I mean, it’s good.
That said, I have a really hard time seeing this sequel to the #1 box office champ getting anywhere near the level of popularity and $$ as the first film and that’s okay. Even if you’re director James Cameron, you can’t ALWAYS set the #1 film of all time record.
So, “Avatar 2” is more of the same in some regards with the big news being the environmental shift to focusing on water. It’s not quite the big upgrade that I was hoping for but it looked really nice and I’m sure that it was really hard/expensive to make.
For some context on what I’m trying to grapple with in my thoughts on the “Avatar” franchise though, we should roll the clock back to the later 1990s…
“Project 880” (aka “Avatar”) was a talker in the movie rumors scene of the era. The ‘scriptment’ by Cameron from 1995-ish leaked online. Lightstorm and Digital Domain seemed to be pursuing it as Cameron’s next project after “Titanic” and eventually waved a white flag at the time due to the scope and expense not matching the special effects capabilities of the era. Cameron super-fans waited over a decade for spurts of news amid his various documentary and diving projects.
I can vividly recall reading that ‘scriptment’ during a college (Christmas?) break and having it really blow my mind. It was a clear slam-dunk but also wall-to-wall ‘How are they going to do this?’
Noted pop culture/film writer Devin Faraci compared “Project 880” in 2009 and had the following summary reaction:
“I can’t say for sure why Cameron so severely streamlined his own story, but 880 feels like a Cameron film while Avatar feels like the footnotes of that. Many of the problems I had with Avatar‘s story are addressed in Project 880‘s scriptment. I like Josh Sully better than Jake, although I suspect my biggest problem with the character lies in Sam Worthington. But other characters have more flesh, and the story unfolds at a pace that feels interesting and not like it’s on rails. Obviously this scriptment would have made a five-hour movie. Things needed to be cut. I just wish Cameron had been able to keep the decent story and rounded characters along with his deeply designed world. But when you’re spending that much money, it’s the story and characters that get canned before the FX.”
So yeah, what we eventually saw in theatres was similar in broad ways but the entire movie had pretty much been re-written. Cameron left a LOT on the table in terms of some incredible action scenes that were never included in the 2009 film (or in the 2022 sequel). I don’t think that the 2009 film was as ambitious as originally conceived but it was solid. It’s possible that we might someday see the unused “880” action scene ideas in later “Avatar” sequels but it’s also possible that we don’t.
I can’t recall seeing the first “Avatar” (2009) more than maybe once on video. It was a next-level theatrical experience and I’d compare it to a theme park ride where you kind of have to see it at the park with all the bells and whistles.
“Avatar 2” was more of that theme park ride bit but I’m not sure if that’s a great compliment at this point? The world of Pandora was detailed and compelling and a place that I liked seeing explored on screen. There was a continued thoughtfulness in world building that we expect from James Cameron and he delivered in that regard.
In terms of compelling characters though, the “Avatar” franchise remained really dicey. At this point, would I be crazy saying that Stephen Lang’s bad guy whatever-his-name-was has become the most interesting character in the franchise? You always want to have a really compelling villain, so that’s good. For comparison, Jake Sully has a lot less screen time this time around, not that people were ever flocking in just for him though.
A wave of various next generation characters opened up the character conflicts for the film and likely beyond. There were a lot of things going on that made “Avatar” 2’s 3+ hours runtime move along.
That said, a lot of the plot mechanics didn’t really make sense to me. Crucially, the whole bit at the start about Jake running off to another tribe that was water-based seemed like a big mess of bad logic but you go with it because you know that Jim Cameron wanted to get wet.
The water environment was really impressive but the location scope was pretty limited? The movie largely stayed in one general area. In terms of a sequel that raised the scale of the conflicts with humans, we were given teases and setup for some future all-out war but it seemed like Big Jim was saving things for later sequels. This film largely focused on a small-scale conflict with Jake being enemy #1 and the human forces only sending a small-ish unit of baddies after him.
Related, there was a general lady who is in charge of the entire planet’s operations but she also made questionable moves like putting herself right on the front line (ex. she took a helicopter ride to an area where a lot of helicopters have previously been destroyed).
Amongst the core new characters, there was a human teen named ‘Spider’ (aka ‘Monkey Boy’… somehow managing to have two bad names) that played a central role in the film and he constantly made me think of the AEW wrestling promotion’s Jungle Boy. Yeah, that was a ‘me’ problem. I completely forgot that Kate Winslet was doing a (minor-ish?) character until the end. Sigourney Weaver was fine; her much-discussed-in-the-pre-release-press teenage character in this film ended up being perhaps the most interesting of the new characters when her key new abilities were introduced near the end.
The big action pieces took a while to kick in but it was vintage Jim Cameron by the last act. No surprise that there would be sinking ships involved and a vibe that would remind longtime fans of “Titanic” and “The Abyss.” That’s fine by me!
A controversial statement: For as entertaining as “Avatar 2” was, “Top Gun 2” would likely remain the movie of 2022 that I’ll re-watch in the future – at home or whatever – and I probably won’t watch “Avatar 2” again until some sort of theatrical re-release down the road. I was somehow much more invested in the characters in “Top Gun 2” than I was in “Avatar 2” and the emotions were much higher across the board in “Top Gun 2.” “Top Gun 2” also benefited from an ‘OMG they are really shooting this practical’ that “Avatar 2” didn’t match… “Avatar 2” was AMAZING in terms of comparing it to other ‘big CGI’ movies (ex. Marvel continued to look cheap/lazy as the years go by and they’d never been on the cutting edge of effects)… BUT “Avatar 2” rarely made me feel the same sort of thrill that I get from practical effects. It did give me some “Wow, that CGI character sure looks real” moments. Maybe that was part of the emotional distance for me with these characters?
Based on reading various recent interviews, I debated how much of Cameron’s heart remained in this multi-sequel “Avatar” project – he seemed to be entirely (at least in his own words) motivated to keep making these films due to thinking that they’re somehow actually making a difference with getting people to care about environmental topics. Certainly, he wanted to have his own big IP franchise but, if it weren’t for the environmental activist angle, it seems like he’d rather spend his life doing exploration stuff. This wasn’t some new tension – it’s been the key tension in his life for the past 25 years. Checking in on behind-the-scenes featurettes and such, Cameron seemed very engaged in the first film and also seemed to still be locked in with the sequels, so who knows. I guess that when he commits to something he’s always all-in but he did waver on if he’d finish directing the 4th and 5th films in the series or delegate it to an underling.
Sure, as a Cameron superfan, I wish that he was putting out films at a Chris Nolan-like pace. Instead we’ve gotten two of these “Avatars” in 25 years and I guess that Jim Cameron isn’t my ‘b*tch’ (to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, when he scolded pushy fans of George R.R. Martin in 2009). That’s better than a bunch of “Ghosts of the Abyss” films and nothing else.
The more that I reflect on “Avatar 2,” the more that I realize that this sequel felt lower key than the first film due to largely being a set-up film. Yes, it worked fine as a stand-alone movie but (as mentioned above) you could assume some things that would be at play in future films. We’re years away from being able to fully evaluate what Jim has up his sleeve in terms of story dynamics and scope – for now, enjoy the theme park ride.