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Avatar 2 review (2022): James Cameron does it again

It's been 13 years since we last visited the Na'vi and Pandora so does the Way of Water recapture the magic? Is James Cameron's new movie good or bad?

Avatar 2 review:

Our Verdict

Boasting stunning visuals, exciting action, and a surprisingly affecting conclusion Avatar 2 proves you should never doubt James Cameron

To say I was sceptical about Avatar 2 would be an understatement. Like many people, I’d enjoyed the first film as a science fiction movie, but for the most part, I thought the planned trilogy seemed like a rather cynical cash grab. Even when the first Avatar 2 trailer dropped, I remained unconvinced that James Cameron’s return to Pandora would be anything but fine.

Well, you can condemn me to the corners of Hell reserved for film journalists who doubt Cameron because Avatar 2 is a great movie, maybe even an excellent one. Now, I use the word “movie” very deliberately because I think, as a holistic experience, Avatar 2 is one of the best blockbusters I’ve seen this year, comparable to Top Gun 2 in terms of over-the-top bombast. Yet I must caveat this praise by saying not all the individual elements that make up the film are good.

Think of Avatar 2 as a fine-looking Christmas sweater; from a distance, it looks like the comfiest thing you’ve ever seen in your life and when you hold it, the wool’s soft enough to bring a tear to your eye. Yet should you start to pull loose the threads that make the jumper, you’d quickly find that there’s a lot of flammable polyester for every strand of cashmere.

We’ll start by addressing the polyester of Cameron’s movie, the story and the characters. Now there have been some claims that the story’s a little threadbare, and that’s true. Honestly, the story’s thinner than dollar-store trash bags and does not justify how long Avatar 2 is. Basically, it’s a story of good versus evil that champions some pretty inoffensive environmental issues.

That’s fine. Stories don’t have to be overly complex, but it becomes an issue when you combine a feeble script with some milquetoast characters. And there were more than a few moments while watching where I was confused by character motivation or where poor character development left me baffled as to why people were acting in certain ways.

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Now we’re under strict orders not to spoil anything here, so the closest I can get to explaining this is to say there’s one supposed good guy who makes a decision early in the movie to help someone, and I have absolutely no idea why, as the film doesn’t bother to show or tell us why.

Despite this criticism, I found myself rather attached to Cameron’s relatively one-dimensional Na’vi because they’re not characters; they’re archetypes. Cameron’s too busy exploring the deep sea to bother giving his characters personalities, but they don’t need them for the story he’s telling.

Avatar 2 review: Jake Sully and his kid

This isn’t some complex, morally grey thriller movie. It’s a simple story of good versus evil. With that said, then, all you need to know is that Jake is a hero, Quaritch is a bad guy, the Na’vi are on the side of angels, and the humans (for the most part) are evil with a capital ‘E’.

Essentially Cameron’s Avatar characters work because they’re so generic — like the player character in a first-person shooter — you can impart almost anything you want on them because they’re blank canvases that can be whatever the audience needs them to be.

Avatar 2 review:

Now I don’t want people to think this means the acting is bad; it’s not. Everyone does a great job with the material, and I was particularly impressed by the younger cast; there’s just so little for them to work with that it’s difficult to call out anything specifically brilliant. Well, I say that Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri is the exception.

Neytiri is a badass and the only Na’vi who feels truly alien. She’s genuinely quite frightening at times, and Saldana gives her an otherworldliness that the other (even non-Avatar) Na’vi lack. I wish she’d gotten more to do in this film, and I hope the sequels give her that opportunity.

Avatar 2 review: Quaritch (Stephen Lang)

Before we move on to the things I actually liked about the film (and there were plenty), I also have to mention Cameron’s decision to introduce some absolutely wild McGuffins that had absolutely no bearing on the plot of Avatar 2. As we say, we can’t spoil things here, but there were two Earth (or Pandora) shattering reveals during the film, which had zero impact on the story.

