In late 2009, when James Cameron’s record-breaking blockbuster Avatar was released, the relationship of the average movie viewer to digital technology was subtly but profoundly different than it would be 13 years later. Smartphones had existed for a few years, but they were nowhere near as ubiquitous nor as powerful in shaping everyday behavior as they have since become. (Like many people I knew, I bought my first one that year.) Social media, too, was a relatively new cultural force: 2009 was the year that Facebook’s user count first began to surpass that of MySpace, and also the year Twitter became a key organizing tool in the Iran uprising known as the “Green Revolution” (or, sometimes, the “Twitter revolution”). When the first Avatar came out, the notion of virtual reality still seemed cool and somehow philosophical, a Matrix-style upending of dull everyday reality, rather than the banal product it has become in the age of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, a joyless zone where, Zuck promises, one day we will get to go to work meetings in the guise of our bland cartoon selves, maybe even with legs.
Avatar: The Way of Water is the first of four projected Avatar sequels, and the first film of any kind Cameron has directed since the original came out. All that time he has been immersed in Pandora, the utopian planet he invented, not only planning and shooting the first two sequels at once but consulting on the creation of Avatar-related attractions and rides for Disney theme parks. In the nonfictional realm, Cameron also became a deep-sea explorer, using some of his massive profits from the first Avatar to construct a single-person submarine in which he became the first person to descend alone to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the earth’s ocean floor.
When it comes to water, in short, the director of Titanic and The Abyss has a well-established penchant for going hard, which is why the most satisfying stretches of his new 3-hour-plus epic about the imperiled Na’vi people are those that take place in and around the oceanic home of the Metkayina people, a Na’vi tribe that lives in close contact with the sea and has evolved to survive for long periods underwater. The design of the teal-green Metkayina characters is beautifully differentiated from the familiar giant-blue-cat look of the Omaticayas, the forest-dwelling tribe that was the focus of the first film, and there are some transporting sequences in which members of both tribes explore the marvels of Pandora marine life: sentient whale-like creatures called tulkun, shimmering schools of bioluminescent fish, and a wonderfully imagined pink stingray that, attached to the shoulders of a swimmer like fairy wings, enables the user to breathe underwater. Rendered in crisp 3D with details to discover in every corner of the frame, these sequences are thrilling to watch, even if—or maybe because—they bring the film’s mostly pedestrian story to a halt.
If this review, too, seems to have taken its time to get around the actual plot of Avatar: The Way of Water, that’s because the experience of viewing the movie often seems only tangentially connected to the story of Jake Sully (a motion-captured Sam Worthington), the human hero who at the end of the first film had his consciousness uploaded into a genetically engineered Na’vi body, and his Na’vi family. He and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have three biological children: golden-boy eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), perpetual screwup Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and adorable tween Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). They also have an adopted teenage daughter, the daydream-prone Kiri (played, in a clever bit of age-blind casting, by 73-year-old Sigourney Weaver, who played the character’s mother in the first film). To round out the cute-kid ensemble there is Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy who was abandoned by the colonizing forces that left Pandora at the end of the first film and who has grown up as a kind of self-sufficient wild child.
This azure Brady Bunch has lived in peaceful harmony with their forest surroundings for what looks to be, from the children’s ages, around 15 years when Pandora is once again invaded by the marauding Earthlings the Na’vi call “Sky People.” The leader of the new colonizing forces, bent on extracting value from Pandora’s ecosystem and, most particularly, on tracking down and killing Jake Sully, is an upgraded version of the first movie’s villain. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who was killed at the end of Avatar, has sneakily uploaded his own consciousness to some sort of futuristic hard drive and had it reimplanted in a genetically engineered Na’vi body. (All this is somewhat hastily clarified in a data dump as the movie begins, and you don’t need to grasp all the specifics in order to understand that big blue bad guy wants to kill big blue good guy and, if possible, his big blue family as well.)
