‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Review: James Cameron’s Mega-Sequel Delivers on Action, Emotion and Thrilling 3-D Visuals

James Cameron knows his way around a sequel. With Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he showed he could build on the strengths of franchise starters with brawny action, steadily ratcheted tension and jaw-dropping technological invention. He’s also a storyteller very much at home in H2O, harnessing both the majestic vastness of the oceans and the icy perils of the deep in Titanic and The Abyss.

So it should surprise no one that Avatar: The Way of Water — which includes echoes of all those earlier films — is a hugely entertaining follow-up to the 2009 sci-fi eco-thriller that remains the top-grossing movie of all time.

Avatar: The Way of Water

The Bottom Line

Just ignore the drippy dialogue and get wet.

Release date: Friday, Dec. 16
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet, Britain Dalton, Jamie Flatters, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass
Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Rated PG-13,
3 hours 12 minutes

In terms of narrative sophistication and even more so dialogue, this $350 million sequel is almost as basic as its predecessor, even feeble at times. But the expanded, bio-diverse world-building pulls you in, the visual spectacle keeps you mesmerized, the passion for environmental awareness is stirring and the warfare is as visceral and exciting as any multiplex audience could desire.

Box office for Disney’s Dec. 16 release is going to be monstrous, while simultaneously whetting global appetites for the three more Avatar entries Cameron has announced.

What’s most astonishing about The Way of Water is the persuasive case it makes for CGI, at a time when most VFX-heavy productions settle for a rote efficiency that has drained the movies of much of their magic. Unlike other directors who have let technological experimentation at times smother their creative instincts — Robert Zemeckis and Ang Lee come to mind — Cameron thrives in the artifice of the digital toolbox.

Working in High Dynamic Range at 48 frames per second, he harnesses the immersive quality of enhanced 3-D to give DP Russell Carpenter’s images depth and tactile vibrancy. Skeptics who watched the trailer and dismissed the long-time-coming Avatar sequel as a videogame-aesthetic hybrid of photorealism and animation that ends up looking like neither may not be entirely wrong. But the trippy giant-screen experience, for those willing to give themselves over to it, is visually ravishing, particularly in the breathtaking underwater sequences.

How much you care about the fate of a bunch of outsize blue people will depend on your appetite for a sci-fi survival story that draws from classic Westerns while upping the stakes with the threat of genocide. Either way, this is a big movie, monumental even, that justifies its three hours-plus of screen time and its mammoth financial investment.

The story picks up more than a decade after Marine veteran Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) began living on the extrasolar moon Pandora in the Indigenous Na’vi form of his genetically engineered avatar. He and his warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have raised a family in the meantime, including teenage sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), their tween sister Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the biological child of the late Dr. Grace Augustine’s avatar.

Spider (Jack Champion) — a human child orphaned by the “Sky People” conflict and too young to be put into cryosleep when the colonists and their military security force were packed off to Earth at the end of the first movie — spends more time among the Na’vi than he does in the lab facilities with the science nerds. While his connection to the Pandorans runs deep, he’s a walking preview of conflict to come in future installments as his loyalties are divided. The identity of his dad doesn’t remain a mystery for long.

Jake is the respected leader of the Omaticaya clan, whose peaceful existence among the lush forests is threatened when the invaders return to Pandora. Their mission this time is not just to mine the moon for the valuable mineral “unobtainium,” whatever that is, but also to establish Pandora as a human colony, given that Earth is becoming uninhabitable.

The operation is headed with strictly-business ruthlessness by General Francis Ardmore (Edie Falco), who stomps around in an Amplified Mobility Platform — a descendant of the mechanical exoskeleton loader that Ripley used to take down the Queen at the end of Aliens — like it’s a snug romper. But once she has given orders to her elite military team to “subdue the hostiles,” she pretty much disappears.

Heading the security squad is a face with a familiar snarl and an arsenal of hardass folksy snark, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). But since he was killed by Neytiri’s arrows last time around, it’s now his larger, faster Na’vi avatar (don’t ask), accompanied by a similar bunch of re-engineered big-foot blue grunts. “A Marine can’t be killed,” says Quaritch. “You can kill us, but we’ll just regroup in Hell.”

It goes somewhat against the goal of establishing a new habitat for humanity that their interstellar vehicles incinerate vast expanses of greenery wherever they land, but that just shows that revenge is the only thing Quaritch cares about. The recombinant colonel has acquired none of the spirituality or the respect for nature of the Na’vi people in his new form, and with his disdain for “half-breeds,” he’s even more like a Wild West villain with fancy hardware than before.

