Movie review: 'Avatar' sequel collapses under new ensemble, subplots

From left to right, Jamie Flatters, Zoe Saldana, Britain Dalton and Sam Worthington star in "Avatar: The Way of Water." Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios
1 of 5 | From left to right, Jamie Flatters, Zoe Saldana, Britain Dalton and Sam Worthington star in "Avatar: The Way of Water." Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Dec. 13 (UPI) -- Avatar: The Way of Water, in theaters Friday, proves more frustrating than waiting 13 years for the sequel to Avatar. The new film introduces way too many new characters and doesn't serve any of them.

After becoming a bona fide Na'vi at the end of Avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthingon) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had children on planet Pandora. Years later, the people of Earth return.


This time, refugees of a dying Earth want to move onto Pandora rather than just pillage it for resources. That includes a clone of Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who has also adopted a Na'vi body.

Jake moves his family to a tribe of sea Na'vi so Quaritch won't invade their forest looking for him, and this part of the plot is idiotic. It's a long delay for the inevitable confrontation with Quaritch. Is any viewer really going to think hiding might work?


Among the sea tribe, the focus shifts to the children. Jake's younger son, Lo'ak (Britain Dalton),runs afoul of some bullies in the sea tribe.

But, the bully kids mostly disappear in the second half of the movie after a hasty resolution to their conflict. Meanwhile, Lo'ak bonds with an endangered sea creature, so he's able to lead the Na'Vi to help their species.

Jake's daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), was born from scientist Grace's avatar in the first movie. She spends some of the movie questioning her origin and why she's different from other Na'vi.

A more egregious Kiri subplot suggests a substantial dilemma between the science of Jake and the Earth people and the spirituality of the Na'vi. But then Kiri misses the entire character arc on the way to suddenly resolving that issue.

It seems like Jake and Neytiri have no lives outside of their children, which may be how parents feel sometimes. It's a letdown for anyone who came to the sequel to Avatar to see the stars of Avatar.

Jake faces a little bit of trying to balance being a dad and a soldier, but only inasmuch as his parenting creates conflict among his children. They have two other children (Jamie Flatters and Trinity Jo-Li bliss) with subplots, plus a human (Jack Champion) born on the space station who's too young to go back to Earth, and all the sea tribesmen to balance.


Quaritch preparing a backup clone of himself in the event of his death makes a little bit more sense than Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's inexplicable resurrection of Emperor Palpatine. However, he makes just as little narrative sense.

It's clear what Avatar creator James Cameron wanted to explore was the sea tribe of Pandora. So why bring back earthlings at all?

The Way of Water should have created a conflict between the different tribes of Pandora. That way the film could explore the different customs and abilities of other Na'Vi tribes without regurgitating a revenge plot.

There are hints of a more interesting Quaritch story in which he might have a Na'vi experience this time, but no, he's just the same old Quaritch in a new body. There is another resource as precious as unobtanium in the first film, as well as a secondary villain not introduced until more than halfway through the film.

All the new tribes, creatures and machines come together in a thrilling action climax. It is a shame that Jake and Neytiri's daughters become damsels in distress, but otherwise the finale is exciting.

Avatar: The Way of Water employs high-frame-rate photography, previously used in the Hobbit movies, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man. If Avatar is one's first exposure to the format, it will be jarring because it is a very different way to watch films.


Unlike the previous movies that employed high frame rate for the duration of the film, The Way of Water alternates between high frame rate and traditional footage. That can be jarring, too, as it goes from regular to high frame rate within the same scene.

The high frame rate works best with the underwater sequences. Perhaps because underwater motion is already necessarily slowed down, the heightened clarity of high frame rate enhances the footage.

The world-building of Avatar made the prospect of more movies on Pandora exciting. Unfortunately, Avatar: The Way of Water only has superficial interests in exploring the potential of that world.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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