A Whale of A Sequel

In ‘Avatar 2: The Way of Water’, James Cameron brings the underseas 3D bombast

There is a moment, in the chaos of the climactic battle of Avatar: The Way of Water, when Zoe Saldana’s alien heroine Neytiri is furiously mowing down one soldier after another with her bow and arrow. A little girl, handcuffed to a railing, brightens up: “Mom’s here!”

Resourceful, violent women with a cause are one good reason to show up for James Cameron’s stuff. Another is simply that nobody else has spun as much stunning natural beauty out of their own invented film technology. The Avatar sequel delivers on its promise of expanding the scope of Pandora, the verdant alien planet where Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) went rogue in the first one. Way of Water begins in the forests, where we left off, but eventually, after a lengthy preamble, takes Jake and Neytiri – and their four children- to live in a seaside tribe.

AVATAR 2: THE WAY OF WATER ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: James Cameron
Written by: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement, and introducing Jack Champion as Spider
Running time: 192 min

The move gives Cameron an excuse to introduce us, via the Sullys, to a whole new world of Pandoran enchantments, this time buoyed by Cameron’s own longtime obsession with the deep sea. Here, the thicker-tailed locals ride around on awesome aquatic dinosaur-type animals that can also fly. He populates the world below the surface with fabulous flora and fauna in a riot of fluorescent hues. What’s not to love?

One of Jake’s kids even makes friends with a Pandoran whale, who’s been outcast from his pod over a cetacean misunderstanding. The scene in which the rest of the whales make their seasonal reappearance is sheer joy. Sigourney Weaver plays Kiri, the daughter of the last film’s scientist, Grace; she’s a girl (with Weaver’s husky voice, which never stops being a little weird) with a mystical attachment to the natural world. At one point, she compels a giant anemone to ensnare an approaching foe. Aquaman, take note.

Cameron’s spent more than a decade creating the most arresting digital aquatic paradise ever, which makes it frustrating that he feels so obligated to keep showing us, over and over, how easily and cruelly people can destroy it. The plot of Way of Water turns on the return of the plodding, bloodthirsty humans. Disappointingly, they’ve given up their quest for “unobtanium;” I was really looking forward to hearing the briefly-glimpsed Giovanni Ribisi give another blustering speech about his lust for this hilariously-named fictional element. Instead, the Earthlings are now intent on colonizing the entire planet. Stephen Lang’s surly villain, Quaritch, is resurrected, his consciousness somehow inserted into the body of a Na’vi avatar, which he’ll use to chase down Sully, the leader of the Pandoran insurrection.

Cameron even throws in a sequence involving whale hunting, to really drive home how awful the human invaders are. Its saving grace is the appearance of Jemaine Clement (who knows something about being a fabulous sea creature himself) as a sad marine biologist appointed, for some reason, to accompany the hunters.

I’m an unapologetic fan of the first Avatar; I even took my first-ever trip to Disney World to review the Pandora exhibit when it opened. I’m familiar with the arguments that Avatar’s narrative is hacky, white-savior stuff, and while I get it, all I can say is: I’m here for the spectacle. Both of these films feel, to me, more like a high-budget ride than a traditional film, and I’m okay with that. Your mileage may vary.

I’m also very here for both films’ un-subtle messaging about the terrifying impact of humanity on nature. Nobody is rooting harder for that whale to fuck shit up than I am. Cameron-sized payback is bombastically satisfying, and the extensive sequence in which Jake, Neytiri and their seaside friends make their stand is exhilarating filmmaking. It’s also quite the hat tip to the melodramatic maritime peril of Titanic.

Ultimately, I think Cameron could have achieved his objectives  in less than the film’s three hour and twelve minute running time. (Do find yourself an IMAX with recliners, if one’s available.) Couldn’t he have spent just one of these intervening years inventing a superior pair of 3D glasses, or better yet, a way to watch 3D without them? Still, I would happily have spent all that time and more frolicking on Pandora, if only there had been slightly fewer gleeful demonstrations of how good humanity is at spoiling the unspoiled.

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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