Avatar: The Way of Water

A great visual style does not automatically make a great movie. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to talk about the look of James Cameron's Avatar: The Way of Water right off the bat. The original Avatar used groundbreaking CGI and top-notch 3D to immerse viewers in the fictional world of Pandora. Special effects have advanced significantly in the last 13 years, allowing this sequel to pull that off in even more spectacular fashion. I'm not kidding when I say this may be the best-looking movie I've ever seen. And unless you aren't able to view movies in the format, it's an adventure that absolutely, 100% demands to be watched in 3D. Cameron uses both these elements to deliver a thrilling, cutting-edge experience.

Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has been cloned as a Na'vi. He is determined to get revenge upon Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) for the defeat they handed him at the end of the original. To assist, he's assembled an elite military team, who have also been given the Na'vi treatment. His initial attack is so devastating that Jake determines he needs to take his family and flee. He packs up Netiri, chip-off-the-old-block sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and heads off in search of a new home. Kiri, it should be noted, was birthed by Grace Augustine, the character Weaver played in the first film.

They end up taking refuge with the Metkayina, a tribe of “reef people,” led by chief Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet). From the Metkayina, the Sullys learn the art of riding sea creatures and breathing underwater. Those skills come in handy when Quaritch eventually tracks them down. Skirting around the edges is “Spider” (Jack Champion), a human boy rescued and raised by the Na'vi. He's the biological son of Quaritch, so there's a pull between his biology and his loyalty to the beings who cared for him.

Unlike many sequels, Avatar: The Way of Water is not a mere rehash of situations and events from the original. Cameron is very interested in expanding on the things he previously introduced. We learn more about Jake and Neytiri from watching them parent their kids and noticing the lessons they instill. Introducing Kiri provides an intriguing link back to Grace, allowing her presence to be critically felt throughout the movie. Quaritch's plan for vengeance is deepened by a tactical decision he makes – specifically, that he and his men will defeat the Na'vi by fully embracing their new status as Na'vi. While true that clichés and tropes are all over the place, including a bit where Lo'ak earns the trust of a whale-like creature by removing a sharp object from its fin, they work because Cameron presents them in an entertaining way.

The director additionally ups the ante on action scenes, devising elaborate set pieces that thoroughly grip you. In particular, the third hour offers non-stop excitement, as the Na'vi go to war with Quaritch's squadron in both the air and the sea. Many of the most thrilling scenes, however, are not about violent mayhem. Whenever the characters go underwater, the film is nothing less than magical. Again, the combination of CGI and 3D gives you the sensation of being in the water with them, an assortment of beautiful aquatic creatures seeming to pass inches in front of your face. These moments are the heart of the picture, thanks to the dazzling manner in which they're visualized. To call them breathtaking is no understatement.

This year, we've had two movies that aimed to give audiences a euphoric ride. Top Gun: Maverick was one, this is the other. Cameron wants to send people away feeling giddy over what they've just seen. He could have coasted by turning in a carbon copy. Instead, he and his team worked to outdo themselves, to say to ticket-buyers, “You ain't seen nothing yet!” For that reason, Avatar: The Way of Water truly is an event film, in every sense of the term.

out of four

Avatar: The Way of Water is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language. The running time is 3 hours and 12 minutes.