This is a hard film to size up. I've always stated that James Cameron is the master of the sequel. His first feature film was Piranha II: The Spawning a film riddled with problems. Cameron was forbidden to edit the film so he broke into the editing room in Rome and cut his own version while the film's producers were at Cannes, he was caught though and the film was recut without his input. Decades later he would go on to say Piranha II is the best mutant killer Piranha film ever made. A claim that is difficult to disprove. That experience is probably what caused Cameron to be such a control freak on all future productions.
Speaking of strictly sequels in his career, Cameron went onto write Rambo: First Blood Part II, which has better action and a happier ending. It’s hard to go as far as to say Rambo II is better than the original First Blood which carried a more dramatic message but there were improvements from the first film to the second and the story wasn’t just a rehash of the original.
He followed that with writing and directing the sequel to Alien called Aliens. Because what’s scarier than one space monster? Multiple space monsters. Cameron shows his depth of character development with this masterpiece. In a film characters have to start one way and be changed by the end. In TV they are never really supposed to change. George Costanza is always cheap and scheming, Jerry Seinfeld is always callous and uncaring. At the end of Alien the character of Ripley is the lone survivor of a horrifying ordeal, she carries that experience into the sequel. She goes back to the original planet of the Alien to confront her demons. Antics ensue, we learn what type of guy Paul Reiser really is.
In 1991 we get the best action film ever made. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The follow-up to Cameron’s 84 hit The Terminator. Another great sequel. In the original film we have Sarah Connor another female who survives a traumatic ordeal. Instead of remaking Aliens in early 90s California, he completely shifts the plot. Sarah is a side character in the film. John Connor and the T-800 are the main focus of this story. The plot is brilliant. Instead of just a survival story it becomes a story about changing your fate, family, overcoming tragedy.
Cameron understands that a film is supposed to be a story about a life-changing event in character’s life. From event the person is forever changed. When you go into the sequel, you have to show how those people have changed. Sarah Connor becomes an apocalyptic nut job. Her son doesn’t share that trauma with her, he can easily friend a killer robot from the future.
In 2003 James Cameron makes the documentary Ghost of the Abyss. Many don’t see this as a sequel, just a documentary about Titanic. But when coming off the biggest money making film of all time, you can’t make a direct sequel about a real ship that sinks. Cameron figures out how to make a follow-up to the blockbuster by producing/directing a documentary about the actual Titanic.
In 2022 we get Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to Avatar, which after 13 years people have forgotten about. It’s as if Cameron realized people wouldn’t remember the first film so the sequel is almost a rehash of the first film. But it’s not an exact retelling of the first film like The Hangover 2. It makes enough changes for it to be interesting, then throws in a ton more characters. He lazily brings back the villain from the first film. From a writing standpoint it’s easier to bring back a familiar bad guy than create a new one. But at 3 hours and 15 minutes, he probably could have devoted time to making a new villain.
Is the story better than the first? No. Is it worse than the first? No. It’s certainly no Empire Strikes Back. Cameron has 2 more sequels planned. This film seemed like a long recap story of what is to come next. It’s almost as if the real Avatar 2 is actually going to be Avatar 3.
The film was certainly enjoyable to watch. The story felt like it was a hybrid of a ton of other stories that have been told before. The original Avatar felt like Dances of Wolves meets the Smurfs. This diversified its derivative story telling with the expanded cast. Sometimes you feel like you’re watching Jaws II with the kids stranding on the boat. Other times it feels like you’re watching Free Willy with the outcast kid befriending a whale. Then you have the original Avatar in there but instead of trying to mine a fuel source, they are killing whales for a brain fluid that stops the aging process. They just trade one McGuffin for another. It feels a little like Star Trek IV the Voyage Home.
Hollywood films are a ton of recycled ideas tossed in a blender with different genres, so there’s nothing wrong with the story formula. Why does Avatar 2 feel off? Perhaps it’s because if the over three hour runtime the audience doesn’t leave with a clear resolution. None of the characters appear to grow significantly; the bad guy isn’t truly defeated. It really is just one long story. Streaming and binge watching have made people more accustomed to long narratives; those shows are still episodic in nature. For a feature to try this is unusual.
Like many franchise films these days, the true value of this film may only be determined by its follow-ups. Star Wars: The Force Awakens may have been a more liked film if its successors were better. Since The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker were less than stellar, The Force Awakens becomes the intro into a trilogy that people are lackluster about.
Does Avatar 2 stand on its own? It’s almost impossible to determine. James Cameron recycled every single trick he’s ever used in every other film he ever made to tell this new story. Look at the shots, story elements, special effects, actions, villains. You can pick any of those points out of the film and place them into one of Cameron’s prior works. Is that a testament to a brilliant filmmaker embracing his knowledge and style? Or is it someone who’s lost his touch as a genuine director who would bring us something new and original in each of his films?