You know that brief, horrible moment when you're visiting an older relative's house, and you sit down in front of the TV and realize that they have yet to disable motion smoothing? Even if you've never heard the term before, there's a good chance you're familiar with the look of it--suddenly your favorite show looks like it's a soap opera or shot as a home movie and all the actors look just this side of uncanny--not enough to look totally inhuman but enough that it's distracting. Avatar: The Way Of Water dares to ask the question that was on absolutely no one's mind: What if you got stuck in that uncanny motion smoothing nightmare zone for over three hours and could not turn it off? In fact, what if all those too-smooth, almost-but-not-quite unreal looking actors were rendered in 3D and a couple dozen feet tall?
To be fair, not all of Avatar 2 looks like it's buffered with artificial frames for that motion smoothing effect. The uncanniness sticks solely to the human cast members, who don't make up the bulk of the movie by any shot--but when they do come around (and they're around for a large chunk of the too-long first act), it's hard to be anything but distracted by just how odd it all looks. And, for a movie franchise that owes the whole of its notoriety to the fact that it lives on the absolute bleeding edge of technology, this is a rough way to kick things off.
And things, regrettably, stay pretty rough. Even once the human actors' uncanniness dissipates (it never fully goes away, but it does become less pronounced the fewer live-action scenes there are) the bizarrely uneven visual effects start to become more and more prominent. Make no mistake: huge chunks of this movie are absolutely gorgeous. Just about all of the water and underwater effects are rendered immaculately, and there is some genuinely incredible animation at work to capture little micro expressions in the acting which make the Na'vi characters look and feel very real. These moments are just chopped up between other considerably longer and more obtrusive ones that look and feel like they've been torn out of the cut-scene of a PS5 game. Sure, PS5 cut-scenes do look very good, but they really don't hold up to the sort of scrutiny they need to withstand when they're both in IMAX and in 3D.
All told, there's probably a good hour or so of Way of Water that looks and feels like something you'd want to write home about, which wouldn't be a bad ratio if the movie didn't clock in at a whopping three hours and ten minutes long.
To make matters worse, that hour of truly stunning visuals is mostly owed to a series of long, scenery-chewing montages that carry very little weight in terms of the story or the plot. The movie is at its best when it's pretending to be the prettiest screensaver you've ever seen in your life, and then crumples spectacularly the second it tries to make any of its lovingly rendered blue aliens tell anything that resembles a compelling story.
The bulk of Avatar 2's plot is both figuratively and literally recycled from Avatar 1. The "Sky People" (humans) are coming back to Pandora. The Evil Marine villain (Stephen Lang) from the first movie is back, too, along with his cliche-spouting platoon of Evil Marine chronies. There's a jumble of off-handed plot devices that made them return. t one point, it's because the Earth is dying and humans want to repopulate on Pandora, and at another, it's because there's been a new Unobtanium-flavored natural resource that humans want to mine (we won't spoil what it actually is, but trust us: it's a doozy). However, neither of these things actually matter. Instead, the story tries desperately to make us care about Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his family, his real Na'vi wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and his 5 half-Na'vi, half-Avatar kids, including one played by Sigourney Weaver, which may be the most awkward casting of all time.
The problem is that Jake Sully is about as engaging and likable as a piece of driftwood, and he and Saldana's chemistry as the central couple is about as charming as a carton of spoiled milk. Saldana is mostly relegated to being the "savage" mother, othered by her inability to understand the "Sky People" the way Jake does, getting very little dialogue outside of wailing and growling and hissing, disagreeing with just about all of Jake's choices. Meanwhile, the kids are all written to be overwhelmingly (and honestly, obnoxiously) human. The only Na'vi trait they have at all is their penchant to bear their teeth when they're cornered--otherwise, they spend their time calling each other "bro" and generally acting like a pack of rowdy high schoolers you'd want to avoid at the mall. This really succeeds in highlighting the fact that Avatar 2 stalwartly refuses to engage with its dated and frankly bizarre central conceit where the human oppressor swoops in to save the oppressed indigenous population as a chosen hero, while somehow being better than them at all of their own customs and traditions. Jake has no real character arc to speak of--he treats his kids like a drill sergeant, bosses around the native Na'vi like he owns the place, and makes unilateral decisions that Neytiri hates but comes to eventually realize were right all along.
The kids, too, are all about as interchangeable and flat as the rest of the movie's characters. They exist almost exclusively to become captives or to get into various perilous situations that prompt Jake to act--I'm not even sure I could tell you any of their names confidently, despite having spent the last three-plus hours with them looming over me in the theater. A handful of times Weaver's teenage character gets hints at her own subplot that could set her apart, but it never comes to fruition and the movie leaves every question about her unanswered and unsatisfying.
Way of Water really gives the impression that what James Cameron is actually interested in with Pandora is the sort of thing you'd find in a National Geographic documentary rather than a blockbuster movie. There's infinitely more care and detail placed into moments of exposition about things like the ins-and-outs of a whaling operation on Pandora than any plot-critical character moment. The creature and tech designs show clear thought and care--even the differences between the forest Na'vi and the reef Na'vi are meticulously crafted and believable. It's just a shame that there's no real story to tell with them, and no real reason to feel invested in them beyond superficial beauty.