At face value, the world of Pandora must be too big to fail. Director James Cameron has crafted a real blockbuster setting, the results of astounding visual effects that render 10-foot cerulean aliens as humanistic as our wrinkles and pores within the mirror. The most recent entry on this cinematic universe, Avatar: The Way of Water, is as visually splendid as its 2009 predecessor, which introduced viewers to a spot so dream-like that some fell into an actual depression when forced to wrest their eyes away. And Cameron’s sequel re-captures this awe, partially, by carving out latest territory, peeling the solid and cameras away from the forested peaks and neon-lit grasses of his fictional moon to its coasts and ocean floors, where latest pastel-colored species thrive in harmonic phosphorescence. Mind-boggling technology and a sped-up frame rate render underwater acting as engaging as conversation with the audience member seated beside you. The Way of Water is gorgeous, in a way few CGI-heavy movies have been in quite a while. However the artistry of Pandora alone cannot a series sustain.
The franchise-ification of Avatar has long been Cameron’s goal, even when it takes most of his late profession to finish. He has multiple sequels beyond The Way of Water planned, including one currently in production and scheduled for release in 2024. But the issue with this grand plan will not be its ambition, nor its cost. (With Twenty first-century technology and Cameron’s obsessive attention to detail, I actually have few doubts the director can realize his goal, budget be damned.) The problem is that, as The Way of Water lets its lengthy credits roll, the story already feels cramped—if not outright exhausted.
The long-awaited sequel picks back up a couple of years after the primary Avatar, with former U.S. Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) now comfortably reborn into the body of certainly one of Pandora’s indigenous humanoids, generally known as the Na’vi. (He’s even got the dreadlocks to prove it.) He and his mate, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), at the moment are the proud parents of an unorthodox brood of three “half-breed” Na’vi children and an adopted daughter, whose confusing origins are sure to be fleshed out further in future installments. Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the eldest son, is his father’s carbon copy; Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is the misunderstood middle child with something to prove; Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) is a misfit with an unusual connection to the Na’vi deity, Eywa; and precious eight-year-old Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) would similar to her life to not be in peril, if that’s not an excessive amount of to ask. Together, they’re an enthralling family unit growing up amongst the twisted vines of Pandora, until Worthington’s aggressively on-the-nose voiceover reminds us that happiness can all the time end.
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That’s since the first film’s primary villain, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is back with a vengeance. Killed by Jake in the unique Avatar for attempting to destroy the Na’vi home in pursuit of the mineral unobtanium, Quaritch returns in The Way of Water as a Recombinant, a Na’vi avatar “embedded” with the personality and memories of Quaritch’s now-deceased human body. These memories were apparently extracted from Quaritch preemptively, within the event of his death, and sealed right into a Na’vi body that now operates with Quaritch’s voice and face. This Na’vi version of Quaritch by some means doesn’t remember extracting these memories, nor does he supposedly have any affinity for his son, a toddler named Spider (Jack Champion), who was forced to remain on Pandora after the humans initially abandoned the moon. (Babies can’t survive cryostasis.)
Despite not sharing his human body’s affections, this Quaritch does share the previous’s vendettas, and he’s built up a mighty grudge against Jake for betraying his fellow soldiers and offing his boss. Top that off with the incontrovertible fact that humans have returned to Pandora—this time with the goal of colonizing the moon, not only scooping up its unobtanium—and the chess board is once more reset.
Therein lies the rot on the core of the film. The Way of Water, whether intentionally or not, feels more often like a repeat of its predecessor than a natural continuation. The 2 movies feature the identical heroes, the identical exact villains. Their storylines follow the identical beats: The protagonist(s) discover a latest family in a previously foreign place. They forge a bond with the land and its people, abandoning their biases and embracing the world’s inherent price. Those persons are then threatened by humans, who recklessly pursue capital and glory that will not be theirs to take. Losses ensue. Ultimately, the fight is won, the colonizers retreat, the family is reunited, and the sanctity of the land stays intact.
This story will not be unique to Avatar, nor to The Way of Water, as dozens of fans and critics have already identified. (Hats off to Ferngully.) Nor is that this story one that can’t or shouldn’t be repeated. The issue is that The Way of Water’s lack of narrative innovation is so obvious as to be distracting. Examples abound: Jake, a former soldier, runs his household like Captain Von Trapp. The youngsters, while a refreshing addition to the solid, are given painful dialogue that dumps them with Disney-friendly clichés. The brand new clan of Na’vi who inhabit the coasts—the Metkayina, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet)—are pivotal to the film’s thematic backbone, but are, in fact, sidelined in the ultimate motion sequence in favor of Jake’s personal squabble with Quaritch. The villainous humans have foregone unobtanium in favor of harvesting the Metkayina’s beloved whale-like tulkun for his or her brain juice, which “stops aging. Like, just stops it.” (And one vial alone is price $80 million!) Even the hardened Quaritch has his all-but-promised “Luke, I’m your father” moment when forced to confront the potential death of Spider.
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These half-baked rehashings of old archetypes might be forgiven if The Way of Water’s environmentalism felt as if it spoke to a latest era or introduced latest nuance. Avatar achieved this by the skin of its teeth, largely because of its timing: It made for a natural commentary for the war in Iraq. Today, The Way of Water’s message is not any less heartfelt and sincere—neither is it less vital, as climate change ravages the true Earth’s oceans. However the film’s echoed beats feel too familiar to penetrate the audience’s deeper conscience. The Way of Water might expand the Avatar’s terrain, nevertheless it doesn’t deepen its guts. Pandora’s inherent contradictions—a completely CGI world meant to encourage us to like our real one higher—are never addressed with enough conviction, irrespective of how lovely they’re to ogle at.
Still, I actually have enough faith in Cameron and his solid to consider there’s reason to hope. But that’s provided that the sequels give Cameron the space to interrupt with narrative, not only visual, convention.
What additional Avatar sequels are planned?
Cameron has announced plans for at the least three additional Avatar sequels beyond The Way of Water. Their names are tentatively Avatar: The Seed Bearer, Avatar: The Tulkun Rider, and Avatar: The Quest for Eywa.
When do the remaining of the Avatar sequels come out?
We all know that “about 80, 90 percent” of Avatar 3 has been shot, in addition to “a couple of scenes” from Avatar 4, in accordance with Worthington. As of now, release dates for these movies are as follows: The Seed Bearer on December 20, 2024; The Tulkun Rider on December 18, 2026; and The Quest for Eywa on December 22, 2028. But do not forget that The Way of Water took greater than a decade to succeed in the large screen, so there’s all the time the potential for further delays and scrapped schedules.
How might these stories improve the Avatar universe?
It’s already clear that Cameron desires to make Jake and Neytiri’s children the central figures of the remaining Avatar franchise. My hope is that The Way of Water was a form of launching pad: a missed opportunity for higher characterization, sure, but not the usual by which the long run movies will follow. As the youngsters grow, they are going to likely overtake Jake and Neytiri because the lead protagonists, which could help the Avatar franchise shed its controversial “white savior” roots and dig deeper into more interesting questions, ones that feel less beholden to drained tales: What happens when humans will not be the one threat? What if threats come from inside? How do creatures connected via a neurological-meets-ecological network reconcile their differences? Is there a spot for humans inside that framework? What’s the purpose of Pandora, when it will not be getting used as a measuring stick against Earth? What if, as a substitute, it’s a truer, more honest mirror? Might it finally feel just like the expansive world Cameron so desperately wants it to be?
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion.