James Cameron is a master of the Blockbuster. When you pay an overpriced ticket at the theaters, and even more for whatever snacks you bring with, Cameron is a Director that makes your money worth it by delivering grandiose spectacle. Whatever one may personally feel regarding the original Avatar movie, the undeniable truth is that it's utterly breathtaking for a completely computer-generated environment. The world of Pandora is a visually stunning setting that conveys the magnificent triumph of nature and the beauty of movie-making technology.. however, that's usually not the criticism which you find most people associating with the Avatar movies. Rather, it's the pandering message regarding post-colonialism and the arguable cultural appropriation of Native American culture in the Na'vi alien species that is often brought into question. Avatar's sequel, Way of Water, doesn't detract from these worrying claims at all, instead insisting on following Cameron's strident vision of man versus nature. So, does this make for a good movie or an excruciating one? Let's find out!
The movie's story is pretty basic and fit for a blockbuster story. After fighting off the invasive human 'RDA' Corporation from Pandora, Jake Sully settles down in his new Na'vi body and becomes integrated into the alien culture and society, starting a family and caring for them and his people. Of course, the RDA return more determined than ever and begin a full-scale war against the Na'vi, who in turn begin an insurgency to free their homeland from the invaders. After crisis strikes, Jake is forced to relocate into the Water Islands, where a new strain of Na'vi await and tentatively accept his family as new visitors. All the while, they're being hunted by an echo from the past; Jake's old nemesis Quaritch who has been reborn into a Na'vi body and is attempting to hunt him and his family down to permanently destroy the Insurgency.
Jake Sully, Neytiri, and Quaritch are some of the few returning characters, their stories from the first film having just begun. Funny enough, Sigourney Weaver, who played the scientist Grace (and Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise to name only her greatest role) plays Kiri, an adolescent Na'vi teenager in this film whose desire to connect with the planetary hivemind Eywa is a crucial focal point in the story. There's also Sully's family who mostly fit into the archetypes of familial conflict, such as the perfect domineering older brother and the younger one desperate to prove himself, alongside the adorable little girl who the rest of her kin attempt to protect throughout. There's also Spider, Quaritch's son who became raised by the Na'vi after his father had died (initially) and the RDA were exiled offworld. His arc is one where he's torn between finding his father once more and attempting to reconcile with him (or an Avatar-esque imitation nonetheless), and his loyalty to the people that raised and looked after him his whole life.
Once again, the visuals are spectacular. Cameron outdoes himself by presenting the breadth of Pandora's oceans and islands. Every creature seems so alien, so strange, yet so real in the scope of this amazing world. As a viewer, you feel immersed by the sheer volume of what's being presented on the screen. Furthermore, the 'Water Tribe' culture that is introduced with these new visuals are really interesting as well. It's obvious Cameron drew great inspiration from Samoan and Hawaiian culture and society from this, as everything from the Water Na'vi's mannerisms to weapons to symbols to their relationship with wildlife takes immense real-world influence. Many have complained about these additions as being appropriations or 'thieving' of these cultures for Cameron's cinematic vision, equivocating Jake Sully (formerly a Human US Marine) as an unnecessary 'savior' that comes in and rescues these cultures from the invasive forces. Frankly, while I could see a sort of preachiness emanating from the film, it didn't seem to emerge from how the cultures were represented. If nothing else, Cameron takes great care to respect the Na'vi tribes and how they're portrayed, with great attentions to detail on their real-life equivalents. You feel the Water Na'vi's connection to their whales, their love for the sea and their athletic capability to tame the animals that lurk inside their waves, you are made to become empathetic for their losses when the RDA begin their ruthless campaign of hunting and conquest. By no means is any patronization occurring. Though speaking of preachiness...
I really can't find myself agreeing with the overarching themes of the Avatar franchise. Respecting nature and preserving environmental beauty in our world is correct and necessary, and we cannot as a species exist without the necessary functions in our ecosystem to continue supporting us, but the Avatar movies seem to take it a step above by constantly portraying human contact with the native population as hostile and brutal. Obviously, these interactions are drawn from real-world examples of colonialist brutality, and aren't unrealistic in any way, but in these movies, Earth has become enmeshed in peril because of climate change, like it's becoming so in our reality unfortunately. Humans in Avatar are slowly becoming endangered due to their homeworld's slow death, meaning it's necessary for them to relocate onto Pandora. Furthermore, I find it difficult to believe the RDA, not a country but a corporation that is primarily based off acquiring profits for their shareholders, would continually engage in a heavily costly war of attrition against the embedded locals rather than attempting now some sort of peaceful communion with them. Many attempts were tried in the first movie, but the Na'vi only continued resisting and ultimately forced the RDA and Quaritch's hand. It really seems like Cameron tried to make the RDA even more cruel and ruthless in this sequel, having Quaritch lead exterminations of particular Water Tribe villagers and RDA fishing expeditions brutally murder nonviolent Space Whales (for their immortality-granting oil, may I humbly add). Plus, I'm human in the end, so... I'd probably side with the RDA in this conflict. Sully really did betray his own people if you think about it. Perhaps for genuine deep-seated reasons, but it was still a betrayal. He and those that defected to the Na'vi are treated kindly by the locals and get to enjoy a future on Pandora whilst the rest of mankind, a majority of whom are entirely blameless for the Earth's downtrodden situation, are made to simply die off? That doesn't sit well with me.
Ultimately, Avatar Two is a good movie if one isn't against the ideology Cameron is trying to push with this series. While I heavily disagree with some of his themes that he plants into these films, these movies are still an undeniably masterwork in every other category, from the cinematography to the CGI to the choreography. Of course, I could bring in nitpicks of how the technologically superior RDA are consistently bested by natives with spears, swords, bow and arrows; etcetera, but in the end, it's still a movie, and a movie's first goal is to entertain. In that enterprise, Avatar Two succeeds wildly, as usual with Cameron's projects. Stay tuned for my new series I'll be uploading on this blog and many more reviews coming shortly.