“Avatar” took a very basic story and adorned it with eye-popping spectacle, in a way that made the film a must-see commodity, and a record-breaking hit in the process. Thirteen years later, braving much different theatrical tides, director James Cameron has done it again with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a state-of-the-art exercise that rekindles that sense of wonder and demands to be seen by anyone with lingering interest in watching movies in theaters.
Although Cameron (who shares script credit with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) has already announced plans for multiple “Avatar” sequels, the filmmaker has thrown so much technical wizardry, scope and scale into this 190-minute epic that one gets the impression he approached directing it as if there might never be another, leaving everything on the field – or rather, the waves.
In addition, “The Way of Water” introduces an entirely new Na’vi subculture of reef people, with their own evolutionary adaptations and remarkable fauna with which they bond, wedding the original to Cameron’s well-documented love of the ocean and its exploration, an impulse he’s been indulging since “Titanic” a quarter-century ago.
As with the 2009 movie, the plot to “The Way of Water” is hardly groundbreaking, but rather a cleverly assembled treatise on the sins of imperialism, an environmental message and, in the main wrinkle, family dynamics, constructed in a way that affords each of the children their own issues but largely avoids the Disney Channel-style missteps that might ensue.
The sequel picks up many years later, with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) now the proud parents of four kids, still finding time for “date nights” that consist of euphorically soaring above the Pandora landscape.
“Happiness is simple,” Jake explains in voiceover, until the “sky people” return to again lay siege to their paradise, this time motivated by a “WALL-E”-type dilemma that involves having polluted Earth beyond habitability, making the commander of this mission (played by Edie Falco) speak of the imperative to “pacify the hostiles.”
Out of concern for protecting his family, which Jake repeatedly describes as a father’s primary mission, he chooses to seek refuge with the aforementioned water clan, the Metkayina. He finds a more receptive greeting from their king (Cliff Curtis) than their queen (Kate Winslet, in what can be described as a “‘Titanic’ reunion” in more ways than one).
Fleeing, of course, will only delay the seemingly inevitable showdown, but it offers a chance to introduce a rich new culture as well as expose both parents and their progeny to the adjustment their new surroundings require. The children, in particular, must grapple with the personalities and pettiness associated with becoming the new kids on the reef.
Far from shying away from the minutia assorted with all that, Cameron luxuriates in it and invites the audience to do the same. From the first striking 3D images that practically leap off the screen, “The Way of Water” basks in speed and movement, as if this was all an audition for the inevitable additions to Disney World’s theme-park attraction.
The simplicity of the story provides license to indulge in the dazzling visuals and state-of-the-art performance-capture techniques, which despite fewer human characters this time around prove authentic enough that it almost never feels as if you’re watching an animated film.
Similarly, Cameron extends sequences for long stretches but seldom produces a dull moment, with the notable exception coming during the final battle, which keeps piling on threats and escapes that easily could have been truncated or tightened.
That note amounts to a quibble, though, with a film that brings a full-throated roar to celebrating theatrical movie-going as a singular experience, practically daring the viewer to resist its muscularity and power.
As noted, a great deal has changed since Cameron introduced the Na’vi, including the corporate ownership of the property itself, which, originally produced under Fox, is now part of Disney.
Ultimately, though, “The Way of Water” melts away any skepticism that it might be too late or too long in its return to Pandora. For a franchise that popularized the line “I see you,” the director has created a sequel that truly deserves to be seen, not from the comfort of the couch, but on the biggest screen you can find.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” premieres December 16 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.