As I was winding my way out of Indianapolis's AMC Castleton 14 after the press screening for James Cameron's long rumored and finally realized return to Pandora with Avatar: The Way of Water, I approached the studio's marketing rep who was eagerly standing by awaiting the obligatory feedback that was most certainly expected to be enthusiastic superlatives for our dear cinematic St. James.
Instead, I spewed forth "I hated every minute of it." If I'm not mistaken, I may have included an F-bomb in there.
It wasn't one of my most profoundly professional moments, however, I had just spent 192 overwhelming minutes experiencing a purposeless cinematic onslaught of sound and imagery that had left me so exhausted and so agitated that in that moment there simply wasn't anything else to be said.
Truthfully, I hoped that time would calm down my nerves and heal my very strong opinion that despite Cameron's reputation for being unable to do anything wrong he had, in fact, done something painfully, egregiously wrong.
I sincerely hoped that by the time I sat down to write this review that I would be able to look back and think to myself "Well, maybe it wasn't so bad." I hoped that I'd reflect on the experience and chuckle and think to myself "Oh that silly little James." I knew, of course, that The Way of Water wouldn't suddenly become one of my favorite films of the year. However, I kept up hope that once my frazzled nerves calmed down that I would recognize The Way of Water for its impressive visuals and technical prowess if nothing else.
What can I say? I hated every minute of Avatar: The Way of Water.
Having already dumped an abbreviated version of my opinion on the popular website Letterboxd, I've already been greeted with my share of haters who seem completely and utterly bewildered by not just a negative review but a rather scathing review.
"You sound joyless," one has proclaimed. "Nope, I'm quite happy. I'm just not masochistic."
"You sound like you entered the movie theater with your review already written." "Nope, actually I fully expected to be at least impressed by the film's technical achievements." Now then, admittedly, I'm not the biggest James Cameron fan and this is something I openly confess. However, I've never actually hated a James Cameron film but instead tend to think most of them are simply overrated. I've never, not a single time, entered a movie theater with a review written or an opinion formed. In fact, I want every film and filmmaker to succeed. Even with The Way of Water, I have no problem admitting that there will be those who love the film and I want every human being to have a positive moviegoing experience.
I simply didn't.
From beginning to end, I hated Avatar: The Way of Water.
I hated the sense of overwhelm that I experienced in the opening scene that never went away. It wasn't immersion. It was assault. I felt like I was being flogged by CGI seawaves and Blue Man Group rejects.
I hated the one-hour story stretched out to 3+ hours for no reason other than director James Cameron's insatiable need to play with his toys and try to pretend that somehow this all actually serves the story and its characters.
I hated Cameron's experimental approach to weaving a tapestry of 24fps, frames per second, mixed with 48fps, an approach that made The Way of Water play out like some high-tech neverending video game.
Did I really hate everything? Oh, of course not. The truth is that James Cameron is a gifted filmmaker. He's just a gifted filmmaker who has a tendency to get in his own way over and over and over again.
The Way of Water is set years after Avatar. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his now wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are leaders of the Na'vi tribe. When we meet them once again, they are happy amidst the forests of Pandora where they are raising their kids and living in peace.
There's never a moment's doubt that this peace isn't going to last.
The "sky people," those darn colonizers, will return led by none other than Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch's return is predictably manifested, though I suppose some will be awed by the creativity. Witch Quaritch's return threatening the Na'vi, Sully and his family will vacate in an effort to find peace among Pandora's sea dwellers, the Metkayina, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant wife, Ronal (Kate Winslet). Of course, there will be rivalries as these forest dwellers try to adapt to the ways of the sea.
The original Avatar remains the all-time box-office champ with just over $2.9 billion worldwide in receipts. Cameron himself has estimated that The Way of Water will need to become the third or fourth biggest film of all-time simply to break-even. Given the film's ability to snag an always elusive release in China, it's impossible to rule out that it will succeed in this seemingly impossible goal.
If it gets folks back in the movie theater? I'm all for it.
Cameron is, as we all know, eyeing four sequels and fully intends to amplify the tech with each subsequent film. I've long felt that Avatar's success wasn't so much about it being an actual great film but simply being the right film at the right time. Avatar capitalized on vast improvements in moviemaking technology like no film ever had and the entire world responded to Cameron's brave new cinematic world. I know very few people who consider Avatar a great film, but I know quite a few people who consider Avatar an awesome film.
There's a difference.
The technology available to Cameron now isn't that far removed from that available for Avatar 13 years ago. Cameron's toying with HFR (High Frame Rate) is inventive, perhaps, but the only thing really inventive about it is that Cameron utilizes both 24fps and 48fps in the same film and I'd dare say he doesn't exactly weave them together seamlessly. The visuals are, at least at times, quite impressive but I'd dare say that The Way of Water is more jarring than immersive and it's difficult to imagine that this return to 3-D (the film is being released in both 2-D and 3-D versions) will spark anything resembling another 3-D renaissance.
Cameron has never been a masterful storyteller, though it's worth noting that he shares the story credit here with four other writers. The frustrating part of this story is that there's clearly an effort to tell a meaningful one but it all gets bogged down by too many paper-thin characters and sledgehammer moralizing that never convinces. You'll know exactly where The Way of Water is going early on, not always a bad thing, but with a 3+ hour running time you'll also be acutely aware of just how much this story is stretched thin. If there's one wise move here, it's having three major narrative threads and taking some pressure off of Sam Worthington to carry the film. After Avatar's success, Hollywood tried desperately to turn Worthington into a mega-star.
It wasn't meant to be and it's still not meant to be.
The only thing that really saves Worthingtons performance is that no one else around him fares much better.
If anything, Brian Dalton's storyline as Lo'ak is the film's most engaging and Dalton himself is certainly up to the portrayal.
We needed more Lo'ak.
Jack Champion's turn as the mixed breed Spider adds some of the film's emotional resonance, though I chuckled more than once at this character who's sort of a cross between Tarzan Jr. and Avril Lavigne's skater boi.
Is it weird that my favorite character is actually a surprisingly poignant creature known as a Tulkun? This Tulkun gave the film a layer of emotional depth it desperately needed.
It has been a few days since I left the movie theater loudly proclaiming "I hated every minute of it." Truthfully? I still hated every minute of it, but what I really hate is that there are moments in Avatar: The Way of Water when you get a glimpse at the special film it could have become. While Avatar: The Way of Water isn't one of 2022's worst films, it's absolutely one of 2022's greatest disappoinments.
In the end, Avatar: The Way of Water is too experimental for its own good. It's a groundbreaking and ambitious film that drowns in Cameron's ego and its sub-par storytelling and technology for technology's sake rather than technology for the sake of the film. Instead of reminding us that Cameron is an otherworldly filmmaker, Avatar: The Way of Water reminds us that James Cameron is very, very human and, let's face it, in a James Cameron film being human is about the worst thing you can be.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic