In 2009, the world of movies was forever changed by “Avatar”, a science fiction epic born from the mind of James Cameron. The movie was a box office phenomenon, and it remains the highest grossing film of all-time. Technically, “Avatar” was a groundbreaking film that pushed visual effects to entirely new heights. It also reintroduced 3D to the big screen, using it in the most dazzling and immersive way ever seen. Of course the 3D craze didn’t last, mainly because no one could match what Cameron was able to do with it.
But while “Avatar” was a technical marvel, its story was a letdown. It was basically ripped straight from “Dances with Wolves” but with a futuristic sci-fi angle rather than a historical one. It also suffered from Cameron’s heavy-handed sermonizing on everything from the environment to corporate America to the military. It wasn’t that he had a message. It was that he pounded us over the head without an ounce of nuance or subtlety.
After thirteen years, James Cameron is back on Pandora with “Avatar: The Way of Water”, a nearly $400 million sequel that once again pushes the art of movie special effects to the proverbial next level. It’s a jaw-dropping motion picture spectacle unlike anything I’ve seen on the big screen before. Not only does it demand to be seen in the theater, it once again sees Cameron doing things with 3D technology that no one else has ever done. Not to sound hyperbolic, but you have to see it to believe it.
On the flip-side, Cameron isn’t best known for seamless storytelling and “Way of the Water” has its issues there. But the story is considerably better this time around, with Cameron getting away from the on-the-nose preachiness and giving us something that’s more intimate and that does a good job progressing the characters and their stories. I’m an admitted sucker for movies about family, and that theme resonates all throughout “The Way of the Water”. There’s also an overarching theme of empathy that plays out through multiple relationships.
Sam Worthington returns as Jake Sully, a former human and now full-on Na’vi. Over a decade has passed since the first film, and Jake is now chief of the Omaticaya forest tribe. There he and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) happily raise their family which includes their oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), their headstrong second son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), their youngest child Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), their adopted teenage daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and their adopted human son Spider (Jack Champion) who was born of Pandora and rescued by Jake and Neytiri.
While Jake’s life seems ideal, he has long feared the return of the “sky people”, aka the Resources Development Administration from planet Earth. In the first film, the RDA came in the form of a science mission and a mining operation. But within the first few minutes of the sequel they make their return, scorching a huge section of the forest to build their massive base of operations. Rather than being accompanied by a small but aggressive security team, this time the RDA have brought a bigger military presence. And rather than mine, they’ve come to colonize – to find a new home for humanity after depleting their own world’s resources. Their first step – pacify the natives.
Leading the charge is the film’s main antagonist, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed in the first movie but cloned as a Na’vi complete with all of his old uploaded memories. Quaritch is tasked with leading a unit of fellow recombinants to find and eliminate Jake Sully. Initially Jake, Neytiri and the Omaticaya fight back. But realizing the danger he brings to his family and people, Jake and Neytiri take their children and flee far away from the forest, eventually finding refuge with a water tribe called the Metkayina led by Chief Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet). But to no surprise, the ruthless and dogged Quaritch stays hot on their trail.
At a hefty three hours and twelve minutes, Cameron’s story covers a lot of ground. He spends a big chunk of his time on world-building, introducing his audience to a whole new part of Pandora. The Metkayina tribe make their home on a giant reef that’s full of exotic aquatic plant and animal life. Cameron and his creative teams go all out designing and visualizing this vivid underwater ecosystem with just as much time put into exploring the Metkayina culture. The movie does slow down a tad during this long middle stretch, but there’s always something new and often jaw-dropping to take in.
In addition to shooting in state-of-the-art 3D, the film also features underwater performance capture, an incredibly impressive feat requiring its own newly developed tech. Then there was the decision to shoot at a higher frame rate. There are several instances where Cameron bumps the standard 24 frames-per-second up to 48 fps, giving the film a more crisp and realistic appearance. It’s a choice that won’t be for everyone, and its clarity and quality may depend the theater screen you see it on. Personally, I loved the higher frame rate.
Of course “The Way of the Water” is also full of big eye-popping action which is something James Cameron knows a lot about. The set pieces are as thrilling as they are massive, and the above-mentioned technology really shines in them. The performances are also good with both Worthington and Saldaña especially shining. As for Lang, he’s mercifully dialed back and less hammy this time around, and the movie does some interesting things with his character. Again, the story may stumble in a few spots. But it’s still an exciting step up from the first movie. And as an experience, visiting Pandora has never felt so exciting and full of life. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is in theaters now.