After more than a decade, the sequel to the highest grossing movie of all time arrives with Avatar: The Way of Water. The length of time in between installments basically makes this a legacy sequel, focusing on the next generation. Director James Cameron (Terminator 2, Aliens, Titanic) is very much in love with the alien world, and deservedly so because the movie looks fantastic, especially in the 3D format which creates a deeper view into the environment. Although it lingers a bit too long on just about everything with a somewhat punishing over three-hour running time. However, like all Cameron movies, when things kick in for the climatic third act, it soars.
In the future on the moon Pandora live the native species the Na’vi. 10 years ago with the help of human turned Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) they fought off the human invaders. Jake found love with the warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and started a family, raising their two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and two daughters, Tuk (Trinity Joi-Li Bliss) and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and have even sort of adopted a “stray cat” of a human, Spider (Jack Champion). Their peaceful life is shattered when the humans return to Pandora, destroying the land, led by the ruthless General Ardmore (Edie Falco). Even worse for Jake and Neytiri, returning to Pandora in a newly made Na’vi avatar body is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), back from the dead and wanting revenge against the power couple who killed him. Soon, Jake and his family seek shelter with the sea dwelling Na’vi. There they learn about a different Na’vi culture that works along the ways of the water, but Quaritch is bringing the entire military might bearing down on them.
The three-hour running time is a bit of a setback, basically a full half hour longer than the original film, and only about five minutes shorter than Titanic. Does Way of Water need to be that long? Probably not, even though there are some truly immersive visual effects sequences as underwater scenes look fantastic. The details on the various ocean life aliens are wonderful to see. Although there is a significant portion of the film where one of Jake’s sons has extended conversations with an alien whale creature. Still, when one of the whales is killed by the rampaging humans it is suitably tragic.
The interesting thing about the first Avatar is Jake jumping back and forth between the human reality and the Na’vi reality gave it a dream-like feel, so that when Jake was running around as a Na’vi it felt like him truly being alive compared to his broken body. Now Jake is just all Na’vi, all the time, and even the bad guy Quaritch is all Na’vi all the time, it loses that visceral sense of stepping into a new body and new world. The wonderful becomes commonplace. But still looks spectacular. Way of Water follows the same blueprint as the original. Jake goes to a different culture, learns their ways, big CGI fight at the end. What is interesting is seeing the now Na’vi Quaritch go through much of the same journey Jake did. Still Quaritch remains a complete jerk even with a fancy new Na’vi body. Lang is great and the excellent performance capture lets every nuance shine through. This Quaritch may feel disconnected from his predecessor, but he still has his drive and most of his memories. Falco as his boss delivers exposition angrily but does it well.
Weaver as Kiri conveys youthful energy as her character is a direct descendant of Weaver’s character of Grace from the first movie. There is a much bigger story there as Kiri controls water creatures, but whatever her connection to Grace is not fully explained here. The two boys are interchangeable and they call each other “Bro” an annoying amount of time, however they’re critically involved in the finale. There’s a lot about the kids trying to get along with the water Na’vi which feels cliché. One of the boys getting close to a water Na’vi is basically a copy and paste of Jake and Neytiri’s romance from the original. Worthington shows that Jake just wants to protect his family while Saldana’s Neytiri is on the sides for the most part, she does get to go scary feral near the end. Spider is captured by Quaritch as Spider straddles the line between human and Na’vi, and the connection between him and Quaritch creates compelling drama.
The selling point of Way of Water is the spectacle and it delivers. There’s an attack on the human supply lines early on that shows the Na’vi using human equipment that is thrilling and the showdown between the ocean dwellers and the human mobile base is epic. And there’s also a knife-fight climatic showdown between Jake and Quaritch that feels like a ‘80s action throwback. The film should be experienced theatrically in 3D, assuming one can make it past the gargantuan running time.
Avatar: The Way of Water certainly offers a compelling return visit to Pandora with fascinating new sights to explore. Like the first film, the plot is a bit cliché but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. There’s a reason modern myths keep repeating the same plot because it taps into universal themes. And watching unfold is amazing.
Avatar: The Way of Water
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang and Kate Winslet