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A whale-like creature breaches the surface of Pandora's ocean in "Avatar: The Way of Water."

Did anybody else watch the Black Panther sequel and get the sense that they were trolling Avatar? That movie had blue-skinned sea-dwelling people, and so does Avatar: The Way of Water. They both have the drawback that their fantasy worlds are no longer new to us, but with James Cameron’s film, the shortcoming is way worse, because his would-be franchise isn’t as innovative as the Marvel series, and he isn’t as talented a filmmaker as Ryan Coogler. What I found out while watching Cameron’s sequel was how much energy it takes to be unimpressed for three straight hours.

Picking up some 15 years after the events of the first movie, Jake Sully and Neytiri (Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña) have now had four offspring by means that have mystified even them. However, the human beings have returned to Pandora with the previously killed Marines now reincarnated as Na’vi avatars, including Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang). They’re hellbent on killing Jake, so Jake and his family flee the forests and seek refuge with an island-dwelling clan of Na’vi who have evolved to live in the water.

You’d expect the visuals to be a strength of the movie, but they’re not that good. Disney’s current Strange World has more imaginative cryptofauna than this movie. The animation (at least in the 3-D version that I saw) is reminiscent of a top-end video game, with the figures moving around in an unnatural manner, and if you want to argue that their movements should look strange because these are alien beings on a distant planet, the same happens with the humans, too. I even detected motion-smoothing in some of the sequences, and if I can see it, lots of other people will, too. The flora and fauna of Pandora have lost their ability to strike us with awe, and Cameron even reaches back into his Titanic bag of tricks when Jake and Quaritch fight on a sinking ship. The underwater chase scenes move as quickly as the similar scenes through the air, and that breaks all laws of physics that this series sets up. Even Finding Nemo, which came out 20 years ago next summer, did a better job of convincing me that I was watching action taking place beneath the sea.

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And look, I could live happily with all of this if there were a compelling story here. No such luck; the individual characters from Jake on down are bores, with the possible exception of Brendan Cowell as an Australian manly-man whale hunter. The Na’vi have gone from representing Native Americans to Polynesians here, and their soul-bonding with the giant cetacean creatures in the ocean isn’t moving in any sense. Everybody keeps explaining how the animals behave — contrast this with A Quiet Place, where the filmmakers trust us to figure out how the aliens’ bodies work. Quaritch kidnaps his now-teenage human son (Jack Champion) who’s been living among the Na’vi, and the movie promptly proceeds to lose track of the kid for an eternity. I don’t even know what happens to the general (Edie Falco) in charge of the Earthlings’ military after the movie goes to so much trouble to introduce her. Half the problems in this script would be solved if Jake weren’t such a lousy dad who keeps barking out orders to his children and then forgetting where they are because he’s so busy making speeches about protecting his family. In the end, Quaritch is left alive for absolutely no reason other than so he can return as a villain in the next movie. At least no one says the word “unobtainium,” which, thank God for small favors.

Cameron’s movies are dumb. I see dumb movies every year, and I enjoy some of them. The real problem is, his movies are dumb and preachy, and I don’t need some half-baked environmental message from a filmmaker who talks down to me. There’s even more of a sense of an artist running in place than there was in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, where the New Zealander was at least working with a few technical advances. I sat through all three of those, so I guess I can sit through some more Avatar movies as well. Still, if I weren’t being paid, I’d be just as content to stay home.

Avatar: The Way of Water
Starring Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang. Directed by James Cameron. Written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. Rated PG-13.

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