Now it’s obvious to those informed in the grammar of blockbuster cinema that these are plot threads to be picked up in Avatar 3, 4, or whatever. Still, we criticise the MCU for being preoccupied with setting up sequels, so Cameron can’t be allowed to get away with it either.

Avatar 2 review: Jake meets the water tribe

In fact, a lot of Avatar 2’s story feels like an attempt to retroactively add fodder for the sequels, as though he suddenly realised they didn’t have enough to work with using just the first film. As such, we get several beats that feel suspiciously like retcons without quite being retcons.

Right, time to move on to the stuff I like, and one thing we could never criticise Cameron on is his eye for spectacle. He’s the thinking man’s Michael Bay, and let’s be honest, Cameron’s given us some of the best action movies ever made, and he may be one of the greatest directors to ever work in the genre.

Avatar 2 review:

As you might expect, then, Avatar 2 is chock-a-block with intense chases, violent knife fights, and a general level of intense action that’d make even Arnold Schwarzenegger blush.

What makes it even more impressive, though, is that despite Avatar 2 obviously being reliant on computer-generated imagery, there’s a splendid blend of practical effects thrown in as well, and the two interact perfectly.

Avatar 2 review: Jake on a fighting fish

Never while watching did I ever think that I was watching humans interact with giant cartoon characters; instead, the Avatars, Na’Vi, and all the other flora and fauna of Pandora felt like living, breathing elements of the world that were well integrated with the practical effects on display.

It’s also nice to see that the last 13 years haven’t dulled Cameron’s exceptional skill at adding character beats into his set pieces. Indeed, we learn a lot about the various aliens and humans we meet through their fights and chases, and he’s even able to give even non-verbal characters a voice through their actions – certainly far more than we learn from the script.

Avatar 2 review:

Of course, we need to discuss the real reason anyone would go to see Avatar 2, to revisit Pandora. Cinemagoers flocked to theatres to see Cameron’s alien world back in 2009, so is the alien world as beautiful as we remember?

Well, yes, and if anything, it’s even more beautiful thanks to the leaps we’ve made in visual effects in the last 13 years. But while the forests are gorgeous, the real visual treat comes when we go beneath the waves of Pandora’s oceans.

It’s no secret that Cameron loves being underwater, and Avatar 2 is a love letter to this sunken world. Any time we went into the sea was a treat. The coral reefs looked gorgeous, the water was unnaturally clear, and the attention to detail in the various animals who call this sub-aquatic world home was exquisite.

Avatar 2 review:

My favourite species was the Tulkuns, strange whale-like creatures who share a close bond with the ocean tribes. In fact, I felt so strongly about the Tulkuns that when one got hurt, I got teary-eyed. Yes, I cried over a CGI whale monster getting injured.

That’s the power of cinema, and that was one of the moments that made me realise how much I’d been drawn in by Avatar 2. It genuinely made me quite emotional, and its ability to make me feel this way is why I’m not too bothered by its relatively weak script because if it inspired emotion in me, it was clearly working on some level.

Avatar 2 review:

As I mentioned earlier in this review, Avatar 2 works when viewed holistically. There’s plenty to criticise if you break it down into its constituent parts, but cinema is more than just scriptwriting, VFX, or acting; it’s a synthesis of all these different arts (as well as editing, scoring, etc.), and when you bring all the elements that make up Avatar 2 together it just works.

I’d probably put it down to James Cameron. This feels like a film made by someone with a consistent vision, a lot like Top Gun 2, I suppose, rather than a movie built by a committee. As such, when watching it, you can’t help but admire it because you don’t really see these movies anymore.

In conclusion, Avatar 2 is a visual feast that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, it’s got fantastic action sequences, and although the story is weak, you’ll probably find yourself surprisingly moved by the whole thing. It won’t be for everyone, but Avatar 2 ‘blue’ me away… yes that’s the joke I’m ending on.