch. That one plot point that visibly didn’t exist in the first film and was added later on in the sequel for convenience and to keep the action going. I also just can’t see it as a proper justification for Quaritch’s comeback, because I can’t imagine he’d genuinely ever want to copy himself into a Na’avi body, or would ever consider it an option. Like your typical white supremacist, he just didn’t strike me as the kind of person who would do that—and to think he suddenly spoke the language in any capacity, or would want to speak the language in any capacity? This sudden comeback destroyed the finality of Avatar 1‘s too much.
I’m only half annoyed because I’m really starting to like the guy. Aside from his lack of sensitivity, empathy, understanding, how brainwashed he is by his military life, and basically any quality that would make him redeemable as a human being, I think that his drive, diligence and sheer willpower could be harnessed to excellent use if serving the right cause. Not to mention, his actor is too much of a good person to make the character feel truly evil, and it imbues him with that little hint of humanity the franchise is trying so hard to dig out from underneath all the character’s stubbornness and hot-hotheadedness. In my opinion, Quaritch as a character hasn’t been placed in his actual right place in the world and hasn’t been put to good use yet, so I’m looking forward to the world of Pandora rectifying that and giving him the character development he deserves and the redemption arc he needs, since clearly that’s the direction the story is taking.
Teaching your kids not to follow their gut instinct / Traditionalism
When Jake embraced the Na’avi way of life, it was assumed he had embraced a more spiritual path that offered a wider and more complex understanding of existence. But at the same time, that new life also became associated with many obsolete values we consider traditional.
I find it unpleasant to see that, as part of the celebration of the nuclear family model, the movie also gave us some good representation of the traditional model of education that includes the values of:
- absolute obedience: where parental or elderly authority overrides your internal guiding compass and all the gut feelings it communicates to you.
- never listening to yourself if it means defying what your elders say
- blind faith in your elders; they are older, thus they are wiser than you
- fitting into the mold imposed upon you by your family, under threat of emotional pain when refusing said mold.
I was surprised to see Jake raise both his sons military style (but not his daughters, mind you). I was surprised to see him be constantly disappointed in his sons, in some warped attempt to get them to do better, which he dubbed a form of caring for their well-being. I was surprised to see him blame his elder son’s death on the younger son. That section of the story reminded me of The Lion King 2, where, instead of learning from his mistakes, and applying his lessons learned in a balanced way, Sinbad became a controlling, paranoid and invasive parent to his daughter Kiara, that only a lunatic would call being protective. Jake is not preparing his children for the cold, harsh outside world, because his behavior doesn’t emulate the reality of the outside world, it only emulates the reality of his own past. In the place where his children (particularly sons) are supposed to learn paternal love through teachings, they’re just broken down into soldiers constantly striving not to be massive disappointments to their impossible to please parent.
There is an ideological dissonance between the timeless ideas of connectivity the movie tried to reintroduce to the masses, as incarnated by Eywa and Pandora’s biology, as opposed to the archaic models of gender and age roles within the family unit. We see children reprimanded by elders whether it is justified, and let go of when scolding would have been relevant, in yelling matches that emotionally cut the children to the quick and were usually pointless. Whereas it seems to me that, the purpose of spirituality is precisely to identify what is right and when, and not to just throw one’s parental weight around while calling it authority when it’s just mild abuse of one’s position.
Which does remind me of Avatar 1, where Neytiri tells that Jake that now that he’s one of the people, he may now “choose a woman”, as she proceeded to enumerate a list of women from the clan based on superficial attributes, like they’re cattle to be browsed and selected. That scene was appalling, and scenes where Jake constantly pushes or berates his children are frustrating.
You’d expect spiritual advancement to actually bring in better moral standards as well.
Blessed by Eywa
Kiri carries lingering trauma from her mother’s failed consciousness transfer. Kiri’s description of Eywa’s constant, sometimes urgent presence is what Grace and Eywa both must have felt when Grace slipped out of consciousness: “I can feel her Jake, she is real!” / “Like a word about to be spoken.” Grace was fervently interested in Pandora’s ecosystem and understood it from both an empirical and personal perspective, making it so that she could uniquely appreciate all of it. That love transmitted to her daughter, who absorbed it to the point of developing a unique connection to Eywa and the planet’s ecosystem. Kiri is perpetually stuck in the moment her mother was about to switch from her human body to her Avatar, that moment standing above the precipice, which gives her heightened sensory abilities and a unique ability to interact with Pandora on a more profound level.
To tie this up with the subject of the spiritual concepts introduced in the story, Kiri represents a pretty interesting clash.
In Avatar 1, we see Neytiri’s developed connection to Eywa; she stops Jake from exercising his head-in-the-sand human habits when seeds of Eywa’s trees enveloped him. Then when she tells Jake that Eywa is real. Already in the first film, that was already considered incredibly “voodoo” and “witchy-woo” by our modern standards. But the film introduced those concepts as legit, as a global universal rule that works and isn’t just about illusions.
We step into Avatar 2 with that basis. However, with Kiri, that direct, undiluted and indisputable connection to Eywa is put into question when some of our modern beliefs seep into the story. We see Kiri have one of her moments, only for Spider to interrupt her as if she’s doing something bizarre, and for her to put a damp on what she does and claim “I was doing that thing again, wasn’t I.”
It seems odd to present to us a story where spirituality is a legit thing, and not just a bogus practice, only to have the character with the most spiritual abilities be discredited as odd or crazy within her own family, who has been shown to adhere to these concepts as if they are a normal part of life.
What’s certain, is that if I had been in Neytiri’s situation when trapped under the whaler’s ship, I too would have followed that girl to the ends of the earth like she was the messiah.
What did you think of Avatar: The Way of Water? Welcoming any and all opinions in the comments.
“Is this worth watching?“
We’ll answer that question.
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