Water world: James Cameron makes a splash with ‘Avatar’ sequel

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
20th Century Studios/AP
Ronal (left, Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) appear in a scene from “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Almost all of the film’s actors are rendered with performance-capture technology.

Utilizing the most technologically sophisticated special effects of its era, James Cameron’s “Avatar” became the most commercially successful movie of all time. Thirteen years later, its sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” draws on far more advanced effects. Three more sequels are planned. I’m guessing by the fifth one, audiences will be watching it wearing virtual reality helmets on Mars.

If technological hoo-ha was all there was to recommend the new “Avatar,” it wouldn’t be worth discussing except as newfangled cinematic hardware. But Cameron understands that, to connect with audiences, even robots need a beating heart. Much more so than in the first film, he centers the sequel on the blessings of togetherness. “The Way of Water” may be the most expensive ad for family values ever concocted.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the former Marine from the first film now fully inhabiting his Na’vi body, is ensconced with his Na’vi wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their four children on the opulent alien moon Pandora. (Almost all of the film’s actors are rendered with performance-capture technology.) His brood is his balm, but that security is shattered when a regiment of “sky people” from Earth, looking to colonize Pandora, invade. Earthlings, you see, have made a mess of things back home. They also want to strip mine Pandora for a rare mineral, helpfully named “unobtanium.” (“The Way of Water” is also the most expensive eco-cautionary message ever devised.)

Why We Wrote This

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Thirteen years have passed since the last “Avatar” movie. Director James Cameron took his time with the sequel, which focuses on the importance of family – and the grandeur of filmmaking.

Along for the ride are the recombinants, or recoms, 9-foot-tall avatars embedded with the memories of the humans whose DNA was used to create them. Top dog recom is Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose personal mission of revenge against Jake, whom he believes is an insurgent, sends the patriarch and his family fleeing to the watery reefs of Pandora. That’s where the Metkayina clan, headed by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife, Ronal (Kate Winslet), benevolently rule. Of course, all that will change when Quaritch and his armada track down their prey. But, in the interim, Cameron pulls off some of his most visually stunning effects, most of them underwater.

20th Century Studios/AP
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) rides a creature in a scene from “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

“The Way of Water” was shot in 3D, and when I say the film, especially in those ocean sequences, is immersive, I mean it literally. Cameron fills the screen with all manner of radiant sea creatures, including rainbow-colored rays and eels and sentient whale-like beings. The movie is best in these moments, when the filmmaker drops the heavy-duty action plot and allows us to simply luxuriate in the otherworldly sights and sounds. After all, this is not only the director who made “Titanic.” He’s also the guy who made a record-breaking solo dive in 2012 to Earth’s lowest point, recorded in the National Geographic documentary “James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge.” When he hits the water, he means business.

Jake’s heroic efforts to keep his family together unify the film’s bulky narrative. It’s elemental storytelling. Alas, it’s also frequently rudimentary storytelling. Cameron and his co-screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are much better at imagining situations than they are at giving them voice. As is true of most Cameron movies, the splendiferous visuals are counterbalanced by often thudding dialogue. (When we are told in a voice-over that “the way of water has no beginning and no end,” I wondered what a plumber might make of that tidbit.) Still, it’s easy enough most of the time to move past this impediment when the panorama is as impressive as it is here.

It’s not often in the history of film that a director has had the sheer clout, not to mention chutzpah, to play out his adolescent fantasies on so large a scale. George Lucas comes to mind, of course, but as a director he farmed out his franchise early on. Cameron, by contrast, remains very much at the center of his obsession. He may not be a great artist, or a visionary, but in its look, and its feeling for family, this behemoth enterprise still has an ardent, cornball grandeur to it. I look forward to “Avatar 3.”

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity, and some strong language. 

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