Avatar: The Way Of Water Review: James Cameron's Mega-Sequel Is An Overstuffed And Exciting Adventure

It is undeniable that James Cameron's "Avatar" movies are extraordinary technical achievements, and by extension, leaps forward in the world of imaginative, computer-enhanced filmmaking. Cameron has always been an obsessive director, and for over a decade he's poured those obsessions into "Avatar" and its sci-fi fantasy world of Pandora. His obsession has paid off: the first "Avatar" is the biggest blockbuster of all time, giving Cameron clout to do whatever the hell he wants. And what he wants is to keep making "Avatar" movies, with multiple sequels currently in various stages of production. Whether or not that's a good thing — for audiences, not Cameron — depends on how you feel about the first "Avatar." 

You can swear up and down that that first film has no "cultural impact," but the fact that we're here to talk about a massive sequel to that movie suggests otherwise. No matter — one gets the sense that Cameron would still make these movies even if there was no cultural impact — he's in too deep, and Pandora calls to him the way it seems to call to the characters of the "Avatar" films. He's not alone: when the first film hit theaters back in 2009 there were reports that fans grew depressed when they had to leave Pandora as the end credits rolled. Does this apply to Cameron, too? Has the real world grown so cold for the filmmaker that returning to the world of "Avatar" again and again is his only escape? Or maybe it's more simple than that. Maybe he just wants to play around with cool toys and make a ton of money. 

Whatever the reason, "Avatar" is back in a big way with "Avatar: The Way of Water," Cameron's massive, overstuffed, overlong, exciting, eye-watering sci-fi adventure. It is a spectacle in every sense of the word; an imaginative, gorgeous, action-packed endeavor that thrills us while also having us occasionally checking our watches and wondering how much more is left. It is pure Cameron movie magic; a visual feast with some of the best blockbuster action you're likely to see. It's also a lopsided, meandering film — one starts to get the sense that for once, Cameron isn't all that interested in big action. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of big action here — the final hour of the three-hour film is essentially one long action sequence. But with "The Way of Water," Cameron is more focused on the beauty and grandeur of Pandora, a place that doesn't even exist. 

The Sully family

That Pandora does not exist makes "Avatar: The Way of Water" all the more impressive, because there's not a moment we doubt this world. It has been so fully realized, and so meticulously worked out by Cameron — who submerged his actors in real water for the film's many underwater sequences — that it all feels completely lived in. The same can't be said for the Na'vi, the big, blue indigenous inhabitants of the world. Motion capture enables them to have expressive faces that often match the faces of the actors playing them, but the creatures are still too big and ungainly to ever accept visually. No matter — they're aliens, after all. Of course, they're going to seem, well, alien

It's been more than a decade since the first film, and human Marine turned Na'vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is hailed as a hero. He's settled down with Na'vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and the couple has had a brood of kids — confident oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters); insecure second child Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), who just can't seem to gain his father's approval; young daughter Tuk (Lo'akTrinity Jo-Li Bliss); and adopted teen daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). Why Weaver is playing a teenager is something for you to discover on your own, but it's never quite as convincing as it should be — Weaver's voice just sounds a little too old to be that of a teen. But Kiri is a special child; an outsider who feels a deep connection to the planet and its mystical forces. 

While the Sully family has lived in the last decade in harmony that's all about to change. Because the villainous Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who very much died in the first film, is back — inhabiting his own Na'vi avatar along with several of his Marine jarhead buddies. Quaritch and company have been tasked with — you guessed it — going after Jake, which means Jake and his family decide to flee their forest home for a different part of Pandora, one where water, not land, is the norm. 

The beauty (and occasional boredom) of Pandora

Cameron clearly has a predilection for water, be it "The Abyss," "Titanic," or his own real subaquatic adventures. So it's no surprise that the water-based sections of "The Way of Water" are the ones that sing (or, uh, swim). Cameron finds magic beneath the waves, and on top of them. And it's here where "Avatar" is at its best, showing us new things — exciting creations that don't exist in our world but still feel believable. There's a group of telepathic whale-like creatures that swim the seas. There are all manners of undersea life. And then there are the Na'vi who live by the water, subtly different from their land-based counterparts — their tails and hands have evolved to look like flippers, enabling them to swim faster and better than Jake and his kids.

Speaking of the kids, they become our main characters as the film moves on. Jake is still there, and Worthington's stiff acting has improved considerably. But Saldaña's Neytiri feels almost like an afterthought until the final act, ditto new players like Kate Winslet, who portrays a somewhat forgettable member of the water clan (maybe she'll have more to do in the sequel?). Focusing on the Sully children could've backfired — kids can be annoying! — but it works here. We like the Sully kids and we get caught up in their stories, particularly Lo'ak's frequent failed attempts to impress his hero father. 

All of this unfolds at a leisurely pace. Too leisurely — I have nothing against long movies as long as they're paced well, but the pacing of "The Way of Water" is too slow for its own good. Cameron gives us long sequences of characters basking in the beauty of it all, and sure, it is indeed beautiful. But it's also not real, and there's only so much artificial beauty we can handle before we start to get weary and, well, bored. Thankfully, it's all building towards an hour-long action sequence involving boats, whales, and guns — lots and lots of guns. The villains remain rather one-note — save for an amusing, but extremely brief turn from Edie Falco, who plays a Marine introduced while kick-boxing in a giant robot suit. Their personalities don't really matter because Cameron wants to kill them all off one by one in grand, spectacular ways as a water-logged battle unfolds. 

Where to next?

On a technical front, the film is groundbreaking — but even that has its flaws. The screening I attended was in 3D, naturally, and while that tech remains impressive — I confess there were two different moments where I almost reached up to grab something I thought was floating in the theater instead of up on the screen — Cameron also employs a dreadful high frame rate, and does so inconsistently. He'll have one shot in a scene in HFR only to have the reverse shot remain 24fps, and it is always, without question, distracting. You might be able to get used to it as you watch, but I never did — the characters frequently look as if they've suddenly been sped up in fast motion. I half expected "The Benny Hill Show" theme Yakety Sax to kick in. Why Cameron would tarnish his visual feast with this unattractive blight is a question best left to the filmmaker. 

Even though Cameron doesn't skimp on the big climactic action, I couldn't shake the feeling that he wanted to get back to all those beautiful nature shots instead. He's giving us action because that's what we expect, and that's what he does well. But he's far more interested in the beauty of Pandora, and that will only get you so far. Where does he go from here? More water-based adventure? Or some other corner of Pandora? No matter. I'll let Cameron worry about that. For now, we have to make do with "The Way of Water," which thrills while also overstaying its welcome. I don't know how much longer Cameron can keep "Avatar" going, but I know he'll have a lot of fun trying, and we'll probably all go along with him. Who knows what new worlds he has in store for us?

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10