It’s nice and scenic, of course, and all of Cameron’s technological obsessions are on show. There is cutting-edge CGI and performance capture, digital 3D, hyper-real clarity and so on, but these gimmicks tend to take you out of the film rather than drawing you in: as impressive as the visuals are, the action never feels real because it’s always halfway between a cartoon and a live-action film. Nor does The Way of Water look significantly better than Avatar, which was genuinely startling back in 2009. And in terms of the design, it’s nowhere near as magical as those Roger Dean-inspired landscapes were when we first landed on Pandora. One issue is the shift from the rainforest to the sea. In reality, the Earth’s oceans are already so full of such jaw-droppingly weird creatures that the ones dreamt up by Cameron and his team aren’t much weirder. It’s fun, in a Little Mermaid sort of way, to see a school of tattooed, four-eyed whales stage an underwater ballet; but it’s not as awesome as actual footage of an actual whale.
Such spectacular interludes also contribute to the film’s numbing, leisurely slowness. The Way of Water clocks in at 192 minutes, which is half an hour more than the first Avatar, but after the opening scenes, when the humans land on Pandora, the story is barely moved on at all. In three hours, the plot amounts to the Sullys going off on their family vacation, Quaritch finding them, and everyone having a climactic, yet small-scale sea battle. And that’s it. There are no complicated military strategies or challenging conversations or nuanced characters: the Terminator had more personality than anyone in The Way of Water. And any non-whale-related storylines are left unfinished. One of Jake’s children, for instance, is somehow the biological daughter of Grace (Sigourney Weaver), who was killed in the last film. But who is her biological father? And how can she communicate telepathically with the wildlife of Pandora? You won’t find out here, because The Way of Water is now officially part of a Lord of the Rings-style continuing franchise, so it doesn’t bother to stand up on its own.
Yes, we may have had a 13-year wait for the first Avatar sequel, but apparently there are three more due to come out in 2024, 2026 and 2028. If The Way of Water is anything to go by, that’s not a prospect to relish, but let’s hope Cameron uses those sequels to address one key point, at least. How is it that 22nd-Century humans can travel all the way to Alpha Centauri in spaceships packed with robots and clones – but they still haven’t developed glass which is strong enough to withstand a wooden arrow?
Avatar: The Way of Water is released on 16 December
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