AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER | ©2022 20th Century Studios

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER | ©2022 20th Century Studios

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Jemaine Clement, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, Duane Evans Jr.
Writers: James Cameron & Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, story by James Cameron & Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver & Josh Friedman & Shane Salerno, based on characters created by James Cameron
Director: James Cameron
Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Release Date: December 16, 2022

James Cameron is one of the few filmmakers in the history of cinema who can be trusted to use 3D intelligently and impactfully. He’s also one of the few narrative filmmakers with a demonstrative love of marine life. These attributes come together to immersive effect in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, a sequel to 2009’s AVATAR. Cameron directed both films. He got solo writing credit on the original AVATAR; here, he shares screenplay credit with Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, and all three of them share story credit with Josh Friedman & Shane Salerno.

The original AVATAR took its title from the manufactured bodies that humans put their consciousness into in order to be able to traverse the world of Pandora and fit in with its indigenous people, the Na’vi. The Na’vi are exceptionally tall, blue, large-eyed and, when provoked, deadly warriors.

Human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) came to feel he was on the wrong side under the command of Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who felt his mandate was to eliminate the locals so that Earth could go on with its mining concerns. Jake ultimately led the Na’vi to victory against the invaders from Earth, who were chased off the planet. Jake remained on Pandora in his Na’vi body and bonded romantically with his Na’vi comrade in arms Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña).

In AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, the “Sky People” (as the Na’vi call humans) have been gone for years, except for a few who were friendly to the Na’vi in the original AVATAR. Jake is still leader of the Forest People. He and Neytiri now have four children, including Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who appears mostly Na’vi, although her mother was human (Grace, played by Weaver in the previous film) and whose father remains a mystery.

Then the Sky People return to Pandora with new ambitions, and eventually Jake, Neytiri and their family move far away to an island village. The Na’vi here are light green rather than blue, have the ability to breathe underwater, and possess a true kinship with the sea. This time, not only Jake but all of his kin need to adapt to new ways.

Cameron exhibits a delight in world-building here that pays off in almost infinite detail. Too often in blockbuster films, either there’s not enough budget to service the imagination, or there’s more budget on display than imagination to fill it. In AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, these elements seem perfectly balanced. We of course expect – and get – enormous action sequences, but every square inch of the underwater environment has been mapped out with original species of fish, mammals, reptiles, and flora.

The film also invests heavily in developing the culture of the village on the reef, which suggests inspirations from Hawai’ian, Polynesian, and Maori (among others) language and traditions. These are folded smoothly into the storytelling.

The acting is good across the board, with Weaver as the adolescent Kiri a standout (we can tell who she is not only from the credits and her voice, but the quirk of her mouth), Edie Falco as an Earth general, and Kate Winslet as the reef chieftain’s perpetually irate wife.

The plot unfolds pretty much as most of us expect, although there are a few surprising riffs. There’s some scene-setting, some fighting, a whole bunch of exploring creation and the kind of character development that is typical of the genre, followed by an even bigger bunch of the kind of action for which Cameron is famed.

How well one enjoys AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER overall depends largely on whether one is susceptible to the type of thrill that occurs only when we viscerally experience that a filmmaker has thought out every plant growing on the ocean floor, and how to eventually incorporate it (okay, maybe not every single plant) into the tale being told. One less-than-thought-out caveat: would people so ostensibly in tune with the ocean and its inhabitants really kill a fish just to make a point, rather than to eat it?

It’s pretty much guaranteed that action lovers will respond well to the ferocious third act.

However the viewer feels about the time spent exploring the new parts of Pandora revealed in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, there is no denying either the craft or the passion of its makers. It’s a marriage of commercial aspiration and artistic achievement that is not often seen.

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