Quick hot take: meh.
Positives: So much effort was made to get the visuals right, and they are crisp and awe-inspiring. However, I wondered more about the volume of computing power that made such a spectacle possible than I did about the story. Unlike the first film, in which Jake’s amazement stood in for the audience—we watched him watching this world (the scene in which he tapped all the plants—How cool!—until a vicious creature was revealed—Scary, but still cool!). There is no similar character with whom I bonded, no one whose awe provided a point of entry for mine. So yes, the movie was a visual feast, but it remained at a distance.
The addition of children and watching them as they learned how to be an adult, or warrior, or mystic (or human being because even though Cameron populates the story with Na’vi, his project is deeply humanist) provided a welcome entry point for me. It added a coming of age angle that felt more natural than Jake Sully’s man-child evolution in the first film. Perhaps Cameron believes that all men are essentially immature—it’s a common enough trope, so not a surprise, but really? Round characters, please.
Not so positives: Avatar: The Way of Water is not a complete story. It is packed with loose ends of theme and plot that do not resolve at the film’s end. A three hour movie that ends with a battle that clearly is only the opening event in a war, with an father-son conflict stretched across species and moral codes, and with such gross power imbalances between the Na’vi and humans (seriously, you watched the return of the Sky People to Pandora and didn’t think, “Well, that’s horrible, but unbeatable”?) stretches this viewer’s patience. Wrap something up, for goodness’ sake.
Who’s your daddy/mommy? Grace’s avatar was pregnant when Grace died? And so she was an immaculately conceived girl? What? And Quaritch (the bad guy) had a son? And Grace’s daughter and Quaritch’s son are in love? Is this fan fiction? Are we supposed to tune in next week—or sometime in the next three or four years to discover the answer? This is a corollary to the Chekov’s gun axiom: if you put a gun on the mantel in Act One, it better go off by Act Three; big questions asked in Act One better be answered by Act Three. Cameron may expect the audience to wait a decade, but please do something with all those loose threads.
An assortment of complaints: 1) When did Neytiri become shrill? Did motherhood change her from Jake’s patient and wise tutor to a hissing ball of rage? Or is this just a lazy “tiger mom” cliche? Maybe since Kiri seems a more complex female character, the writers did not feel compelled to make Neytiri more than a plot device (she might drown!). 2) Does Kiri have epilepsy, or a profound (and important) connection to Eywa, the pantheistic force that unites all life on Pandora? Will circumstance force her to risk her life for the greater good? Then sharpen that possibility. 3) Did we really need a Quaritch avatar/clone? While the juxtaposition of Sully and Quaritch as fathers has potential, the deus ex machina was a little too handy. I suppose if the Avengers can invent time travel to save Endgame, a memory download is not too far afield. Nonetheless, no thank you.
There’s more, and I have already spent more time on this than I originally thought I would. After over three hours in a movie theater, nearly as long as Lawrence of Arabia, at minimum I expect something more than boggling my mind about how many terabytes of computing power went into the special effects. Three hours requires story, and Avatar: The Way of Water seemed incomplete in too many ways to satisfy. Ooh ah! And not meh. Feh.