Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water ★★★★

To paraphrase a woman once known as Rose DeWitt Bukater: “Outwardly, I’ve spent the last 13 years insisting that only a total moron would ever bet against ‘Avatar’ mastermind James Cameron. Inside, I was screaming.”

Screaming at the idea that modern Hollywood’s most all-or-nothing visionary was going to waste the twilight of his career — and possibly the last gasp of The Movies themselves — on a series of sequels to his least compelling work. Screaming at the notion that the only person with the resources and cachet to create massive new film worlds from scratch had decided to semi-permanently entrench himself in one that I’d already seen and wasn’t particularly itching to revisit. Screaming at the far-fetched prospect that he’d be able to mine fresh pockets of either from a planet that he’d previously (and vividly) terraformed into the most basic of settler-adoption space fantasies.

“Aliens,” “Terminator 2,” and even the disavowed “Piranha” sequel prove that Cameron has always had a gift for building radical new sights atop pre-existing bedrock, but I was skeptical that another epic worthy of his ego could be constructed on the bones of such brittle colonization tropes, or that the Na’vi offered him the opportunities he needed to revolutionize movie-going yet again (for better or worse).

On the latter point, of course, Cameron knew that it did. Pandora was conceived as a giant playground for the technology that he wanted to bring to movie theaters — and as the weapon that would force them to go digital or die — and Cameron’s plan for it always extended beyond lithe blue cat people selling the masses on saving the rainforest. His heart belongs to the ocean, after all, and the ones on Pandora are virtually impossible to beat.

Cameron has always treated story as a direct extension of the spectacle required to bring it to life, but the anthropocenic relationship between narrative and technology was a bit uneven in the first “Avatar,” which obscured the old behind the veil of the new where his previous films had better allowed them to intertwine. An out-of-body theatrical experience that makes its predecessor feel like a glorified proof-of-concept, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is such a staggering improvement over the original because its spectacle doesn’t have to compensate for its story; in vintage Cameron fashion, the movie’s spectacle is what allows its story to be told so well.

The adventures of Jake Sully (of the Jarhead clan) are probably never going to escape their sub-“Lawrence of Arabia” underpinnings or achieve the kind of popcorn-flavored poignancy that inspired this critic to list “Titanic” as one of the 10 greatest films ever made, but I’ll say this much: When “Avatar” ended, I couldn’t imagine caring about its characters enough to sit through a sequel, let alone four of them. When “The Way of Water” finally ebbed out to sea after 192 spellbinding minutes — receding into darkness with the gentlest of cliffhangers at the end of a third act defined by some of the clearest and most sensationally character-driven action sequences this side of “True Lies” — I found myself genuinely moved by the plight of Jake’s tall blue family, and champing at the bit to see what happened to them next. Never doubted Big Jim for a minute!

~this review continues on IndieWire~

Block or Report