If I had two separate categories to judge James Cameron’s motion-capture epic “Avatar: The Way of Water,” I’d give it four stars for Visuals and two and a half for Story, and I’m in charge of the math here so I’m awarding three and a half stars to “TWAW” for some of the most dazzling, vibrant and gorgeous images I’ve ever seen on the big screen.
That’s more than enough to forgive a borderline corny, frequently repetitive, cliché-riddled storyline that features elements of everything from “Free Willy” to “Titanic” to “Die Hard” to “Apocalypse Now” and I swear there’s even a sequence that reminded me of that scene in the “Karate Kid” where poor Daniel gets jumped by those bullies in the Halloween skeleton costumes.
Arriving in theaters 13 years after the original “Avatar,” with a production budget of at least $250 million and a three-year filming process involving live action, motion capture, performance capture, cutting-edge visual effects technology and I’m gonna say movie magic as well, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is such a screen-popping visual feast it earns the 3-hour, 12-minute running time, though the primarily aquatic setting might contribute to some viewers dashing out for a bathroom break. Director Cameron and his co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have packed Pandora with so many characters it’s hard to keep track of everyone — and yet they have them flying and swimming and running about in the service of a relatively thin main storyline.
When last we left Pandora in the year 2154, humans had been expelled from this moon world in the Alpha Centauri star system with just a few exceptions — chief among them Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine who has fully inhabited the form of a Na’vi. “The Way of Water” takes place more than a decade later, with Jake the head of the Omatikaya clan and the patriarch of a family that includes his wife, the fierce and brilliant and lovely Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their children: adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who is intrinsically connected to the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver in the original); oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the “golden child” who can do no wrong; second-born son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), who is something of a rebel, and adorable little sister Tuk. (Jack Champion’s Spider, a human who was left behind on Pandora as a toddler, frequently tags along with the family and has a particularly close bond with Kiri.)
With Cameron, cinematographer Russell Carpenter and the visual effects army providing candy-colored, beautifully detailed images of landscapes, skies, flora and fauna that pop right off the screen, we see that the Sully family and the community as a whole are enjoying an idyllic life in the lush jungle forest — but the world of Pandora is once again turned upside down by the “Sky People,” aka humans, who have returned with a vengeance and a mission to colonize the planet, as Earth has become virtually uninhabitable.
A miscast Edie Falco plays the ruthless Gen. Ardmore, who clomps about in a giant robotic getup that mimics her movements, and guess who is charged with taking down Sully? None other than Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who was killed all those years ago but returns as a recombinant, i.e., an autonomous avatar embedded with the memories and personality of the human whose DNA was used to create it. In other words, Quaritch is as bloodthirsty and cunning as ever, but now he has the size and strength and speed of a Na’vi warrior.
After a harrowing sequence in which Quaritch and his warriors make it clear their mission is to hunt down Jake and his family, Jake relocates the entire brood across the vast oceans of Pandora and to the reef-based home of the Metkayina clan, who are a different shade of blue, have large hands and bigger tails and an almost fin-like cartilage and can hold their breath underwater for great stretches of time.
The Metkayina are led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), who reluctantly welcome the Sully family and begin to teach them the way of, well, water. This affords Cameron and company to deliver extended sequences on and under water, as we’re introduced to a spectacular array of new creatures, foremost among them the tulkun, whale-like marine mammals the size of a football field who are sentient beings capable of communicating with humans. (Outcast brother Lo’ak forms a special bond with an outcast tulkun, leading to some touching albeit corny moments.)
The extended running time of “Way of Water” allows room for a number of subplots, from a potential teen romance to Spider’s conflicted loyalties to Kiri’s quest to understand her roots. All the while, Quaritch and his henchmen are in pursuit of Sully, literally burning down villages until they track down Sully and his family. An epic battle is brewing, and when it arrives, the screen explodes with incredible sights and sounds. Pandora remains one of the most amazing worlds we’ve ever seen on the big screen.