Avatar: The Way of Water is unmitigated bum detritus and the product of James Cameron's Pandora-sized ego, but ever since I dragged my aching body out of the cinema I've found myself thinking about it a lot, and how I might actually be incredibly excited to play another game set in this ridiculous universe.
Look, I know there's a very good chance that Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora (opens in new tab) is going to be another prescriptive Ubisoft open world, but there's something so wonderfully dumb about the property that has inspired it that it could, maybe, end up being brilliant. Or at least better than 2009's Avatar: The Game, the mediocre tie-in set before the first movie. Licensed spin-offs have come a long way! I probably don't sound very convincing, but bear with me.
I'm increasingly less interested in where games fall on the spectrum of exceptional and total shite, and more concerned about whether or not they are boring. A bad game can still be interesting, even a good time, but a game can't come back from being dull, even when it's not otherwise a disaster. The Way of Water is definitely not dull. Accidentally hilarious? Absolutely. Too damn long? Yes, oh god, yes. But it had my attention for the whole three hours because I just had to keep watching to see what ridiculous bullshit Cameron would awkwardly jam in there next. Every scene was a treat, even as my brain slowly leaked out of my ears. And that's a quality I'd really appreciate in a game.
We're about to get into spoiler territory here, naturally. And with the disclaimer out of the way, let's get into the nonsense.
The Way of Water is a cinematic clusterfuck that's bursting with ideas, even if few are particularly original. But they are thrown against the wall with such conviction and childlike sincerity that I sort of respect Cameron's self-belief. Pandora's whales really typify this. These whales are special. Magical, even. Upon coming across a dead whale, one of the mostly interchangeable na'vi (this one played by a very well disguised Kate Winslet) laments that this massive carcass was once a famous composer, and her best mate.
Ever since that moment I've been having visions of a whale orchestra. Just imagine the Frontiers of Pandora sidequest, sending you flitting around to find the best aquatic musicians the world has to offer. Forget the war against humanity, just let me start a damn band. And this feels like a very Ubisoft thing to do. How many times have we seen Assassins take a break from stabbing people to go on a lark? Eivor even played some baseball, which I'm not sure is historically accurate.
In typical Avatar fashion, we're only ever given strange titbits about the whales—like how they're usually strict pacifists, forcing any killer whales to become rogue badasses—so there's a massive gap that Ubisoft could fill with all sorts of unexpected diversions. I genuinely want to know what kind of music these creatures are into. Do they enjoy Enya?
Alternatively, why not let us join a gang of cool teen whales who absolutely love murder? Just patrolling the high seas, using your whale friends as boats and doing crimes. Hell yeah. There's just so much potential here, and Ubisoft would be foolish not to mine this for all its worth.
The revelation about the dead whale's past and its relationship with na'vi Kate Winslet is an obvious attempt to tug on the heart strings, rendered laughable because what we're talking about here is a goofy-looking CGI critter who we never met before they became a giant slab of rotting meat. But there's more to these whales than just their hobbies, because these big, wet mammals also hold the secret to immortality. Yep, they swim around, composing songs, all while a magical elixir sloshes around in their brains that stops the ageing process.
Amrita, as the elixir is known, is why the cartoonishly evil humans are hunting the whales, effectively replacing the first film's MacGuffin, unobtanium—which, I should add, seems to have been largely forgotten about. That forgetfulness, and the care-free way the film dispenses information, seems to be a theme of the series, because the magical brain juice is introduced pretty far into the film, after which it's pretty much ignored. It's ostensibly the whole reason humanity is killing everything it encounters in The Way of Water, but not quite important enough to get more than a wee bit of exposition.
Reassuringly, Avatar already seems to work on videogame logic, though it's a kind of logic that is common in a lot of sci-fi and fantasy properties beyond gaming. You've got the forest na'vi, with their bows and arrows and their penchant for leaping from branch to branch. Now there's the water na'vi, who talk to fish and have weird Popeye-like forearms. Cameron recently confirmed that we'll meet the fire na'vi next, who I'm going to assume live in the desert and chat to the sand. Apparently they're arseholes. This neatly divides the world up into distinct biomes with their own special alien tribes with unique connections to Pandora and its creatures. It's a big ol' cliche, granted, but it's also a solid foundation on which to build a game, with these clearly defined regions set up to provide bespoke challenges and vibes.
