“Avatar: The Way of Water” succeeds in one big way above all. It looks and moves and surrounds the way James Cameron wanted his underwater disappointment “The Abyss” to look, once upon a time in 1989.
As with most Cameron blockbusters, “The Way of Water” has a way of pulling you in, surrounding you with gorgeous, violent chaos and finishing with a quick rinse to get the remnants of its teeny-tiny plot out of your eyes by the final credits. In 3D, I enjoyed a lot of the first “Avatar.” In the new, swanky, upgraded 3D, in support of breakthrough motion capture underwater footage, I enjoyed “The Way of Water,” too, though it’s more of a technological win than what my old eyes might consider a cinematic or narrative one. I’m frankly still wrestling with the distinction there.
There’s a reason the first “Avatar,” 13 years ago, had some trouble sticking in the memory of millions of moviegoers who nonetheless felt they got their admission price’s worth because, as Cassius Clay says in “One Night in Miami,” it was just so pretty. Its protagonist, Jake Sully, who joined the Na’vi against Col. Quaritch’s genocidal security forces sent from Earth, was protagonist enough. Barely.
The point of “Avatar,” with its flying sequences especially, was to put the audience in the role of the main character. Same again this time, in a screenplay by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver.
It’s 10 years later. Sully (Sam Worthington), now blue and 10 feet tall, is full-on Na’vi with a family including his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and three kids. Sigourney Weaver, whose character died in the first “Avatar,” returns in the role of the adopted teenage daughter, Kiri. Death is just a pause for a change of clothes in this universe.
Stephen Lang’s Col. Quaritch may have died in the first one, too, but his evil memories have been inserted (ouch!) into a security team “recombinant.” Now, his undercover team of fake Na’vis are out to avenge the insurgency spearheaded by Quaritch’s old nemesis, Jake.
“The Way of Water” is pretty simple: humans and recombinants return, kill and burn, pursue Jake and family all the way to their new digs among the reef people known as the Metkayina. There are ordinary humans in the movie, too, played by, among others, Brendan Cowell and Jemaine Clement as seafaring hunters aiding and abetting the bad guys. Every time they populate the screen, with or without the Na’vi creations, it’s sort of a letdown. They’re just so pale and lame by comparison.
Cameron fills three hours of screen time, with another 10 minutes or so for credits, with what feels like a single, extended, not-quite-”real,” not really animated but impressively sustained feat of visual gratification, if you don’t mind the cruelty-to-undersea-creatures parts. Reading the accounts of how Kate Winslet (who plays one of the reef folk) held her breath for seven minutes during a deep dive performance-capture sequence provokes two conflicting thoughts in the viewer. One: That’s a long time. Two: Did she need to?
By Cameron’s standards, yes, of course she needed to. It’s all part of the fantastically pricey illusion of fluid movement, below and above water. There are moments in “The Way of Water” when the ultra-smooth 48-frames-per-second technology switches back to a modified version of the customary 24 frames per second. Few will notice, because for all that is merely adequate in “The Way of Water,” Cameron has basically done it again. He has given you the latest in visual effects persuasive enough to slide you right along.
The movie ends with, no kidding, a string of action climaxes within a single, hourlong climax. It combines ship-sinking (”Titanic”!) lots of gun violence (the whole movie’s into it, big-time) and copious Na’vi child endangerment. During this final third, I started to wonder if “The Way of Water” had any plans to end anything at all, ever. And yet it works; the time spent watching it just sort of drifts and floats by, pleasantly, even with all the bloodshed and carnage and cliffhangers.
Moral: There really was something to what Sully, in the first “Avatar,” referred to as “tree-hugger crap” about treating your natural world with care. Cameron’s plenty sincere on that score. More to the point of the movie’s relative success? This time, in “The Way of Water,” James Cameron really does have a way with water.
‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ — 3 stars
MPA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language)
Running time: 3:10
How to watch: Premieres in theaters Dec. 15
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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