Movie Review: “Avatar: The Way of Water” is gorgeous, and all wet

Here’s a movie that opens a theme park in every 3D cinema in the world.

James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” is a stunning and immersive big screen experience pretty much without peer in cinema history. Its beautiful, digitally-realized other-worldly visuals are eye-popping, detailed down to the thread count in uniforms, so crystalline as to be disorienting. You lose track of where the screen ends and the tactile, physical cinema you’re watching it in begins.

Pandoran birds and Pandoran fishes — recognizable, yet distinctly alien variations on species we see on Earth — fly at us, float right into our faces. And in firefights, Cameron has us ducking arrows, spears and tracer-bullets in that time-honored 3D gimmick, only more realistic than it’s ever been.

Disney was wise, you think, to devote real estate and cash and technology to “Avatar” as a burgeoning theme park attraction. As striking as this movie makes the place look, one can’t help but think all it lacks is a themed Disney “world,” or Disney World hotel.

“The Way of Water” not only bests the Atlantean sequences of the “Black Panther” sequel, it represents a quantum leap improvement from the images the first film in the “Avatar” franchise.

The story? Well, it seems to unfold somewhat smoother this time around, although it’s just as prone to grating lapses in logic and groaningly obvious plot contrivances, conveniences in aid of lazy storytelling. The dialogue isn’t as cringe-worthy, and the film overall doesn’t seem as silly, although it bears the fresh burden of being repetitive.

When you’ve pieced together an action epic of well over three hours, with huge action beats in between scenes primarily calculated to generate “Oooohs” and “Ahhhhs,” even the very pretty pictures and vast explosions take on a “Seen that, and?” quality.

Cameron taps into “Terminator” tech and “Titanic” perils at sea, as if to show us how much better he could have made those blockbusters with the computer power behind today’s special effects. But the “Avatars” and actors playing the digitized Na’vi peoples of Pandora, who now include Oscar winner Kate Winslet and the wonderful character actor Cliff Curtis, are still too plastic to have the subtlety of facial and body expression to break our hearts.

From the sounds of her character, Zoe Saldana gives one of her most empathetic performances, full of rage and grief. But the animated Na’vi version of her doesn’t really get across the what the voice is conveying. Winslet (you’ll recognize the mole to the right of her nose) and especially Curtis have an easier time of it, playing Pandora’s version of “The Reef People” (a Sea People), a tribe built out of whatever Cameron knows about the Maori of New Zealand.

Even their whales have Maori-styled tattoos on them. Because in this movie, the whales are confidantes and conversationalists, every bit the equal of the blue (or seafoam green) biped anthropoids with magic tails.

The plot — over a decade has passed, and Jake (Sam Worthington), the paralyzed Marine reborn via an avatar clone of a Na’vi, and his native wife Neytiri (Saladana) had some good years, giving birth to two sons and a daughter, raising the spiritual, inquisitive half-human daughter (Sigourney Weaver) of the scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (also Sigourney Weaver), with a “feral” human kid, Spider (Jake Champion) left behind when the natives ran off the rapacious American miner/capitalists and their soldiers years before.

Now, the “Sky People” have returned for more exploiting and despoiling. The Na’vi resistance, primarily Jake Sully and his family, have their hands full. And the invaders have a Na’vi version of Marine Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and a crack commando team that fly in with them. They’ll hunt the train-wrecking Na’vi (French) Resistance, with Quaritch’s avatar hellbent on capturing and killing the treasonous ex-Marine Jake.

That’s why the family flees their floating mountain hideout and jungle stomping grounds for the islands and the Sea People. The Sullys are fish out of water and thus have to have this new way of life explained to them — and for the viewing audience’s benefit. The chief of the Reef People (Curtis) just wants to save the Sullys, and their quarrelsome teen boys, from “the shame of being useless.”

But Quaritch’s commandos are relentless, and are not above commandeering a gigantic hydrofoil whaler to track down their quarry. With those Sully kids constantly ignoring adult direction, things are about to get real.

Before visiting Pandora again, I went back to look over my review of the 2009 film that launched this blockbuster franchise. Back then I called Cameron “a visionary tour guide,” but a filmmaker who painted himself in a corner with a “predictable story, clichéd dialogue and logical lapses.”

Sadly, that hasn’t changed. “The Way of Water” is a better film, to me at least, because the effects are that much more impressive and it’s set on and under the water, with sea creatures just close enough to jellies, manta rays, whales and orcas and Loch Ness monsters (for riding) to be recognizable. The sea setting makes it more interesting.

Cameron and his co-writers take shallow digs into anthropology and biology, never quite coming up with creatures we don’t recognize. The people are tall, green alien Pacific Islanders, the creatures mildly exotic variations on an Earth theme.

The dialogue, also tribal and anthropological, when it isn’t using current slang (this or that somebody is “seen”), is kind of world traveler tourist trap T-shirt mumbo jumbo.

“The way of water has no beginning and no end.”

The environmental subtext gives us glances of the waste of resource-devouring capitalism, from the way the “Sky People” clear ground for “Bridgehead City” in the jungle — a giant explosion and fire — to whaling, which they devote military campaign resources to carry out. That’s still topical, although the screenwriters adds bits about American troops taking hostages and engaging in acts of cruelty for cruelty’s sake, very much a topic of conversation among those watching conversative politics around the world these days.

The stakes could have been higher, the deaths could have had meaning and the script could have added layers to the villainy, even added a villain or two. But it doesn’t.

With all these images, all those storyboards, all that digital rendering and compositing going on — from creatures to crab-submarines and the like — who has time for story meetings?

So this “Avatar” looks better without improving the shortcomings that made the original, the blockbuster among blockbusters, so narratively frustrating. Every time you think, “This is SO much better than ‘Avatar,'” some stupid turn in the plot makes you roll your eyes, some dumb bit of dialogue makes you slap your head in frustration and you wish Cameron had added a fourth writer just to have three voices shouting him down from his more juvenile indulgences.

His storytelling crutches and quirks can seem almost quaint, now. How quaint? How many movies do we watch in 3D, now, 13 years after “Avatar?” That quaint.

Rating: PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language

Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement and CCH Pounder.

Credits: Directed by James Cameron, scripted by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. A 20th Century release.

Running time: 3:12

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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