Avatar: The Way of Water review – I needed a dark room and an ice pack on my forehead after that

The liquid images all look as if they have spent too much time dissolving industrial strength toilet block

Avatar: The Way of Water
    
Director: James Cameron
Cert: 12A
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Britain Dalton, Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement
Running Time: 3 hrs 12 mins

“The Way of Water has no beginning and no end,” someone says about five or six hours into James Cameron’s bioluminescent mash-up of Free Willy and Rio Grande. That’s a little unfair. The thing does eventually stop. I’m sitting in a dark room with an ice pack on my forehead and it’s no longer with me. Mind you, Jim has promised another three episodes. So, perhaps that warning is on the money.

Over the last decade wiseacres have enjoyed arguing that, despite registering as the highest grossing movie of all time, the original Avatar has left no cultural footprint whatsoever. A successful re-release earlier this year proved, however, that the film is still remembered with affection. No wonder the other studios have more or less run screaming from The Way of Water.

Sadly, what we get in Part II is little more than a holding pattern for an incoming convoy of epics. It’s extremely long. It presents us with crisis and tragedy. But there is barely enough hard plot for an hour of telly.

We begin a decade or so after the events of the first film. Jake Sully, in the form of digitally altered Sam Worthington, has settled down in the forest with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and their putatively adorable children.


The “Sky People” (that’s us) return in search of our hero and the family is forced to flee to the arms of a nearby community of aqua-people. One of the kids meets up with a friendly whale-thing and becomes involved in efforts to defend that species from rapacious humans in search of ...

And on and on towards a perfectly satisfactory conflagration on the high seas that appears to nod consciously towards James Cameron’s second (and the world’s third) highest grossing movie. If you wondered what happened to the consciousness-swapping that gave the franchise its title, then you will continue to wonder in vain.

Let’s not fool ourselves. The current project is selling itself on the technology, not on the story. What Cameron has accomplished here would frustrate the imaginings of cinema professionals when Avatar was released. To what end though? The 3-D is more impressive, but the novelty still wears off after the first 20 minutes or so. The increased frame rate that everyone hated in The Hobbit films is back to confirm how one might spend an enormous amount of money to make something look intermittently cheap (the architects of Las Vegas have nothing on 48 fps). Cover your eyes if you long ago tired of work that prides itself on “world building”. Flee the building if you longer ago wearied of worlds built to the aesthetics of Roger Dean covers for 1970s Yes albums.

And the exhausting blueness of it all? There were too many jokes about Smurfs 10 years ago. This time round, only the lyrics of the lamented Eiffel 65 will do the facetious business. “Yo, listen up here’s a story about a little guy that lives in a blue world,” the Italians sang in the immortal Blue (Da Ba Dee). The liquid images all look as if they have spent too much time dissolving industrial strength toilet block. The endless encounters with luminescent weeds and flaring variations on Yggdrasil do something to break that copper-sulphate monotony, but they can do little to help us distinguish between the blandly similar facial features (though that may be same-species bias on my part). It’s hard to care when somebody dies if you can’t tell one character from another. On the way out I remembered that Kate Winslet is in the cast, but dashed if I could tell you who she plays.

No doubt millions will be have no difficulty ferreting out the emotional core and propelling The Way of Water to box office success. But the indulgence of it all causes one to yearn for the raw, propulsive action of Cameron’s first two Terminator movies. Heck, his Piranha II: The Spawning had more fun in equally dangerous waters. How did we end up here?

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist