‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Astounds With Its Bonding of Spectacle and Emotion

The blockbuster has become such an impersonal affair where franchises matter more than the filmmaker. Yet here comes James Cameron with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a sequel that is much more than a mere follow-up to his 2009 box office-shattering film, “Avatar.” It is a spectacular combination of everything that has obsessed Cameron on a technical level and in storytelling. While riveting the audience it introduces new forms of 3D and special effects that will easily set new standards. This is the kind of movie you could easily call “mad,” like many of the director’s boldest projects. When you’re making a sequel to the top grossing film of all time, which was released 13 years ago, much is at stake. “The Way of Water” feels special in how it’s an astonishing spectacle made with the meticulous care of a serious craftsman.

A wise viewer will revisit “Avatar” on Disney Plus before walking into this new movie, but the opening scenes do a very brisk recap. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the Marine who became one of the Na’vi on the planet Pandora, is now a warrior and family man, united with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Their home is quite packed with sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). They also care for Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the mysterious offspring born out of the avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), who died during the intense battles of the last movie. Peace is soon shattered when the “sky people,” meaning imperialist, resource-hungry invaders from Earth, arrive determined to crush any indigenous resistance. Now led by General Ardmore (Edie Falco), the earthling forces are bent on clearing the ground for colonizing Pandora since their own world is dying. Obsessed with finding Jake is the Na’vi avatar of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who Jake and Neytiri killed all those years ago. Armed with the colonel’s consciousness, his Pandoran self is obsessed with revenge.

Cameron thus finds a smart way to update his story while continuing the world building without worrying too much about the time gap. When “Avatar” premiered in 2009 and showed audiences what 3D could do in an artful manner, at a time when the format was verging on overkill at the multiplexes, it was also arriving at the real dawn of the current dominance of superhero franchises. “Iron Man” had premiered the year before, announcing Marvel as a major player. While Cameron made history by once again producing an all-time box office champ, replacing his own “Titanic,” the influence of “Avatar” was overshadowed quickly by our ongoing obsession with heroes in tights. Now “The Way of Water” drops when comic book franchises are slightly wobbling and audiences are hungry for fresh takes on the action genre, as seen with the massive success of “Top Gun: Maverick.” As a director Cameron pushes technological limits as he also wishes to show audiences new sights. Opening scenes re-introduce us to the lush landscapes of the fictional Pandora, with its hanging mountains and luminous foliage. Instead of staying there, however, Cameron then takes the story to a whole other place, because he truly envisions this as another world with various corners.

Once Jake and Neytiri realize they are being hunted, they seek shelter with the Metkayina, an oceanic clan led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife, Ronal (a completely unrecognizable Kate Winslet). In this section the movie becomes a stunning, exciting sea adventure with new creatures and Cameron’s latest innovation, motion-capture 3D scenes filmed underwater. The sea has been a Cameron obsession going back to “The Abyss” and “Titanic.” His is a natural love for its grandeur. Even if the script wasn’t entertaining (and it does contain some of Cameron’s habit for corny dialogue), the visual feat alone would make this a notable movie. The clarity and realism of the Na’vi exploring the ocean depths, battling large creatures and riding other ones across watery surfaces is simply unmatched. “The Way of Water” is that rare occasion where a 3 hour and 12 minute running time is almost warranted, because Cameron lets the camera drink in every astounding sight, from whale-like creatures bursting out of the sea as a character glides in the air, to predators snapping lunch, on a level where we completely forget this is fiction. Viewers are recommended to see the movie on IMAX, where the trip becomes complete. Like few other directors, Cameron has mastered the art of immersive entertainment.

When “Avatar” opened it was also seen as a potent sci-fi allegory for not just the overall history of colonialism, but the then ongoing U.S. war in Iraq. When first meeting Jake, Quaritch makes a reference to a future invasion of Venezuela. Sadly, much of the story concerns remain more than relevant, which adds more to the movie than just the thrill of watching Cameron’s visual creations. There is meaning behind a terrifying early shot of an earthling ship scorching the forests of Pandora or General Ardmore making it clear that the indigenous have to learn to be subjugated. Thirteen years after the first film, large countries are still invading their smaller neighbors while ultra-nationalism seeks to erase historical memory. “The Way of Water” is about fictional blue beings on another planet facing our own species encroaching on their world, and none of it feels implausible. There’s even a sad angle about collaborators with Spider (Jack Champion), a human kid Jake has been watching out for who was left behind when the invaders had originally departed. He is recruited by Quatrich to be a translator and informer, with an origin story that gives a whole new meaning to the mad colonel’s quest.

There is so much happening in nearly every scene of “The Way of Water” that the movie will certainly benefit from repeated viewings. There’s an engaging subplot involving Jake’s children having to get along with Tonowari’s own offspring, who bully the newcomers over being half-human. Female characters are also given more prominence than in the first movie, both as heroes and villains. The big action crescendo that closes this entry (Cameron has two more on the way) is a watery epic full of battles, whales, love and loss that combines the gritty architecture of Cameron’s “Aliens” with the emotion of those iconic final moments of “Titanic.” Somehow it never feels cluttered or confusing, mainly because Cameron focuses on scale as opposed to overly done backstories or exposition. He’s an expert world builder who, like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, pulls you into every aspect of his films. “The Way of Water” is groundbreaking, yet that wouldn’t be enough if it wasn’t good. It’s a sequel that has been more than worth waiting for.

Avatar: The Way of Water” releases Dec. 16 in theaters nationwide.