Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water

2022, PG-13, 192 min. Directed by James Cameron. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Stephen Lang, Jack Champion, Cliff Curtis, Giovanni Ribisi.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 16, 2022

I suspect I will always remember the first time I saw Avatar.

In 2009, back when everyone was convinced that the blue cat aliens flick would lend James Cameron his first flop since The Abyss, producer Jon Landau presented a handful of scenes at Fantastic Fest, Austin's tastemaker genre film festival. Before the event, I had been unconvinced by the designs and the overall look of the film; but, like Jake Sully leaving the pod in his bioengineered Na'vi body and stepping out into the strange and lush alien world of Pandora, the experience of the finished footage was so immersive, so awe-inspiring, so thrilling, that I was not simply won over. I walked out and told the first person I saw, "That movie is going to make a billion dollars."

To be fair, I was only off by $1.75 billion, so I'll expect to be proven wrong when I predict that Avatar: The Way of Water will take $2 billion. Because following permanently AWOL marine and narrator Jake Sully (Worthington) and his family into the seas of Pandora gave me that same giddy sense of wonder and spectacle, that same feeling of three hours in an impossible world.

Sully's role as narrator is pivotal, because this is not his story, but rather the story he tells. It is really the story of his children, a mishmash clan of kids with his native Na'vi partner, Neytiri (Saldaña), and wayward strays and orphans. Three are tinged with his "sky people" blood (as the human interlopers are called): oldest and most responsible son Neteyam (Flatters), troublemaking middle child Lo'ak (Dalton), and adorable tyke Tuk (Bliss). As for the tagalongs, there's Kiri (Weaver), the strange daughter of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (also Weaver) through her avatar body, and Spider (Champion), a dreadlocked human boy raised by Sully after he was abandoned by the evacuating colonial invaders. The mystery of the sires of these progeny is pivotal to the story, as are the sparring dynamics of Neteyam and Lo'ak, both chips off the old jarhead block in different ways.

The crucible of the script is the inevitable consequence of the end of the first film. Seriously, did anyone expect the humans to leave Pandora and its deposits of gravity-defying unobtanium (both a MacGuffin and a material physics in-joke) alone after one ass-kicking? The Terrans return in force, in a fashion that is immediately disturbing for its massive destruction, and with a new weapon. New avatars, uploaded with the memories and skills of some of the most vicious Marines, including the formerly very dead Colonel Miles Quaritch (Lang getting to join in the motion-capture fun), dispatched to assassinate Sully and end his rebellion.

Thus the all-important change of location from the verdant if deadly jungle to the crystal-clear, unpolluted, still fairly deadly waters of this alien world – and, let's be clear, there's no one who films water better than James Cameron. This is the filmmaker that made the most expensive film ever – at that point – just so that he could dive to the wreck of the Titanic. He's also arguably the greatest technologist working in cinema today, and a storyteller who has consistently woven immediately identifiable anti-militarist, anti-colonialist, environmentalist messages into mass-appeal blockbusters.

Thus it is with Avatar: The Way of Water, the Avatar movie that Cameron most clearly wanted to make all along but that had to wait until the technology was sufficient to make CG water look convincing. Or, rather, until he could push it to that point. The fleeing Sully family washes up on the shores of the Metkayina sea clan, headed by Tonowari (Curtis), who begrudgingly gives them shelter over the even more pointed objections of his wife, Ronal (Winslet), and underwater they go. In the first film, the tree people of the Na'vi were perfectly suited for the arboreal existence, but they're literally out of their element here. The sea clan has evolved for deep sea diving – broader, finlike arms; thicker tails for swimming, not swinging – and they become the guides for the Sully family, as they are for the audience, into the gorgeous fantasy reefs and shallows of Pandora.

And this is when Avatar: The Way of Water transforms from simple wonder to something truly jaw-dropping. Cameron has taken audiences deep with documentaries like Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. This magical, manufactured world feels like the first time he has been able to truly communicate the emotional experience of the oceans, filled with playful beasts that are as fascinated by us as we are by them. It's also executed with the same spellbinding application of technology he pulled off in the first film, with new techniques (like variable frame rates within individual scenes) that are utterly captivating. There are lengthy sequences that are nothing but characters interacting with the environment, a spectacular and literally otherworldly excursion filled with a whole ecosystem of almost recognizable creatures. Cameron makes you care for this place, for its residents, for its wildlife, and most especially for its whale analogs – a major element of the story, one that curtly reminds us that our own cetaceans may well be our intellectual equals.

And, of course, this being Cameron, there are massive action set-pieces, but in no way do they subvert the messaging. When the Marines (no longer the flawed fool of Aliens and The Abyss, now outright soulless tools of destruction) finally attack, they lay siege to a Pandora that you will care about – and, by extension, you'll care about your own world. Still, you'll be sad to leave Pandora and eager to sign up for a return trip for the promised sequels.

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Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Stephen Lang, Jack Champion, Cliff Curtis, Giovanni Ribisi

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