When it becomes clear to Jake after some tense encounters that Quaritch is coming after his family, he relinquishes Omaticaya leadership and relocates with the brood to a distant cluster of islands inhabited by the Metkayina clan. The chief, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), and his pregnant shamanic wife, Ronal (Kate Winslet), reluctantly offer the refugees sanctuary, aware of the obvious risk to their community.

Their son Aonung (Filip Geljo) defies his father’s instruction to help the land-lovers adapt to life in and around the ocean, immediately clashing with headstrong Lo’ak. But their daughter, Tsireya (Bailey Bass), proves a generous teacher, and Kiri, especially, takes to the new environment like a fish to water. She’s inherited Grace’s fascination with the natural world but also reveals a strong connection to Eywa, the divine entity worshipped by the Na’vi.

Anyone too hung up on consistency might wonder why the Na’vi adults all speak in an unidentifiably exotic accent while their offspring tend to sound like they’ve stepped right out of a CW teen series. Tsireya, in her cute macrame bikini top, appears to have been keeping up with the Kardashians. But you either go with it or you don’t, and there’s a soulful sweetness to the scenes of domestic family life and adolescent interaction that’s warmly engaging.

With the resemblance of the Metkayinas’ intricate tattoos to Maori body art and even a war chant with protruding tongues not unlike the haka ceremony, Cameron seems to be paying tribute to the Indigenous people of the Avatar productions’ host country, New Zealand. The design work on the beautiful Metkayina people themselves is impressive, physiologically distinct from the Omatikayas in various ways that indicate how they have adapted to ocean life.

“Water has no beginning and no end,” says Tsireya, with a reverence that no doubt reflects Cameron’s own feelings. The director has been a deep-sea geek since he graduated from the Roger Corman special effects shop with his seldom-mentioned feature debut Piranha II. That fascination has continued not only through The Abyss and Titanic but also in his ocean documentaries, giving the new film a full-circle feel as we share his intoxication with an unspoiled environment full of power, splendor and mystery.

Fittingly, the Metkayinas have their own equivalent of the Omatikayas’ Tree of Souls, the underwater Cove of the Ancestors, its bioluminescent vegetation among the film’s visual showstoppers.

Just as the flying ikrans and leonopteryxes swooped through the glowing skies of Pandora in the first movie, the sequel finds wonder in the creatures gliding over the exquisitely detailed reefs and ocean depths in this new environment. The Metkayinas ride on dragon-like aquatic mammals called ilus and skimwings. In one enchanting touch, Tsireya shows the newcomers how to attach a kind of stingray as a cape that allows them to breathe underwater. The ocean peoples’ most sacred bond is with the gigantic tulkun, highly intelligent whale-like creatures that provide 300 feet of bait for Quaritch to lure Jake out of hiding in the maze of islands.

You might roll your eyes at soggy dialogue referring to a tulkun as a “spirit sister” and “composer of songs,” but sequences in which these sentient giants become prey are profoundly moving. That section introduces new characters in mercenary sea captain Scoresby (Brendan Cowell) and Resources Development Administration marine biologist Dr. Ian Garvin (Jemaine Clement), who looks on squeamishly as the magnificent creatures are hunted for one of the most valuable commodities in the universe.

The performance-capture work with the actors in the underwater sequences is superb, but it’s when the conflict really gets hairy that Cameron is most in his element. The open-water clash that dominates the final hour is a commandingly sustained feat of action filmmaking in which the stakes are raised significantly by the vulnerability of the Na’vi kids, all of them pleasingly feisty and resourceful.

“Family is our fortress,” Jake says, and while certain dynamics — like the golden-child eldest son and the undisciplined second-born who can never live up to his example — feel pedestrian, the characters all are sufficiently fleshed-out and individualized to keep us invested. That’s especially true once tragedy strikes and the ongoing attack allows no time to fall apart after a devastating loss.

The good guys-vs.-villains story (scripted by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) isn’t exactly complex, but the infinite specifics of the world in which it takes place and the tenderness with which the film observes its Indigenous inhabitants make Avatar: The Way of Water surprisingly emotional. While much of the nuance in the cast’s work is overshadowed by CG wizardry, Saldaña and Winslet have poignant moments, Weaver has solid foundations on which to build continuing involvement, and Dalton and Champion are standouts among the young newcomers.

I missed the heart-pounding suspense and tribal themes of James Horner’s score for the 2009 film, but composer Simon Franglen capably maintains the tension where it counts. Even more than its predecessor, this is a work that successfully marries technology with imagination and meticulous contributions from every craft department. But ultimately, it’s the sincerity of Cameron’s belief in this fantastical world he’s created that makes it memorable.

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