It’s been thirteen years since James Cameron introduced the real world to his fictional land of Pandora in 2009’s Avatar (still the highest-grossing film of all time), but don’t call this a legacy sequel. That term typically applies to movies conceived decades later, but Cameron has been talking about exploring more of his imaginary landscape since, well, 2009. Avatar: The Way of Water might not go to the moon(s) as he initially envisioned, but it still succeeds at finding new worlds to feast on from underwater seascapes to new digital effects frontiers. This is no mere rehash, though, as Cameron has upped the CG ante while adding one important element to his alien world that the first film lacked — humanity.
It’s been over a decade since Jake (Sam Worthington) and friends, both human and Na’vi, pushed back the militarized corporate push into the lush jungle landscape of Pandora. They sent the humans packing, and a family soon blossomed between Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) in the form of four “half-breed” children. Life is good until the Earthlings return with more weaponry and a primary goal of killing Jake to squash any hope of further rebellion. Their secret weapon? Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his crew are now cruising around in Na’vi bodies. Forced on the run, Jake and his family take refuge with the island-dwelling Metkayina clan — think Na’vi, but a lighter blue with thicker tails and stronger lungs — but it’s not long before violence finds them once again.
Hyperbole is maybe the worst thing in the world, but Avatar: The Way of Water utterly redefines visual awe and wonder. It resets the bar so ridiculously high with entire sequences that leave you unsure where physical reality stops and CG begins. Sure, you know (or at least suspect) that the various creatures and explosively colorful flora are CG creations, but you’ll be doing triple-takes on some of the hardware. Cameron’s latest gives new meaning to the term immersive and feels at times like a gorgeous nature special you have to keep reminding yourself is populated by zeroes and ones.
It’s three hours of digital beauty, but the bulk of that visual nirvana unfolds and flows underwater. Cameron’s second career as an undersea explorer/documentarian infuses this fictional world with striking splendor as Pandoran creatures one or two steps removed from their Earthly cousins glide through the water. The Na’vi — human performers captured and rendered in CG — are equally graceful and lifelike in their movements, and the illusion finds further support when seen in 3-D. Yes, Avatar: the World of Water is a film worth seeking out in 3-D as Cameron uses it to create and enhance his world rather than merely for single-beat shock value.
While the visuals improve massively upon Avatar‘s already impressive and groundbreaking (at the time) effects, the story remains as one-note as ever. As with that first film, Cameron is content here with a string of set-pieces connected by narrative cliche and nods to other movies. Avatar may be a CG remake of Dances with Wolves (with loads of dull filler) but Avatar: The Way of Water lifts at times from films as diverse as Orca, The Blue Lagoon, and Cameron’s own Titanic. It’s three hours of beauty, chase scenes, action beats, and heartfelt moments, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.
For those concerned about the running time, rest assured that not only is the film never as dull as its predecessor, but its final third is one gloriously protracted action set-piece. Cameron connects one chase and action beat to the next in seamless fashion. We move through the air, beneath the waves, through a ship’s claustrophobic bulkheads, and at one point, inside a whale-like creature’s mouth. It moves like a meticulously crafted freight train turning up the tension and thrills with expert precision, and Cameron uses his creatures and military hardware in fantastically exciting fashion.
Yes, Cameron still has a tin ear for dialogue at times, but the emotion overcomes it, and that’s a major step upward. The film finds the human (?) element missing from the first and makes you care beyond just a reactionary hatred of the various baddies. The empty, soulless adventure of the earlier film finds purpose and teary emotion here. The next generation edges into the forefront, and that family dynamic adds themes of empathy and feeling sorely absent the first time around. The kids are alright as they see a wild animal as more than the sum of its parts and a violent man as more than just his recent actions. Did I mention Quaritch may have left a kid behind on Pandora? Oh my.
And credit to Worthington for honing his acting skills over the past thirteen years as it’s a night and day change here with a character struggling to protect his family. You buy into his conflict this time around instead of simply yawning through it, and that’s as big of a game changer as Cameron’s improved visual effects. 2009’s Avatar is a wondrous f/x demo reel populated with fun action and long stretches of characters incapable of earning their keep and giving viewers reason to care. All the talk of spirits and connection fall flat as a result, but Avatar: The Way of Water fixes the issue and fills that gaping maw with emotion and soul. The beats may be engineered within an inch of their lives, but that’s filmmaking, folks.
This is film as spectacle, as elongated theme park adventure, and it’s easy to lose track of the other actors along the way. Sigourney Weaver‘s Dr. Augustine is still dead, but she had a Na’vi child — father unknown, gotta wait for the next sequel! — and it’s Weaver voicing the teenaged Kiri. Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis bring vocal life to the leaders of the Metkavina clan who take Jake’s family in, and we’re also introduced to additional human players with Jemaine Clement and Edie Falco. Lang, unsurprisingly, threatens to steal every scene he’s in again even in his Na’vi form. It’s the youths who take center stage at times, though, and will likely be the ones carrying the franchise forward. All of them (Jake’s four kids plus the island teens) do equally good work.
The Na’vi in Avatar ar just that, avatars — representations of indigenous peoples the world over used to tell a familiar story in grand, sci-fi fashion. Avatar: The Way of Water zooms in a bit closer to spend time with the individuals, the families, and while talk of spirit trees and connectedness remains, it takes a back seat to the immediacy of the loved ones in front of you. That might seem unimportant to some or anathema to others simply looking for spectacle, but in the world of Pandora it makes a world of difference.