'Avatar: The Way of Water' is a striking sci-fi fantasia drowned in Hollywood cliches

"Avatar: The Way of Water."
"Avatar: The Way of Water." (Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

"The way of water has no beginning and no end," we're told twice in director James Cameron's bloated $400 million "Avatar" sequel, which premiered this past weekend.

And with a three-hour-and-15-minute runtime, plus 20 minutes of front-loaded coming attractions, it might seem that way to numbed audiences checking their watches to measure how much longer the bombastic action will last.  

Thirteen years after James Cameron introduced us to the exotic planet-sized moon Pandora in 2009's record-breaking "Avatar" feature, fans can now return to the tropical world in a cliche-ridden, overlong sequel that is a striking milestone in technical achievement but fails to soar past its predictable narrative.

Produced by 20th Century Studios, "Avatar: The Way of Water" stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang and Kate Winslet. The eclectic cast also includes Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, Edie Falco and Jemaine Clement.

Related: The creatures of 'Avatar' and 'Avatar: The Way of Water'

A scene from "Avatar: The Way of Water."

A scene from "Avatar: The Way of Water." (Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Chronicling the continuing saga of ex-soldier Jake Sully and his blue-skinned Na'vi family, "Avatar: The Way of Water" opens with a major exposition dump. Jake's intrusive voice-over brings us up to speed regarding his fruitful clan and the second invasion of the "Sky People," with their decelerating spaceships torching verdant forests in one of the film's more stunning but short-lived sequences.

Jump forward one year and the humans have established a sprawling industrial complex called Bridgehead City, where the revenge-fueled Colonel Quaritch's recombinant clone now commands a marine unit of avatars designed to hunt down renegade chieftain Jake Sully. 

When Jake becomes the target of a concentrated extermination effort, he and his family flee the hovering Hallelujah Mountains to seek sanctuary with the reef-dwelling Metkayina tribe that exists in the moon's remote cluster of islands. There they must learn the aquatic lifestyles of the green-tinted faction while engaging in adult bonding and teenage struggles and courtship.

"Avatar: The Way of Water" features amazing visuals but is riddled with cliches.

"Avatar: The Way of Water" features amazing visuals but is riddled with cliches. (Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Much of the film's waterlogged middle section fails to advance the plot but does provide breathtaking underwater scenes of majestic and transcendent beauty. Here is where Cameron's unique vision is fully realized in its serene and sometimes violent depiction of colorful plant life and sea beasts on a strange, fascinating alien world

This second act proves to be little more than a placeholder and a chance to immerse audiences in the digital splendor beneath the waves until Quaritch and his mercenaries learn their whereabouts and charge toward their quarry in an awesome hovercraft gunship equipped with mini-subs and crab-walking mechs. A final showdown between the united forces of natives and Quaritch's gung-ho assassins provides some exhilaration during the protracted yet satisfying climax.

One gnawing aspect of the all-too-familiar screenplay by Cameron and his co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, from a story they concocted with Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno, is its constant use of current-day phrases like "Show me the money," "I've got this," and "Booyah!" We doubt any of these 21st century favorites will still be uttered 150 years from now. Perhaps this is picking nits, but it's grating nonetheless.

The underwater scenes in "Avatar: The Way of Water" are breathtaking.

The underwater scenes in "Avatar: The Way of Water" are breathtaking. (Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Is it a classic situation of too many acolyte cooks spoiling the cinematic broth, or just the inability of the soggy script to rise above tired themes and plot contrivances to bring the storyline up to the lofty heights of its extraordinary eye-candy visuals?

"Avatar: The Way of Water" might not be to everyone's liking, but it absolutely offers a chance to be embraced and transported by the detailed worldbuilding of Cameron and his creative team, which deftly delivers in its presentation of pure spectacle. 

And perhaps that's sufficient for its ultimate success in today's global theatrical environment.  After all, we're not in Kansas anymore!

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.