Before he became King of the World, James Cameron was king of the bigger, better, more parentally fraught blockbuster sequel. Even if his long-awaited return to Pandora can’t match Aliens or T2 for focused tanker-weight efficiency, Avatar: The Way of Water cleaves close enough to uphold that reputation. And it sure leaves Piranha II’s flying fish standing.
Will it join the $2bn club, as Cameron implies it must? We’ll see, but it certainly is a whole lot of flawed but fulsome (quoting Guillermo del Toro) "MOVIE-MOVIE": a sometimes surreal, always spectacular sensory hit with an undertow of gentle emotion, an overflow of ambition, and a pleasingly earnest thematic thrust. It might take multiple viewings to unpick some plot threads… and three more films. But if anyone can mount a case for the repeat-visit cinema experience, Cameron can.
Since most people have visited Pandora before, Cameron wastes little time on scene-setting. The opening parachutes fast into Pandora’s jungle, where gone-total-Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now raise their expanded family. There are their own kids, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuktirey (Trinity Bliss). Then there are the adoptees: Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) is the sort-of-child of Grace’s avatar (from the first Avatar), while Spider (Jack Champion) is a feral human orphaned by war.
Jake believes protecting his family gives him purpose. So when villainous Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) returns in (fully explained) "Recombinant" avatar form seeking "payback" for his demise, the Sully fam seeks refuge among Pandora’s sea clans. Here, Jake helicopters over his tearaway brood sternly. But can they run from Quaritch’s new blue marines forever? And isn’t navigating risk an essential learning curve?
While this bare-bones set-up reflects Cameron’s pulp punch as a writer, his staggering proficiency as a world-builder is also displayed. This time, Cameron leaves little time to pause and admire Pandora’s plant life. The verdant jungle now feels lived-in, alive. Meanwhile, with life on earth barely viable, the RDA (Resources Development Administration) has bigger designs on Pandora. Their base of operations is a small city, where tech upgrades include robo-spidery "swarm assemblers" that construct buildings in days. When the humans land on Pandora, Cameron makes sure you feel the devastation wrought in their wake.
In CG terms, The Way of Water certainly has the WOW factor. Hair and skin glisten, flames and dust motes transfix: 13 years on, Avatar’s spectacle-cinema upgrade has been bested. Yet just as Avatar took time to introduce audiences to Pandora’s groovy wonderland, so the big reveal this time is the reef, home to the Metkayina clan. The ocean world is luminous, tactile, serene. As the 3D visuals glow in sync with Simon Franglen’s chiming score, the sense of weightless immersion in the waters shows a fresh, tender grace in Cameron’s direction. He brings respect to the ocean too, not just enraptured love: the waters are alluring and dangerous. And when their occupants are mistreated, the sense of horror is palpable.
While he’s dazzling your eyeballs, Cameron juggles thematic, narrative, emotional, and character strands meticulously. Almost echoing Finding Nemo, Jake’s primal urge to protect his kids establishes danger as a thematic motif – from the opening monologue on, Cameron treats the theme like a dorsal fin to cling to through choppy plot waters.
Cast-wise, Kate Winslet (as Metkayina clan co-leader Ronal) and Saldana are held back a little too much but Worthington aces the formerly in-training Na’vi turned training-on-the-job dad. Weaver projects Kiri’s feelings of outsider-dom – and sulky eye-rolls – touchingly through the mo-cap, dissolving the actor/character age gap. Among the terrific young actors, Dalton brings heart to bonding scenes with the whale-like Tulkun, scenes that might otherwise have gone a bit Free Willy. And Champion makes feral work of the Newt-ish Spider, whose side-plot develops Cameron’s thoughts on family.
The returning Lang adds explosive rage, though it’s a pity his toxic spiel ("science pukes" and so on) rings familiar. Though Cameron spends no time on Avatar refresher courses, he does sometimes lean on known beats. While sea creatures the 'ilus' are rethinks of Avatar’s ikrans, the Sully clan’s water-training reworks Jake’s old Na’vi training. Cameron even repeats himself a little within the film: when one character sighs, "Can’t believe I’m tied up again," you wonder if a little trimming might have been advised.
The stop-start plotting is also slightly problematic, with some characters and their struggles seemingly vanishing for stretches. Yet when the plot strands converge for the climax, Cameron channels previous career highs into a blast of full-bore, high-stakes spectacle, reminding you who’s in charge. T2’s tech, Titanic’s watery horror show, Aliens’ child peril, The Abyss’ weird wonder: it’s all here, maximized for tension, action, and emotion. When the flames clear, some dangling story strands leave more questions than answers. But three follow-ups are planned… Even at three hours-plus, Cameron’s comeback leaves you ready for more.
Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas from December 16. Fro more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.