Synopsis – Jake Sully lives with his newfound family formed on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Once a familiar threat returns to finish what was previously started, Jake must work with Neytiri and the army of the Na’vi race to protect their home.
My Take – Is it true? Is it is actually out? After 13 years and what feels like half-a-dozen delays, it’s hard to believe that the long-awaited sequel to Avatar (2009), the highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation) has finally released. As someone who was surprised by how much the James Cameron directorial held up on a recent viewing, I definitely had high expectations from sequel, despite the original being appropriately deemed as a blockbuster that left no impression with anything other than the visuals.
However, keeping in mind the saying about how you never bet against filmmaker who has been known to spin gold out of concepts that appear to have very little in the way of value, it is easy to confirm that the sequel pretty much lives up to the hype. A follow-up that does exactly what the original did but manages to look even better and flesh out both the mythology established in the first film. Making it ceaselessly inventive and spectacularly entertaining.
Backed by an unrelenting pacy narrative, a consistently sharp delineation of its characters and excellent CGI work, the sequel is such a staggering improvement over the original as its spectacle doesn’t have to compensate for its story. In vintage Cameron fashion, the film’s spectacle is what allows its story to be told so well.
Sure, its run time of 192 minutes might at first seem a bit daunting, but once you have plunged into the fascinatingly detailed alien world where the action unfolds there is zero risk of boredom or monotony setting in. Such is the sepulchral power of the storytelling that the film, written by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, does not for a moment feel like it is peddling more of what its super-successful predecessor had done back in 2009. It not only goes beyond; it also soars higher and dives deeper. And of course, it is one of the best visually immersive experience to embrace the big screen.
The visual aspect is not something merely technical, but it’s integral for the experience. The feel of immersion, as well as the magnificent direction from James Cameron, is what adds emotions and stakes to the film. Yes, the plot is simple, but the film glues us in such a way that one would experience a wide range of emotions from fear to excitement, from sadness to wonder throughout. Without a doubt, there is no filmmaker that can come even close to James Cameron when it comes to making technologically groundbreaking cinema.
Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, the story once again follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the paraplegic marine who sided with the Na’vi in the conflict against the sky people in the original and became one of the tall, lithe, and blue-hued natives himself. Now settled into a peaceful life on Pandora with his Na’vi family, consisting of his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and their children: Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and Tuk (Trinity Jo-li Bliss) – an adopted one Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and a human boy named Spider (Jack Champion), who was stranded in Pandora after the events of the earlier film because he was too young to be transported back.
However, his idyllic world is soon thrown into jeopardy with the return of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has assumed a Na’vi avatar to avenge his human-form death at the hands of Jake and Neytiri. With few other options left to explore, Jake and Neytiri flee their homeland with their children to protect the Omaticaya clan from the trail of destruction Quaritch has been leaving behind, and find themselves among the Metkayina, a water-loving Na’vi clan who live around a reef and have amphibious qualities, allowing them to inhabit both worlds. Initially unwilling and hostile, the leaders of the clan, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet) eventually take the fugitives in and teach them their aquatic ways. Unbeknown to them, the Sullys have brought the war right to their shores.
When I saw Avatar for the first time back in 2009, I couldn’t imagine caring about its characters enough to sit through a sequel, let alone four of them. But when this sequel finally ebbed out to sea after 192 spellbinding minutes, receding into darkness with the gentlest of cliffhangers at the end of a third act defined by some of the clearest and most sensationally character-driven action sequences, I found myself genuinely moved by the plight of Jake’s tall blue family, and champing at the bit to see what happened to them next.
This is something that bears testimony to the spare-no-effort approach of filmmaker Cameron and his unit – but like its predecessor it incorporates into its phenomenal sweep topics that are both emotionally engaging and thematically on point. All the while expanding and embellishes the preceding story in engaging and most surprising ways. For example, Kiri, the adopted Sully daughter, is voiced and played in performance capture by Sigourney Weaver, and her connection to the late Dr. Grace Augustine is an important story point, but the choice to have Weaver herself play this younger incarnation is bold. Teasing what future holds for such decision.
Here, director Cameron invests a lot into middle kids Lo’ak and Kiri as the new representatives of the Na’vi’s warrior and spiritual leanings, with each struggling to understand their place. A couple of skirmishes apart, Jake’s children find ways to form deep relationships with the Metkayina people, the sea that is an integral part of their lives, and the creatures that live in it, including an ‘outcast’ tulkun, an aquatic creature that is perhaps more intelligent and sensitive than humans and with which the reef people have a special bond, a fact that Lo’ak quickly grasps. While Spider, the Sullys’ adopted human child, doesn’t get quite as much time with his siblings because of how the story progresses, but his mix of feral energy and wisecracking attitude help him stand out.
With the Sully kids taking center stage, Jake and Neytiri’s role in the story is proportionally diminished, and that’s okay. Jake is no more interesting a character than he was last time around, but he does have utility here as a tough father figure for his kids to struggle to live up to. Neytiri feels more like the legacy character with the least to do, mostly advocating for her kids to a distracted Jake. Something that doubles down on the naked sentimentality of the first film, refocuses the plot on more interesting characters, and yes, it has to be said, sets the high water mark for visual effects in film all over again.
Pandora is still as breathtaking as it was 13 years ago, the landscape and detailing still manage to leave the one awestruck. It is gorgeous in a cinematic, dynamic way. Though we spend some brief time in the forests of the first film, the vast majority of the film takes place in the territory of the seafaring Metkayina tribe, and the vibrant underwater ecosystem is an even more dreamlike palette for director Cameron to work with. There’s so much beauty to appreciate in the way the water realistically glistens in the sunlight along with witnessing how all the aquatic creatures inhabit this living space. All of this was apparently done by combining groundbreaking CGI with the real on-set locations filmed off the coast of New Zealand.
Performance wise, the returning cast of Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, CCH Pounder, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao, Matt Gerald and Giovanni Ribisi easily settle into their former roles, while Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet, Jack Champion, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, Edie Falco, Jermaine Clement, and Brendan Cowell make for great additions. On the whole, ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is a fantastic cinematic experience that is both beautiful and emotional and makes staggering improvements over the original.
Directed – James Cameron
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 192 minutes