‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ works best when it’s acting as a Pandora nature documentary
While the story is stretched thin and the dialogue hokey, ‘The Way of Water’ provides lush images and jaw-dropping spectacle that the audience won’t be able to see anywhere else
James Cameron’s new movie “Avatar: The Way of Water” lies on the cutting edge of technology, yet its story is a particularly old one.
“Avatar” hearkens back to pulp adventure stories found around the late 19th century and early 20th century, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” and the work of H. Haggard, Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper. The elemental storytelling of “Avatar” gives it a familiar tinge, like returning to a book you read under your covers as a child. “The Way of Water” carries that same feeling.
Even as you are viewing sights never before seen, the recognizable characters and tropes, part of the collective unconscious, allow us humans something to hold onto and help us acclimate to the fantastical world of Pandora. “The Way of Water” is a sweeping and transportive spectacle, told with the earnest showmanship of an old Hollywood epic.
Family is at the center
“The Way of Water” is the first of four projected “Avatar” sequels. The story is carried away from the forests and mountain cliffs of Pandora to the planet’s islands and barrier reefs — all the better to inspire new, dazzling special effects.
Picking up 14 years after the original movie, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) — the marine hero of “Avatar” — is now Na’vi blue, nine feet tall, fully fluent in the language (though most of “The Way of Water” is in English) and building a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña).
They are raising a gaggle of both biological and adopted children. There is the eldest son, golden boy Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), sensitive screw-up Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and the adorable youngest daughter Tuk (Trinity Joi-Li Bliss). Rounding out the Sully clan is gawky teenager Kiri, played by a de-aged, motion-captured, 73-year-old Sigourney Weaver in an honest, committed performance. The casting of Weaver establishes the connection between Kiri and Dr. Grace Augustine, Weaver’s character from the first movie, a mystery that will surely be answered further down the franchise. Spider (Jack Champion) hangs on the outskirts, a human boy left behind by the colonizing forces who has grown up into a wild Tarzan.
The 14 years is breezed by in a wooden, exposition-heavy voice-over by Jake Sully, until bright lights in the sky signal that humans are returning to Pandora. The planet is once again under invasion for its natural resources. Among them is an upgraded version of the first movie’s villain, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), single-minded in his attempt to track down Sully.
Needing to escape the invaders, the Sullys seek sanctuary with the water clan of Na’vi. In order to fit in with their new environment and eventually protect Pandora, the characters need to learn the titular way of water.
Cameron’s love for the ocean is infectious
Of course, with “The Way of Water,” the plot is rather extraneous. It’s all an excuse for the spectacle. Cameron, the director of such water-logged movies as “The Abyss” and “Titanic” and a real-life deep sea adventurer, casts a reverential eye on the water. Every flicker of light and every wave is rendered in loving detail through the use of high frame rate. Cameron’s love for the ocean is infectious.
The script, while hokey and cliché-ridden, unravels with an admirable Swiss-watch precision from one set piece to another. “The Way of Water” understands that it’s an experience movie — moving the audience around Pandora through the latest piece of movie magic. There’s a buoyant high spirit that sweeps you along for an adventure.
Yet, there is almost the sense that “The Way of Water” is too big, too grand. Even with the imagination on display in the world-building of Pandora and Cameron’s position as one of the great action movie directors, as “The Way of Water” nears the climatic battle sequences there’s a feeling that it has run out of story ideas — that Cameron would have been much happier hanging out underwater than having to deal with a pesky plot.
Every beat of the sequence, every stratagem, every feint and fake-out, every punt, every tear, every cheer will remind you of something in a handful of other movies, even those of James Cameron. In an alien world full of untold, endless possibilities it’s rather boring to watch guns being fired. I was aching for something in the storytelling to match the sweeping transportive power of the images.
Despite not reaching the projection of grossing between $150 million and $175 million at the domestic box office, “The Way of Water” is not performing badly. As of Dec. 20, “The Way of Water” has grossed $134 million domestically.
Most of its gross (60%, in fact) has come internationally, for a total of $442 million. Two of Cameron’s previous films, “Titanic” and “Avatar,” underperformed opening weekend, before growing to become some of the highest-grossing films of all time. Deadline predicts that the performance of “The Way of Water” will continue to grow, as well.
Is there a post-credits sequence?
There is no post-credits sequence.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language.