James Cameron always swings for the fences — no singles, doubles, triples or even stealing home for him — and he’s hit a grand slam with the long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water. This second installment in a five-film series of Avatar features from 20th Century Studios/Disney (with three more to open at two-year intervals through 2028) more than fulfills the promise of the original, which was released in 2009, before some of its fans were even born. The film is beautiful, obsessive and eventful, a depiction of a veritable Eden threatened by voraciously destructive forces both natural and man-made. No one who enthused over the original would think of missing this follow-up, which ups the ante for all that is to come, creatively and financially.
When Cameron took on the daunting challenge of guiding a troublesome, dubiously seaworthy entity called Titanic to its destination in 1997, something its captain and crew were unable to do in real life, he righted the ship sufficiently for the film to make it to port and generate $2.2 billion worldwide, an all-time box office record to that point. When Cameron resurfaced 12 years later with Avatar, another watery endeavor, he once again hit the jackpot, to the tune of $2.7 billion. And now, with the film’s producers and financiers gambling on the director’s hand to remain hot all these years later (few would bet against it), we can see that what’s up on screen represents a further flowering of a verdant, watery and altogether captivating island environment now being threatened by the forces of greed, money and militarism poised to overrun paradise.
You’d think that even the most obsessive control freak might at some point tire of keeping tabs on the massive amount of minutia attendant to such a lavish and time-consuming enterprise. But maniacal attention to detail is what can make the difference in such fiercely controlled creative circumstances, and you feel it again all these years later upon immersion in Cameron’s latest and most fully developed world, one that ultimately emerged in collaboration with co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Mulan and two Planet of the Apes and Jurassic World entries).
Despite having the help of a crew that may have employed more men and women than do the armies of some small nations, Avatar is dominantly the creation of one person’s imagination. As we learned 13 years ago (or, if you’re 13, you’ll hear about it now, if you haven’t already), a massive battle took place in the mid-22nd century that killed many and forced the retreat of some survivors elsewhere, as has a post-war environmental catastrophe. Among the fortunate is series holdover Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former U.S. Marine who, as he becomes mobile again, falls in love with young Na’vi woman Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the previous chief. Jake has three biological kids and two who were adopted from another tribe, but you’re not likely to be quizzed on such details.
Some whimsical casting permutations have taken place, with Sigourney Weaver returning briefly in a different role than she played before. The same goes for Stephen Lang, who was such a great villain as Col. Quaritch but was most definitely killed off then and is considerably more docile here. Kate Winslet appears insignificantly as a free diver. There may be more you’ll want to discover for yourself.
Once again, paradise is threatened by its own riches, which, as far as corporate interests are concerned, are there for the taking and far too tempting to ignore. Pandora is also alluring for its climate, which is much like that of Earth, so it’s only a matter of time before this peaceful paradise is drawn back into dreadful and deadly conflict. Families, as opposed to single individual kids, are not often a major presence in huge action films, but Cameron and the similarly family-centric Steven Spielberg have played a major role in making them so.
All this is well and good, but what is most significant here is the evidence of supreme care Cameron has lavished upon the creation of the physical surroundings that define the nature of the various environments — airborn, land-based and underwater — that dominate the universe in which Avatar: The Way of Water thrives. The hyper-realistic never-before-seen locations, surprising plants, animals and utterly spectacular sea life you soon take for granted, mountains you’d like to climb and bodies of water where you’d like to take your next vacation are lovely to behold. But soon, as has so often happened on Earth, they become battlegrounds for the greedy and power-hungry.
For most fantasy-based films, all this would be more than enough to keep anyone involved and satisfied, but the infinite care with which every element, especially the visual, has been attended to is utterly clear and mightily impressive. Cameron and his cohorts became the first to pull off motion capture underwater, and at this point you get the impression that he’s come, seen and conquered in every cinematic technical endeavor he’s ever confronted.
There are plenty of dilemmas and challenges the protagonists are forced to confront and, if they’re lucky, overcome, which makes for more than enough robust action. But what might be most impressive are the small, graceful and hitherto unseen manner of touches with which Cameron & co. have graced the tale. It was undoubtedly the achievement of this goal that took the filmmakers so long to finally nail, but nail it they did in scene after gorgeous scene of natural action on land and sea.
There are stretches in the film perhaps present simply for the beauty of what the filmmakers created, but they seem justified in this instance not only as a showcase for what can be achieved, albeit at the expense of a great deal of money and time, but as an exceptional representation of the wonders of the natural world. There is beauty everywhere you look, from the spectacle provided by nature’s creations, the tactile sense you get from the skin and hair of humans and other natural life, and the emotional expressions of strength and sensitivity.
Many scenes, above and below the waterline, are stunningly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before; humans, wildlife, water and nature, often in beautiful sync with one another, at other times in conflict, are gorgeous and play an important role in the overall impact of this long (192 minutes), occasionally indulgent but pioneering film that excites by bringing something to the screen that has never been seen in quite this way before.
Anyone who says they’ll wait and catch Avatar: The Way of Water at home is wimping out. This is something to be experienced on the big screen — the bigger the better and very likely more than once. There’s much more to come in three installments over the next six years. Theater owners will be grateful, and so will audiences.
The film hits theaters Friday.