Welcome back to Pandora, friends. James Cameron has been waiting for you.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Cameron, a director who redefines blockbuster filmmaking as a hobby. He did it in 1991 with the slick liquid metal of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” in 1997 with the sinking of the “Titanic,” and in 2009 by inventing an entirely new world in “Avatar.” Cameron has made a name for himself by specializing in sweeping stories with simple themes on previously unimaginable scales.
Knowing Cameron’s modus operandi is what made watching “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the long-gestating “Avatar” sequel finally hitting theaters Friday, such a strange journey. “The Way of Water” works overtime to invest audiences in the family Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) started between films, which leads to some surprisingly satisfying emotional beats for all of them.
Naturally, “The Way of Water” also looks stunning as it immerses viewers in the more aquatically situated areas of Pandora. But something about the way characters interacted with their environments felt off throughout. Maybe it was a weird quirk of watching it in 3D or something else, but this “Avatar” felt like a significantly less tactile experience than its predecessor.
Quite a bit of time has passed since Jake Sully abandoned his human body to live permanently as his Na’vi avatar. Everything was smooth sailing before the “sky people” —aka humans — returned in their continued quest to destroy the Na’vi and mine Pandora for everything it’s worth. An old enemy, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), reemerges in a surprising form.
Jake opts to relocate his family to an island cluster far from their native forest in order to keep them safe. It’s there that they are taught, ahem, the way of water by a newly introduced Na’vi tribe known as the Metkayina. It turns out that both Jake and his kids have a lot to learn about becoming one with a different element of Pandora’s ecosystem.
Again, the aesthetics on display in “The Way of Water” are nothing short of spectacular. Cameron is known for his fascination with ocean depths, and he channels that to incredible effect with the water-based environments he and the film’s VFX team created. The color palette is refreshingly brilliant, creature designs are never boring, and Cameron captures some underwater images that are simply breathtaking.
Motion-capture technology allows the Na’vi themselves to look and behave fairly realistically for giant blue aliens with tails. Their eyes do a lot of heavy emotional lifting as they experience joy and heartache in equal measure throughout the film. The Metkayina are cleverly designed and move around seamlessly in their marine habitats.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why much of the action on screen feels so immaterial when the film is objectively a technical masterpiece. Sure, there are times when, say, one of Neytiri’s arrow pierces human or avatar flesh that one can’t help but be absorbed into. But some fight scenes feature physical combat that seems oddly weightless, and some underwater sequences feel particularly artificial even given the circumstances.
My best explanation for this phenomenon is the 3D. Maybe attempting to help sink moviegoers more into the world of Pandora actually produced the opposite effect. I would have to see it again in 2D to compare, but it’s quite possible that scenes meant to evoke wonder or trigger adrenaline wouldn’t feel as eerily disembodied in that format.
The dimension in which you watch “The Way of Water” won’t change your level of investment in the Sully family. This film’s greatest trick is crafting children who are lovable and innocent enough that you’re terrified for their safety, even when they’re constantly putting themselves in danger. It’s not easy to write kids who act like, well, kids, but the screenwriting trifecta of Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver managed to pull it off.
Worthington and Saldana aren’t given a tremendous amount to do this time around as their children take center stage. Saldana, in particular, is underserved until near the end, when Neytiri is allowed to come alive and act like the badass warrior she has always been. Lang actually has quite a bit to chew on as this new version of Quaritch, though he’s only slightly less cartoonishly evil than he was in the original “Avatar.”
Sigourney Weaver is back as an entirely different character who comes off as the most well written (and acted) of all the Sully children. Kate Winslet gets a few standout scenes as Ronal, a Metkayina warrior who is fiercely protective of her family and tribe. Then there’s Spider (Jack Champion), a feral human who prefers living with the Na’vi and is equal parts hero and hindrance.
Though the character work is much stronger in “The Way of Water” than the first “Avatar,” there’s still a lot of dopey dialogue and head-scratching character decisions that will be tough to digest. Those blips usually get quickly subsumed by Pandora’s unceasing beauty, which doesn’t negate them but at least softens their impact.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” ups the ante in terms of story and visual splendor in exactly the way a blockbuster sequel is supposed to. A lack of visual cohesion sometimes makes it look like the longest and most expensive video game cut scene ever made. The moments when everything does come together, though, are true cinematic bliss.