I spent 100 or so hours mucking around in Horizon: Forbidden West last year—a game that has a lot of striking similarities to Avatar, though perhaps not quite as many as FernGully does—and it really makes the most out of its biome reveals. Reaching the desert or hitting the stunning coastline for the first time feels like an impactful, important moment, which is then further reinforced by the big, overarching quests you start finding yourself embroiled in, whether it's bringing the ruins of Las Vegas back to life or finally reaching the monolithic paradise of San Francisco. It's less overt than the main progression systems, but effective nonetheless, and this familiar structure still has a lot to offer.
This might just be evidence of Stockholm syndrome, but I'm even pumped to find out if Frontiers of Pandora replicates The Way of Water's wild casting decisions, the pinnacle of which has to be the return of Sigourney Weaver. Grace's death in the first movie is conveniently sidestepped by making Weaver play her teenage daughter, Kiri, who is a na'vi. Like all the na'vi, she's putting on an accent that makes you wonder "Is this a little bit racist?", but it's unmistakably Weaver, a 70-year-old woman. It's utterly bizarre, but after some initial confusion where I had no idea whose mouth her voice was coming out of, I was all in. She sounds so wrong for the character that it goes all the way back round to working. You've just got to set your brain to sleep mode.
Ubisoft should take the idea to the logical next step. Cast Danny DeVito as the lead. Bring in Judi Dench to play an actual baby, and find a baby to play a wise old woman. The world might not be ready for this yet, but my objectively good suggestions aside, there's something oddly compelling about out-there casting decisions. Beyond the novelty factor, it's just fun to hear a well-known name push themselves in an unexpected direction, like Vin Diesel as Groot (his greatest performance since his Oscar-worthy turn as Xander Cage in XXX), Mark Hamill as the Joker and, in games specifically, Nolan North hamming it up as the Penguin in Arkham City.
Kiri isn't just noteworthy because she's a teenager with the voice of a 70-year-old, though. She's also the product of an immaculate conception, with all the messiah baggage that comes with it. We never explicitly find out how she was conceived—aside from the unsettling fact that it's Grace's now comatose na'vi clone who gives birth to her—but it's heavily hinted that, I shit you not, Pandora itself was responsible. Yep, just a horny planet hooking up with na'vi clones of Earth women. Typical. Yet another thread I hope to see Ubisoft get all tangled up in. Has Pandora done this before? How many women has this planet-about-town impregnated?
Given that we're two movies in and we've already had two messiahs, Ubisoft might as well introduce a third. Sure, videogame Chosen Ones are a dime a dozen, but I don't think we've had many who get to call a whole planet "Daddy". Maybe that's what sets off Frontiers of Pandora's main quest: the hunt for alimony. Interesting origin stories are hard to do (at least I assume that's why so many videogame heroes are blank slates and amnesiacs), but Avatar has established a precedent here that has some unusual potential—OK, maybe not the alimony part.
With Avatar: The Game, Ubisoft was given a great deal of freedom, which is how we ended up with a prequel and a bunch of new characters instead of a beat-for-beat recreation of the first movie. We don't know if it's a similar deal this time around, but hopefully Ubisoft will be able to treat Pandora like a playground, drawing from the first two films while also introducing yet more novelties.
Ultimately, I just want Frontiers of Pandora to lean into the weird shit, and even after just two movies, Avatar is a property that has this in abundance. We are, after all, talking about a series where the na'vi use their hair to both procreate and bond with animals. But as much as The Way of Water has no filter, there's still this sense that Cameron held back a little, because even he understands that human bones cannot withstand your average cinema seat for more than three hours. This is not a consideration Ubisoft needs to make, and even if it did, I suspect it wouldn't give a shit. Frontiers of Pandora is going to be 100 hours long—I guarantee it. That's a lot of time begging to be filled with unhinged oddities.
Or maybe it will just be Assassin's Creed but you're blue.