‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Review: It’s Even More Eye-Popping Than ‘Avatar,’ but James Cameron’s Epic Sequel Has No More Dramatic Dimension

20th Century Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

There are many words one could use to describe the heightened visual quality of James Cameron’s original “Avatar” — words like incandescent, immersive, bedazzling. But in the 13 years since that movie came out, the word I tend to remember it best by is glowing. The primeval forest and floating-mountain landscapes of Pandora had an intoxicating fairy-tale shimmer. You wanted to live inside them, even as the story that unfolded inside them was merely okay.

In “Avatar: The Way of Water,” Cameron’s bigger, longer and even more dizzyingly spectacular sequel (spoiler alert: the story is still just okay), the technology that Cameron uses to take us back to Pandora has been sharpened — in every way. The 3D images have an uncanny tactility; if you had to describe them in just one word, it might be hyperclear. The film also has the eerie present-tense quality peculiar to high-frame-rate shooting. It’s a rather soulless feel, as it was in Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films. But it can make you feel like you’re sharing the same space with the characters. And that’s something of a feat given that most of them are tall, blue-skinned Na’vi warriors with the eyes of mountain lions and the speed of gazelles.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” has scenes that will make your eyes pop, your head spin and your soul race. The heart of the movie is set on At’wa Attu, a tropical island reef where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the Na’vi insurrection leader who started off as a disabled U.S. Marine and became a Pandora forest dweller through his Avatar identity (he’s basically a half-breed), his now-wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their four children have taken refuge from the “Sky People” — the corrupt military cutthroats who are now fighting to colonize Pandora so that the people of Earth can have a future. On the island, Jake and his family form an uneasy alliance with the Metkayina clan, who live in harmony with their aquatic surroundings, and who look a lot like the Na’vi except that their skin is light teal and they have Maori-like tattoos.

The teenagers of both tribes engage in preening rites of adolescent bonding, riding the island’s long-necked creatures through the sea. Whenever the film enters those ocean depths, it becomes a trippy and vicarious underwater-world ride. The life we see in the Pandora ocean — iridescent fauna, diaphanous psychedelic plants that can give you visions, fish that look every bit as sci-fi strange as the fish on earth, lumpy whales with the faces of hammerhead sharks — is a marvel to behold. But the money-shot element is that the state-of-the-art 3D (never in-your-face, just images that look and feel sculpted) makes the film’s every underwater glide feel as experiential as one that you’re literally on.

“The Way of Water” cost a reported $350 million, meaning that it would need to be one of the three or four top-grossing movies of all time just to break even. I think the odds of that happening are actually quite good. Cameron has raised not only the stakes of his effects artistry but the choreographic flow of his staging, to the point of making “The Way of Water,” like “Avatar,” into the apotheosis of a must-see movie. The entire world will say: We’ve got to know what this thrill ride feels like.

At its height, it feels exhilarating. But not all the way through. Cameron, in “The Way of Water,” remains a fleet and exacting classical popcorn storyteller, but oh, the story he’s telling! The script he has co-written is a string of serviceable clichés that give the film the domestic adventure-thriller spine it needs, but not anything more than that. The story, in fact, could hardly be more basic. The Sky People, led again by the treacherous Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), have now become Avatars themselves, with Quaritch recast as a scowling Na’vi redneck in combat boots and a black crewcut. They’ve arrived in this guise to hunt Jake down. But Jake escapes with his family and hides out with the Metkayina. Quaritch and his goon squad commandeer a hunting ship and eventually track them down. There is a massive confrontation. The end.

This tale, with its bare-bones dialogue, could easily have served an ambitious Netflix thriller, and could have been told in two hours rather than three. But that’s the point, isn’t it? “The Way of Water” is braided with sequences that exist almost solely for their sculptured imagistic magic. It’s truly a movie crossed with a virtual-reality theme-park ride. Another way to put it is that it’s a live-action film that casts the spell of an animated fantasy. But though the faces of the Na’vi and the MetKayina are expressive, and the actors make their presence felt, there is almost zero dimensionality to the characters. The dimensionality is all in the images.

Cameron, a four-decade veteran of bravura action logistics, has lost none of his mojo. His combat sequences are miraculously sustained, and he brings off a real coup in the relationship that Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Jake and Neytiri’s second son, forms with one of the whales, who becomes, in a great scene, the centerpiece of a surprise attack. On the other hand, where the culminating sequence of the original “Avatar” was that astounding spectacle of the Na’vi swooping this way and that on their flying psychedelic griffins, the climax of “The Way of Water” is more heavy-duty, with bullets, apocalyptic fire and a collapsing ship that makes several of the characters look like they got trapped in one of the disaster sequences of Cameron’s “Titanic.” Evoking that movie is a tactical mistake, because it reminds you that “Titanic” was a jaw-dropping spectacle with characters who touched us to the core. I’m sorry, but as I watched “The Way of Water” the only part of me that was moved was my eyeballs.

From Variety US