The Avatar 2 Plot: Recap and… Why’s It Broken?

Avatar 2’s plot is perhaps the least remarkable of this remarkable award-winning movie’s marvels. What happened in the movie? Here’s a complete refresher. And what made the Avatar 2 plot so porous, from a professional game writer’s point of view?

The Avatar 2 Plot in bullet points:

  • Jake Sully, the human-turned-Na’vi-avatar from the first movie, is now raising his four kids (!) with his wife Neytiri in the beautiful wilds of the rich planet Pandora. One of them is Kiri, an adopted daughter somehow birthed from Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney Weaver’s scientist character) comatose avatar (!). They are visited frequently by a orphan human kid named Spider (!) who lives with the human scientists who stayed on the planet after the violent colonizer corporation RDA was defeated by Sully and the natives.
  • The above paragraph is just ridiculous, now that I see it written out. They chewed off a lot for a movie franchise that hasn’t been in theatres for 13 years. Sorry, back to the topic.
  • Sidenote: Sully, previously wheelchair-bound, is now fully avatar, because the Na’vi used their magic Spirit Tree to move his consciousness permanently into the avatar body, which looks very much like a native Na’vi except for its five-fingered hands. The Na’vi then roasted his human body and turned it into delightfully spicy kabobs. (Just kidding on that last part. Sully’s body did not meet Pandoran FDA standards.)
  • The RDA return, seeking to harvest the golden brain juice of the giant intelligent Pandora whales called Tulkun, which grants eternal life to humans (!). With them is the reincarnated human psycho Quaritch (visualize the NRA in human form, complete with buzzcut), who died in the first movie, but has been uploaded into a new Na’vi avatar body. Of course, he’s champing at the bit to kill Sully.
  • Quaritch captures Sully’s kids; Sully and Neytiri manage to free them but Quaritch captures Spider, whom he realizes is the human son he sired (!) with some undetermined human victim from the RDA before he died in Avatar 1.
  • Knowing Quaritch will keep attacking, the Sully family flees their native jungles and relocates as refugees, joining the reluctant Metkayina clan, a related Na’vi group that lives by the sea and is better adapted for such a life. Sully’s kids clash with the kids of Tonowari, the Metkayina chief, which leads one boy Lo’ak into danger, but he’s saved by Payakan, an outcast Tulkun.
  • Quaritch tracks Sully to the Metkayni and starts attacking random villages and Tulkuns to draw Sully out. He captures two Sully kids and Tonowari’s daughter. In a standoff, Sully surrenders to Quaritch to save the kids, but Payakan smashes the RDA warship, unleashing a free-for-all. Sully’s oldest son Neteyam frees the captured kids but is killed by the humans. Spider disables the RDA ship. Lots of fighting; the good guys escape the sinking ship. Spider saves Quaritch from death but rejoins the Sully group.
  • There’s an emotional (?) funeral for Neteyam and Team Sully resolves to defeat the RDA.

Wow, there are some whoppers in that Avatar 2 plot. It astonishes me that they were so aggressive after a 13-year hiatus, pushing Sully and Neytiri not just into parenthood but linking them to a brood of five that are very difficult for the writing team to characterize… and for audiences to distinguish, given the inhuman sameness of the Na’vi renderings.

Sully and Neytiri don’t just have one borderline child; they have two. Kiri and Spider are both odd orphans. Kiri is the child of Augustine’s avatar — itself a strange stillborn adult embryo. As you may remember from Avatar 1, Augustine was wounded by Quaritch, and Sully and Neytiri tried to transfer her into her avatar, but instead she died. Somehow in the intervening years that inactive avatar gave birth. Who was her father, and how did this happen?

And Spider, of course, is Quaritch’s human son. Who was his mother? And who’s in charge of the maternity ward on Pandora? Because we have questions! I mean, there wasn’t a single birth in Avatar 1, and we come back and suddenly the cast has doubled in size.

Avatar 2 plot whoppers and whinges:

  • Pacing/tonal inconsistencies. Where is Spider during the extended segment when Team Sully goes seaward? Does the movie want to be a National Geographic aquatic spectacular or a Michael Bay blow-em-up? Is there any rhyme or reason to when Sully’s voiceover narration is shoehorned into the narrative?
  • Pretty disappointed by the mouse-pulls-thorn-from-lion’s-paw cliche in Lo’ak’s meeting with Payakan.
  • The Sully kids drop so many “cuz” and “bro” interjections that I felt nausea.
  • I’m a little nostalgic for good ol’ Earth-based cultural appropriation here. If the Na’vi were an Earth culture, at least they’d have to standardize on accents and build on a culture that isn’t so idealized and flagrantly infected with the “noble savage” cliche. Are they supposed to be Hawaiian, Native American, or other? The only thing we’re missing is a discussion of yoga poses, tribal tattoos, and superfoods.
  • The filmmakers missed a major opportunity to introduce wonder when we discover that the Tulkun can speak cogently with the Na’vi. This should’ve been a spectacular, magical movie moment. I acknowledge that, due to the timeline, Sully’s probably already had such an experience, but what if Quaritch or one of the other avatars got to bring it to us fresh? Instead it’s just a so-what moment that’s lost in the childish drama. What a sad loss.
  • What’s with the kidnap-the-kids plot loop? Quaritch is a terrible kidnapper and incompetent. He should’ve killed the Sully kids twice over.
  • Spider is an oddity as well. Not only is he retconned from the comics (!!!) and not present in the first movie, but he’s kind of a comical Na’vi wannabe, made doubly risible by his terrible white-boy dreadlocks (aka wonderbreadlocks). He could’ve been a compelling, conflicted antihero with his connection to both Sully and Quaritch, but instead his choices are merely glossed over.

After three hours in the uncanny valley, I have to say I wish the director James Cameron had applied some of his tech magic to giving us aliens with more distinctive and emotive features. Facial mocap has advanced, sure. The filmmakers are proud to brag about resolution and tracking points in the extra features. But as you can see in the images below, the amount of human emotion lost between the real-life performances and the final product can’t be quantified in pixels. It’s just a tragedy to see how plastic the Na’vi are onscreen.

Avatar 2 plot undermined by tech
This human is crying… but this shiny blue alien is noticing a quarter on the floor.
Avatar 2 plot undermined by facial mocap
See any differences in these two Avatar 2 scenes? Holy crap. Screencaptured from the making-of video, so I guarantee this is the SAME scene.
Avatar 2 plot betrayed by weak rendering
This human in Avatar 2 is deeply concerned and emotive; this avatar dude on the right is somewhere between unbothered and mildly constipated.

Don’t let me overlook the spectacular craft and creature design in Avatar 2, though. There are indeed soaring spectacles and inspiring moments here, motivated by heartfelt desires to tell a moving, family-positive, eco-positive message.

However, at the end of the day, Avatar 2’s plot flaws and execution errors deliver a movie that’s more Saturday morning cartoon than cinematic tentpole, despite whatever the box office draw says. Cameron said that he was much more focused on the actors while making this movie, but he’s failed to communicate that emotion on screen. And when up against better competition at the Oscars, Avatar 2 lost in every category except technical execution. Sadly, despite all the excellence on display, that is simply justice served.

Oh wait… don’t forget SNL’s Papyrus sketch if you need a grin.


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