“Avatar: The Way of Water” has enough ambition to fill a cinematic universe, a masterpiece in computer-generated imagery that successfully whisks the audience away to the moon of Pandora and its picturesque oceans. But James Cameron’s newest film has another trait lacking in today’s typical blockbuster: sincerity. This is a movie that unashamedly aims to encourage everyday compassion through the example of blue aliens who ride dinosaurs. It isn’t shameful to be earnest and a little bit strange. But it is beautiful and impactful, and ultimately, a soaring success that hopefully can be a model for blockbusters to follow.
The world of Pandora is breathtaking, from its familiar forests to its gleaming seas. The flora and fauna are wonderfully designed: organic, imaginative and easily identifiable, so any audience can connect with them. The Na’vi, the humanoid aliens at the center of the story, are fully expressive and feel real, even though there is still a layer of artifice to them. The filmmakers are aware of this inescapable unreality to Pandora, and they succeed in building a world that is beautiful on its own terms. The spell is only seriously weakened when live humans show up, though their presence in Pandora is much more believable in 3D, at least in this reviewer’s experience. In fact, the film looks best in 3D, as the filmmakers take advantage of the extra depth this gives their frame, adding to the realism and immersion of the film, rather than trying cheap tricks to move the audience into Pandora, which the filmmakers know is impossible.
Cameron’s dazzling vistas would be meaningless if the characters that inhabited them were dull and flat, and here, the screenwriters far exceed the first film, which was narratively lacking. “The Way of Water” follows a Na’vi family on the run, as the father and patriarch of this family — Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) — has a problematic history with the human colonizers of Pandora. As shown in the original “Avatar,” Jake was once human, before transferring his consciousness to a Na’vi body and marrying a Na’vi woman, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). Jake is only a secondary protagonist here, as his children, mainly the rebellious and spirited Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and the spiritual and eccentric Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), lead the action. The screenwriters accurately capture the family dynamics, especially between Jake and his sons Lo’ak and Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the latter of whom is always obedient while the former continues to frustrate and scare Jake. Lo’ak’s misadventures alienate him from his father, while Kiri feels alone because of her unique way of interacting with the world and her deep connection to Pandora’s spirit, Ewya. The hurt the family inflicts on itself and the love within it all the while are real and deeply relatable.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a meditation on what it means to love, whether that be a culture, a place or a person. The Sullies respond to the world and to each other with love; they want to understand where they are and the unfamiliar ways of those around them and to support and save their family. The human colonizers want to dominate the world around them and shape it according to their desires. Cameron demonstrates the destruction this latter approach causes viscerally while encouraging the audience to approach the world with wonder. This is why Pandora is so gorgeous: it is an easy place to love, and hopefully, we can come back to Earth with some of the Sullies’ compassion.
Title: “Avatar: The Way of Water”
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Britain Dalton, Sigourney Weaver
If you like: “Star Wars,” “Top Gun: Maverick”
Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5
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