Thirteen years in the making, one year more than the gap between his previous two box office crushers, “Titanic” (1997) and “Avatar” (2009), James Cameron is back to do it again. His sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water”, comes to the multiplex, or IMAX, or Dolby, or RealD high frame rate – whatever version is the best way to experience this spectacle (IMAX 3D was pretty incredible) – at a fraught time for the silver screen. Throughout the streaming wars, the pandemic, and the real sense that audiences are being forced to create a payment plan for the experience, filmgoers just aren’t flocking to the movies unless they feel it’s worth the risk. Basically, they need a real hook, and Cameron has proven once again that he is truly the master fisherman.
Like its predecessor, “Avatar: The Way of Water” doesn’t offer anything new in the way of plot mechanics or story beats. What it does is build a conceivable, palpable world for viewers to lose themselves in. Cameron and his technical teams have outdone their efforts in effects work even compared to the first film, with a fully designed digital space that creates a sense of full immersion. There’s so much in every frame to marvel at, particularly when the film moves to the titular environ about a third of the way in, that it has the distractive effect of moving past some of its glaring faults.
The action picks up a decade plus after the events of “Avatar”, almost echoing real time between installments. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, now fully CGI) is a family man with his spouse Neytiri (a criminally underused Zoe Saldana, who nonetheless shines in her mo-cap performance). In addition to leading their tribe of forest Navi despite being a human construct and not a native (a concept even more ridiculous this time around), his family consists of three “hybrid” Navi born to Neytiri, an adopted human child (Jack Champion) who covers himself in Navi markings, and most intriguingly, an adopted daughter birthed from the braindead avatar of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Grace, from the original. In a wild turn, Weaver herself plays this teenage character, Kiri, with a pretty remarkable mo-cap performance. It’s details like this, and some inspired moments later in the film where he simultaneously glorifies and condemns human ingenuity, that highlight the auteur work that’s uniquely Cameron.
After bringing the audience up to speed, Cameron and Co., set the stage for the future of this franchise (he has multiple sequels planned). Much like worldwide audiences have in droves, humans return to Pandora to once again poach its resources, this time in the form of making this world a permanent habitat. Accompanying these forces are some of the Marines killed in “Avatar”. Their consciousnesses were saved prior to their battle with Jake and the Navi, now downloaded into avatar bodies themselves in an attempt to provide parity with their enemies. They are led by Stephen Lang’s warmongering Quaritch, looking to exact some personal revenge on Jake and Neytiri.
Jake concludes that the only way to keep his family and the greater forest clan safe is to migrate to the coastal lands of the water tribes. These Navi have evolved differently, adapting to their environment as the forest Navi had to theirs, putting the Sullys in a similar situation as the human avatars of the first film, thus having to learn new ways of life – “The Way of Water”. It would all be boring and repetitive if Cameron didn’t fill this movie with incredible spectacle and compelling action.
It remains to be seen how successful this part two will ultimately be, although so far based on global receipts it’s on track to rival the original. In revisiting the first “Avatar”, it’s interesting to note its timeless nature, as it is rooted in an elemental story of colonization and empathy. One hindrance sure to hurt part two’s chances of aging gracefully is its most egregious choice to switch the dialogue over to English from Navi, and worst of all, include modern slang, mainly through the teenage interactions. At this point, late in his career, it would appear that James Cameron may not be so interested in the permanence of a single creation – he’s got a third part already in the chamber and parts 4&5 ready to go. Who is anyone to doubt the man, self-professesed “King of the World”, with the bona fides to go along with it? The movie house is James Cameron’s world, we just all clamor to live in it . . .
Directed By: James Cameron
Written By: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, & Amanda Silver
Running Time: 192 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+