James Cameron has done it again.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a near-perfect sequel to his groundbreaking 2009 original. That isn’t as complimentary as it sounds.
“Water,” the first in a proposed series of sequels, essentially re-tells the “Avatar” saga. A peaceful, nature-loving species is once again attacked by cold, cruel humans from planet Earth.
They must rally to fend off invaders who place no value on life, be it an alien species or the creatures that inhabit various worlds.
The same ol’ flaws still stick to the saga, from clunky dialogue to story beats that don’t make much sense. We’re also asked, again, to root against the human race.
It’s still a mesmerizing experience, unlike anything you’ll see this year on the big screen, or maybe next. That matters.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his bride, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are living a blissful life on Pandora when we reunite with the Na’vi couple. They have four precocious children, and the horrors of the past are but a memory.
“Happiness is simple,” the proud husband and papa says … until the Sky People touch down on their planet. Again.
Led by Edie Falco in a poorly realized role, the invaders want to move the human race from a dying earth (why is it dying, pray tell?) to Pandora. And, if that means crushing some of the locals in the process, so be it.
Move. Or we’ll move you.
To make this happen, the “Sky People” unleash a new version of Stephen Lang’s baddie from the first film, Colonel Quaritch. Why? Cameron needed some continuity between the films, and Lang remains a wildly entertaining villain.
This time, Colonel Quaritch is an Avatar, a Na’vi creature who looks as tall and blue as the native population.
It’s still Colonel Quaritch, though, from his sneer to his brutal methods. And he wants to hunt down Jake, the turncoat who helped repel the Sky People during the first “Avatar.”
Why, though? Shouldn’t the mission focus on saving the Earth’s population, not blunt-force revenge? It’s something “The Way of Water” has little interest in addressing. When you’ve spent 13 years between films you should have game planned these questions.
Jake’s family moves from its beloved wilderness to the sea to avoid the Colonel’s clutches. They’re taken in by a tribe of Metkayina who live near Pandora’s perfectly blue waters. Will Sully and co. be safe there, though, with Lang’s digital recreation bent on revenge?
A nagging sense creeps up while being dazzled by “Avatar: The Way of Water.” For all of Cameron’s mastery, there’s little reason to tell this story. The first film shared all the messages that needed to be shared, from humanity’s cold approach to other life forms to our willingness to mock Mother Earth.
Done and done.
Those narratives are here, too, and even the plots of the two movies are staggeringly similar. The first movie found humans trying to swipe Unobtanium from the world of Pandora, and they didn’t care how many natives died in the process.
This time, the earth itself is dying and humans want to “pacify” the Pandora locals to relocate to the bountiful realm (even though humans can’t breathe the air). And they don’t care how many natives die in the process.
Why did Cameron wait, and wait, to tell such a similar story? Just know that he’s squeezed every last artistic breakthrough into “Water,” and that by itself is enough to recommend the film.
Director James Cameron said that he knew making an #Avatar sequel 13 years later wasn’t going to be easy, but it was a challenge he was up for. #ABC2020 gives an exclusive first look at the making of #AvatarTheWayOfWater – tonight at 10/9c on @ABC. https://t.co/mc9fMjmNCv
— 20/20 (@ABC2020) December 13, 2022
The film looks magnificent, although that word fails to capture what audiences will experience here. It’s a near-perfect marriage of digital effects and real-world actors and props. “The Way of Water” feels light years ahead of the 2009 film, visually speaking. The 3D is breathtaking, the visuals astound and the creativity poured into this realm must be seen to be believed.
Even the 3D makes you want Hollywood to give the gimmick a second try (actually, a fourth try if we’re counting past experiments in that third dimension) … if only for a moment.
There’s nary a sequence when you doubt the Na’vi are as real as the human figures, although very few can be seen in the film.
Yes, that’s Jemaine Clement as a local hunter conflicted by his mission, but the script doesn’t leverage his comic energy. Far better is Spider (Jack Champion), a human living among the Na’vi who embraced their culture from top to bottom. He even hisses like them when threatened, and his presence proves electric.
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The “Avatar” franchise is set in the 22nd century, but Cameron and co. insist on adding modern phrases that take you out of that setting. Words like “dips***” and “wuss” rush to mind. And when someone says, “Show me the money,” your eyes may roll out of your head and onto the movie theater’s sticky floor.
At least it’ll be in 3-D, right?
Cameron’s eco-beliefs are never far from the screen. The various families connect with their environment, be it the lush forests or the achingly beautiful underwater realms. He’s not lecturing the audience this time, at least not directly, but his story sends the obvious message.
Respect Mother Nature. Love it. Feed it. Never forget its power or majesty.
A few scenes push that spirit to the breaking point, like when Sully’s teenage kids commune with massive, whale-like creature.
The subplots are both engaging and simplistic. One of the Sully teens, voiced by Sigourney Weaver with a connection to her “Avatar” character, whines, “Why can’t I be like everyone else” at one point.
Other sequences harp on teen-on-teen bullying, the kind you’d see in any John Hughes movie.
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What sets “The Way of Water” apart from the original as well as most Hollywood fare?
The Sully clan is a devoted bunch. Papa Jake is constantly teaching his children right from wrong, how to honor their heritage and avoid bringing shame to the clan.
That bond, reinforced over the film’s ghastly running time (3 hours, 12 minutes!) shows Cameron as a populist to his core. It’s how he’s been able to shatter box office records time and again. You’d think if Hollywood can’t get in the James Cameron business at least once a year they could chat with the filmmaker on a regular basis … and take notes.
“A father protects … it’s what gives him meaning,” Jake says at one point, and he means it.
So does “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and it’s the movie’s most subversive touch.
HiT or Miss: The visuals in “Avatar: The Way of Water” are gorgeous enough to recommend it by themselves.