‘Avatar: The Way of Water” is not James Cameron’s last film, nor is it even the last “Avatar” film — the third installment, already completed, is due in 2024, the fourth is in production, the fifth scripted. However, if “The Way of Water” was the last film Cameron ever made, it’d be appropriate, as all of his cinematic obsessions coalesce within this gargantuan slice of mind-boggling spectacle presented with classical action-adventure storytelling.
“The Way of Water,” Cameron’s three-hour tour to the dazzling aquamarine oceans of Pandora, is “Avatar” via “Titanic,” heavily influenced by “The Abyss,” with nods to “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Cameron might be constantly pushing the boundaries and innovating film technology, but he consistently returns to the same obsessions, which have long included underwater exploration.
To that end, it’s only natural that his long-awaited “Avatar” sequel would feature Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his growing Na’vi family exploring the oceans of Pandora. A vengeful Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has been resurrected, his memories implanted in an autonomous Na’vi avatar, allowing him and his crew of “Sky People” soldiers to attack Jake at home in the peaceful forest. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), along with their four children, seek sanctuary with a remote island tribe, the Metkayina, and when Quaritch goes after him, their conflict roils the seas.
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The script, by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, allows Cameron the freedom to experiment with world and character building because the story is rooted in familiar, recognizable tropes. An early scene features Jake and his Na’vi warriors attacking a train in an episode that could be right out of a Western, except the indigenous insurgents have blue, tiger-striped skin and ride astride flying ikran rather than horses. The central story revolves around Jake trying to protect his family while struggling to control his teenage kids. These are universal, easily comprehensible themes that enable him to set this film on a far-off moon where our main characters are digital alien creations.
When it comes to his performances, Cameron has managed to skirt the uncanny valley. There are small eye movements and flickers of the iris that allow the performances to feel real, and we do indeed bond with these characters, feeling their pain and struggle and understanding their motivation, even if we don’t have a grasp on their names until the end of the film.
Cameron and his co-writers don’t spend a lot of time overexplaining things, relying on the audience familiarity with the genre conventions in order to efficiently lay out the story. There’s not a lot of “previously on Pandora,” as they jump right into the revenge/chase story and encourage us to keep up. This allows Cameron more time to revel in the dazzling worlds he has created, and revel he does: For about an hour in the middle of the film, he simply allows us to explore and enjoy the underwater majesty where the Metkayina live, letting the audience ride along with the Sully kids as they get their sea legs. With such incredible visuals, Cameron is allowed to revel as long as he wants, and you won’t want to miss a minute of it.
However, as much as it seems Cameron would like to simply run away and live in the world of Pandora, there’s still the greed and hypocrisy of humanity to contend with, and Cameron still wants to “see them crash,” as Steven Spielberg puts it in his movie memoir “The Fabelmans.” Cameron still has a fascination with roughneck, machine gun-toting Marines, high-tech watercraft and submersibles, and blowing things up. The conflict between the Sky People and the Na’vi allows him to bring these all together, setting up a massive battle set on an exploding, sinking ship used for whaling, commandeered by Quaritch to hunt Jake, and the climax is distinctly “Titanic.”
Cameron has always made movies like he’s running out of time, throwing everything he’s got at the screen, breaking ground on new technology and techniques to get it just right. Using technology in order to encourage audiences to appreciate the healing beauty of the natural world seems a bit counterintuitive, but the earnestness with which Cameron approaches the themes of “The Way of Water” is indeed inspiring, and the 13-year wait for the aquatic escape to Pandora is well worth it. Take the trip — you won’t regret it.
What “Avatar: The Way of Water” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 3:12 • Rating PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language