To hide out from the murderous invaders, the Sullys trek across Pandora to the Metkayina’s watery kingdom, where they are at first greeted with mistrust by the tribal leader Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant shaman wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) but are gradually accepted into the community and taught the eponymous “way of water,” including spiritual pilgrimages to a sacred underwater tree and psychic bonding with the hyper-intelligent tulkun. (One character informs us that these whale-like beasts have not only their own music and mathematics but their own philosophy, creating in this viewer at least the desire for a future spinoff set at a tulkun university.) The mid-film sequences that familiarize both the Sullys and the audience with the biodiversity of Pandoran marine life are gorgeous, imaginative, and placid. When the movie cuts back to the doings of the earthly bad guys, including Edie Falco as a no-nonsense commander in an Alien-style mech exoskeleton, it’s a jarring reminder that this dreamy utopian planet does indeed contain conflict beyond the bullying of teens daring each other to swim farther out than their parents allow.
In the final third of the film, the battle between the earthlings and the Na’vi takes over the story, with a series of exciting if not always logical action set pieces that includes a heart-pounding chase on a whaling vessel and an extended sinking-ship sequence that may bring to mind another movie about a certain doomed ocean liner. Neither dialogue nor character development are the strong points of this visually dazzling plunge, but you don’t need fine shadings of meaning to grasp the stakes of these scenes. Not unlike Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—which, like The Way of Water, was filmed mainly in New Zealand with the help of the WETA visual-effects workshop— Cameron’s Avatar movies are grand-scale event pictures that are still somehow as simple as storytelling gets.
“The most dangerous thing about Pandora is that you may grow to love her too much,” Jake Sully tells us in voiceover near the film’s beginning, and even if not every viewer runs the risk of falling as far down the Mariana Trench of Na’vi lore as James Cameron has, The Way of Water is nothing if not a triumph of world-building. Fans of fantasy, speculative sci-fi, and YA romance are sure to be drawn in by the flying-crocodile-riding adventures of the squabbling teens who are for all practical purposes the movie’s main characters. A stickler for logic might question why, while their parents are heard speaking with a Na’vi accent, the next generation are all shown addressing one another in the frat-boy slang of American suburban teenagers, with lots of “bro,” “dude,” and “This is sick!” And I would be interested to read the thoughts of a critic of color, especially someone of indigenous origin, on the racialized traits of various Pandoran characters, including the Na’vi women’s cornrow braids and, in an unfortunate styling choice, the blond dreadlocks of the feral white boy Spider. Cameron’s loving gaze upon the world of his own creation is complicated by his exoticized idealization of what he clearly sees as the Na’vi’s spiritual superiority to humans and their role as preservers of their world’s ecological balance. His passion is infectious and his enthusiasm for environmental causes commendable, but the movie’s metaphysical and sociological aspirations sometimes come off as cringe-inducingly similar to those that might be expressed by a white lady running a healing-crystal shop in a seaside town.
At times—as with the intermittent high-frame-rate scenes that unexpectedly drop us into a hyperreal visual world that I for one found distracting—Cameron seems almost to have overspent, like a host laying out a football-field-length table with more food than his guests can even visually take in all at once, let alone eat. But the beauty of the world he creates, evoked in lush detail by cinematographer Russell Carpenter, is enough, most of the time, to make you forgive the hokiness of the screenplay by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. This 3-hour-and-10-minute movie cost something in the realm of $350 million, much of it poured into special effects. As Cameron has been boasting in press interviews, it will need to be one of the top-grossing movies of all time merely to earn its budget back. Given that this seems sure to be one of the few must-see-it-in-a-theater movie releases of the year, and that the tickets will be sold at a higher price point than those for your average 2D blockbuster, it seems like a safe bet that Avatar: The Way of Water will set another box-office record. What that will mean for the future of moviegoing is a lot less clear than the pristine oceans of Pandora, but if you want to get a peek at what might be coming next, you might as well dive in.