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James Cameron makes a splash with long-awaited ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Featured

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It used to be that if a film was going to get a sequel, that sequel would happen soon after the original. No matter how successful the movie, if a follow-up hadn’t at least gone into production within a couple of years, it probably wasn’t going to happen.

Obviously, that is no longer the case. We’re seeing more and more of these legacy-quels, sequels landing a decade or more after the original. As the mainstream movie landscape shifted, the value of IP increased dramatically.

All that said, it’s tough to know exactly how to categorize “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the new film from director James Cameron. This new film comes out some 13 years after its predecessor (a film that, in case you’ve forgotten, remains the highest-grossing film of all time), but Cameron was TALKING about the sequel(s) even before the first film made well over $2 billion worldwide.

Still, “Avatar” was kind of old news, a movie that never really made a lasting pop cultural impact despite its massive commercial success, so it feels a little weird that we’re getting a sequel now, so long after the fact. Of course, this is James Cameron we’re talking about, who has demonstrated not just a mastery of blockbuster filmmaking, but of blockbuster sequel filmmaking – this is the dude who made “Aliens” and “Terminator 2,” after all. Bet against him at your peril.

And all things considered? “Avatar: The Way of Water” has the makings of yet another winning bet.

We’re once again transported to the beautiful alien world of Pandora, populated by a rich and diverse collection of flora and fauna, all of it rendered in exquisite digital detail by Cameron and his VFX team. Of particular note is that, as is his wont, Cameron basically needed to invent new techniques and technology in order to bring his vision to life – specifically, to craft motion capture performance scenes underwater. All that visual splendor – floating mountains and massive reefs, beasts of the air and of the sea, and of course, the blue-skinned warriors the Na’vi – is on full display.

However, this new film falls prey to some of the same issues that plagued the first film. The thinness of the narrative, for instance; while this movie’s plotting is a bit more robust (and it ought to be, considering the staggering three-plus-hour runtime), it still doesn’t quite deliver in terms of story. The first hour or so does give some reason for hope, but too often, Cameron and company opt for another undeniably impressive moment of visual craft instead of narrative followthrough.

Here's the thing, though – are you really seeing “Avatar” for the story? Yes, a more compelling plot would be nice, but let’s be real: we’re all here to see what kind of visual insanity Jim Cameron is going to throw together for us. When people have to invent new ways of doing things to make your movie happen – and THEY DO IT – your eyes are in for a sumptuous aesthetic feast.

In the years following the first film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) goes fully native with the Na’vi. Alongside his beloved Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he leads the forest people with the blessing of the world spirit Eywa. They’re raising four children – sons Neteyam (James Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and youngest daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), along with their adopted teenage daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the unexplained child of the avatar of Dr. Grave Augustine (also Weaver) – and generally living their best lives.

All that changes when, alas, the Sky People return. And this time, they’ve made contingency plans against Jake and the rest of the Na’vi.

Specifically, they’ve created a squad of avatar Marines, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose consciousness was saved before he died in the final battle with the Na’vi in the first film. At the behest of General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco), who runs the human operating base Bridgewater City, Quaritch and his crew must hunt down Jake Sully and put down the ongoing guerrilla attacks from the Na’vi.

Rather than risk the well-being of all of the Omaticaya people, the Sullys flee, leaving the jungle and making their way out to sea, where they seek asylum among the Metkayina, a tribe of Na’vi tied to the ocean. They are taken in at the behest of Metkayina chief Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his queen Ronal (Kate Winslet); the family tries to assimilate into their strange new surroundings.

Alas, it’s never that easy, and with Quaritch and his team determined to track them down, the Sully family must stand strong in order to protect not just themselves, but all of Pandora.

Obviously, in a three-hour film, there’s more going on, but there are far too many underbaked subplots and red herrings to go into – particularly when it seems clear that there’s a lot that is meant to continue forward into subsequent sequels; hell, we get not one but two different lines that are essentially throwaways that completely redefine humanity’s reasoning for returning to the planet (neither of which involve the still-laughably-named unobtanium, by the way).

Suffice it to say that there are a lot of visually lush sequences involving Pandora and her many natural marvels, as well as a number of intense action set pieces that mash-up the low- and high-tech approaches of the Na’vi and the humans, respectively. It’s undeniably impressive to look at, though it’s worth noting that there are a few moments that are blatantly intended for the 3D audience – they don’t really detract from the overall experience, but you’ll definitely know them when you see them.

As for performance, well … that’s a tough one. There are some fundamental handicaps that come with motion capture work; subtlety of expression is largely lost, for example. Still, we’ve got a couple of old hands at work here in Worthington and Saldana, who handle their business admirably and evoke a genuine relationship even through the layers of CGI heaped upon them both. The kids are all fine, with Weaver’s Kiri even better than that. Lang is a hoot, as is Jack Champion as Spider, a human teen who has grown up alongside the Na’vi (Spider plays a big role in the story, but it’s best you see it for yourself). Winslet is another who accomplishes more nuance than you might expect from big blue computer images.

(Note: I mentioned the invention of new tech to film underwater mo-cap scenes earlier, yes? Well, several of these cast members actually learned free-diving techniques themselves, so as to be better able to stay under for lengthier periods of time. Just another reminder that James Cameron is a combination of mad genius and Pied Piper.)

Will “Avatar: The Way of Water” live up to its predecessor? Creatively, one could make the argument, though this film has plenty of flaws of its own. Commercially? Tough to say – even with a massive opening, the film has a long way to go to make up its record production budget, estimated at anywhere from $350-400 million. Regardless, there’s something comforting about going to see a massive James Cameron blockbuster at the movie theater.

And one thing is for certain – the dude knows how to make a splash.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 19 December 2022 09:57

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