Director and technical wizard James Cameron is sending audiences back to Pandora with his new film, Avatar: The Way of Water (2022). The new high framerate makes Avatar’s already gorgeous settings and character designs look good, however, it distinctively makes the film feel like a video game cut scene. If you are only going in for outstanding visuals and some exhilarating action set pieces, then your itch shall be satisfactorily scratched… but if you are seeking complex characters and a story that feels original and important, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
The first film gets criticized for being too similar to Pocahontas (1995) or FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), and there is definitely some validity to those claims. The sequel seems to pull from a variety of sources such as Moana, the Fast and the Furious franchise, Moby Dick, and Cameron’s own Titanic. Ten years after the events of the first film, we join the ever-growing Sully family as they fight to keep each other and their people alive. The return of the sky people and some old enemies heightens their resolve to protect each other.
The action in this film really did work for me. There is a sequence where a character is being chased by a creature underwater. He is avoiding it in every way that he can. It is incredibly tense, but it distinctively feels like a quick time event from video games like God of War. I kept expecting a button prompt to pop onto the screen for us to save our characters. This video game vibe isn’t just in the action though, as early exposition is dumped via a pre-recorded video that feels like a cutscene. All of this is only intensified by the high frame rate, which makes it look much more like a computer screen than a movie. None of this is inherently bad, but it does make Avatar feel like it should have been an interactive game more so than a passive watch.
Cameron has not been quiet in the media in the weeks leading up to the release of the film and is quick to say things that’ll surely gather clicks. Much of the talk has been about the film’s runtime, which is just over three hours. While I’ve complained about long movies in the past, I’m all for a film being the amount of time it needs to successfully do what it has set out. The Way of Water does feel like it contains moments that could be cut out while still effectively telling the simple story. I wouldn’t say it was ever boring, but there are a lot of scenes that felt like audiences could have simply inferred information from them as opposed to sitting through long-winded exposition to get us to the current film.
Avatar: The Way of Water didn’t really disappoint. My expectations weren’t too high going in, and this film was certainly more entertaining than it wasn’t. There are some wild choices about casting and story that a lesser director probably wouldn’t have been allowed to make. Cameron seems to get to do exactly what he wants at this point in his career. Every ounce of this feels like his movie – and, for some, that’ll make it a masterpiece. For me, it’s simply a Decent Watch.