Avatar: The Way of Water (Photos: 20th Century)

By Matt Brunson

★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY James Cameron
STARS Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana

Seriously, this is what is now the third highest grossing film in world history?* Honestly, this is what Academy members deemed worthy enough for a Best Picture Oscar nomination? I’ll say this for James Cameron: At this point, the media- and audience-savvy auteur can slap his name on an old print of Plan 9 From Outer Space, re-release it to theaters under the name James Cameron’s Avatar 3: The Way of Outer Space, and incessantly hype it until it crosses the billion-dollar mark at the global box office and racks up a significant number of awards.

Cameron’s 2009 mega-blockbuster Avatar (aka Dances With Smurfs) was similarly a triumph of style over substance, but its efficiently streamlined screenplay and the filmmaker’s own technical prowess ensured that it remained reasonably entertaining over its 162-minute running time (see the review here). Avatar: The Way of Water, on the other hand, appears as endless as the ocean in which it’s largely set, with Cameron’s “Look, Ma! I’m CGIing!” routine resulting in a bloated 192-minute run time.

Zoe Saldana  and Sam Worthington are back, again playing Na’vi warrior Neytiri and former Marine Jake Sully (now gone full native). Also returning are Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver, and if you’re wondering how since their characters died in the first film — well, these are just the early signs of the creative bankruptcy sprinting throughout. Lang is now voicing the Na’vi version of his brutal Quaritch, while Weaver is now voicing her Dr. Grace Augustine‘s teenage Na’vi daughter Kiri (meaning we have a teen who occasionally sounds like a 73-year-old woman).

Stephen Lang in Avatar: The Way of Water

The story finds Jake, Neytiri, and their kids hiding out from Quaritch in a village that’s next to the water rather than buried in the forest — it’s a potentially breezy plot that’s mercilessly elongated by long stretches of FX sightseeing, meaning Cameron was handed unprecedented millions by the studio and therefore decided he might as well fetishize the FX. Thus, we get documentary-worthy stretches of nothing but the visual wonders of Pandora — those who carped about the length of time spent on the camera ogling the Enterprise at the beginning of Star Trek: The Motion Picture will probably have a stroke watching this one.

There’s also too much of a focus on the various teenage blueys (including one who bonds Yearling-like with an outcast whale), and their personalities are even more white-bread than those of the kids played by Frankie and Annette and pals in all those Beach Party flicks.

The effects are impressive, immersive, and Oscar-winning (although my vote would have gone to Top Gun: Maverick, which manages to offer even cooler sights in a realistic rather than fantastical setting), and for many people, that’s enough to make this a must-see multiple times. But the action beats are repetitive, the familial conflicts tiresome, and the late-breaking “save the whales” subplot ineffectual. Given the movie’s aquatic setting, its surface approach most brings to mind those Edie Brickell & New Bohemians lyrics, “Choke me in the shallow water, Before I get too deep.”

* Globally, A:TWoW is third; stateside, it’s #7.

(Avatar: The Way of Water is now available on Digital; no date has been set yet for its 4K/Blu-ray/DVD releases. Bonus features available with the Digital purchase include over a dozen making-of featurettes, including pieces on the visual effects, the casting, the stuntwork, and the new characters and creatures; the music video for The Weeknd’s “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength”); and theatrical trailers.)

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