Quick refresher: The first movie took place sometime in the 22nd century, in a future where humans have colonized a distant moon called Pandora, inhabited by a humanoid alien species called the Na’vi. The humans’ mission is to mine unobtanium, a highly valuable resource that happens to be the bedrock of the Na’vi’s home. The corporate and military branches of the settler colony want to force the Na’vi out; the scientific branch wants to negotiate, using an “avatar” program where humans inhabit Na’vi bodies to fraternize with the locals. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine who is paralyzed from the waist down, arrives on Pandora to take the place of his deceased twin brother, one of the avatar program’s founding scientists. When Sully — in his Na’vi body — gets separated from the other avatars and taken in by a local tribe, he learns their ways, falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the chieftain’s daughter, and eventually leads them in a revolution against the human colonizers.
The Way of Water picks up roughly 30 years after the last one ends. It is, in its basic premise, a straightforward escalation of the original film: The humans are back, and this time they want nothing less than total takeover. They want to turn Pandora into the next Earth, because by now humans have turned Earth into a barren wasteland.
Here, an astute viewer might ask: Which humans, exactly, were responsible for destroying their home planet? Was it, perchance, the affluent ones from the imperialist, industrialist nations? But the movie has no time for this distinction. Instead, it gets busy setting up the narrower conflict that comes to dominate the film: Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the antagonist of the original Avatar, has been resurrected by a hastily explained secret program in which his memories were saved to a hard drive and uploaded to a Na’vi avatar of his own. He and his cruelest military cronies, also in their new Na’vi bodies, set out to hunt down Sully, Neytiri, and their four children. Hearing this, the Sullys take refuge among the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), and try to assimilate into island life. Their children flirt, fight, and get up to mischief. Meanwhile, Quaritch ramps up his game of cat and mouse.
The primary problem with The Way of Water is that it homogenizes each of its opposing factions — the human colonizers and the Indigenous Na’vi — to the detriment of both its world-building and its social critique. The politics of the first Avatar were already lazy. Critics called it “unacceptably paternalistic” and condemned its depiction of the indigenous Na’vi as “both romantic and ahistorical.” At the New York Times, David Brooks summed up the shallowness of Avatar: “It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades.” But these criticisms were mostly overshadowed by adulation for Avatar’s visual splendor: the bioluminescent forest, the exhilarating scenes in flight. Whatever the real-life implications of the film, it was exciting to be invited into the lush, enthralling world of the Na’vi.
The Way of Water sidesteps a political plot, instead honing in on Quaritch’s individual quest for revenge. But its persistent disinterest in the realities of Indigenous life, in historical context or cultural specificity, undermines the entire project, so that The Way of Water doesn’t even function effectively as escapist fantasy.
Cameron’s disinterest in the complex interrelationships of marginalized groups is apparent immediately in the patchwork stylization of the Na’vi. They have tribal garments, Black hairstyles, and accents cribbed indiscriminately from elsewhere: West Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia. But, more damningly, he doesn’t meaningfully distinguish between the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan and the forest-dwelling Omaticaya.