It has finally arrived.
The long-awaited sequel to what had at one time been the #1 box office movie of all-time, Avatar, is now in theaters...and I'm happy to say that it's been worth the wait.
***MINOR PLOT SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***
As the old saying goes, never bet against director James Cameron. The Oscar-winning filmmaker is responsible for many of the highest-grossing, iconic films in cinematic history. From "The Terminator" back in 1984, to the ground-breaking technical achievements of 1986's "Aliens," 1989's "The Abyss," and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," Cameron has never made a bad movie. His follow-up to "T2" was 1994's "True Lies," which withstands the tests of time, and it all led up to 1997's "Titanic," a movie that about 100% of the people thought would be as big a disaster as the film's subject.
Until it broke every record. The only one that it fell short of breaking was how many weeks it spent at #1 at the box office: "Titanic" lasted 15-weeks at number one, second only to "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" which had 16 (these are untouchable records in today's opening-weekend-or-die era). But it was the first film to surpass 1 BILLION (with a "B") in total gross...it earned a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, and won 11 of them (still an Oscar record). It was simply the biggest movie that ever was.
That is, until Cameron's NEXT film. 2009's "Avatar" would blow past "Titanic" and go on to make over 3 BILLION. It is the current highest-grossing film of all-time ("Avengers: End Game" had surpassed it, until a recent rerelease in China gave the trophy back to "Avatar"). Obviously then, this original, non-sequel has made more money than any single Star Wars film...any single Marvel film. It's the highest-grossing 3D and IMAX film ever released, and it took the movie only 19 days to reach the box office success of "Titanic"'s entire theatrical run.
What I'm saying is that James Cameron is sort of a big deal.
13 years after "Avatar," we finally get "Avatar: The Way of Water," and it is an epic, immersive feast for the senses. Cameron took his time and he seems to have gotten it right. For those that would bet against this movie becoming the biggest movie in history (which would be the third time a James Cameron film has done so), history is not on your side.
The film puts us back on the living planet of Pandora, entrenched with the Na'vi, the forest-dwelling natives. Where the first film introduced us to this world via a militant human group that was looking for rare materials, we spend most of this movie far from the reach of humans. Humans play a part, but in unexpected ways.
10 years have passed since the events of the first film, where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) now is a living, breathing Na'vi. He is married to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and they have a beautiful family, with two older boys, a young daughter, and an adopted teenage daughter, Kiri, who has the soul and memories of someone very familiar to the Avatar world. There is also a small human, who goes by the name of Spider (Jack Champion) who was born at the human outpost and raised as a Na'vi (think Mowgli from "The Jungle Book"), who also has a role within the family.
Technology hasn't just advanced for us who get to watch this brilliant world on the big-screen, but for those in this story as well. Gone are the days of human's taking on Avatars the old-fashioned way. Through advancements in cloning, the humans - still hell-bent on plundering what they can from Pandora - have discovered a way to create Na'vi bodies, and implant them with the memories of human soldiers. One dastardly bad guy from the first film, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is resurrected in this way, and his Na'vi avatar makes him once again the antagonist of the film.
Under threat from Quaritch and his squad, the Sully family exiles themselves to a vast water world where the Metkayina live. What the Na'vi were to the forest, the Metkayina are to the sea, and they even have a lighter blue complexion, and thicker body parts that help them navigate the gigantic oceans of Pandora. There they are taken in, begrudgingly, as they try to assimilate themselves and learn the way of the water.
Usually a run time of three hours and twelve minutes will leave people running for the doors, but "Avatar: The Way of Water" keeps a surprisingly brisk pace. The immersion is not just in the CG-rendered world (which contains, no doubt, some of the smoothest and most dazzling visual effects in cinematic history), but also in the characters. Cameron's dialogue might be pointed at times, but the time he invests in creating his characters and their interactions pays off grandly by the time that the high-stakes finale rolls around. That final 30-40 minutes is some of the most effective, emotional and gorgeous movie-making I've ever witnessed. I was not only on the edge of my seat, but I'm not sure if I remembered to even draw a breath. Simply. Outstanding.
Yes, Cameron has ideas in motion to create many more Avatar films, but unlike, say, the Marvel movies, we are not battered over the head with loose plot threads or teases to future installments. There is great symmetry to how both Avatar films have ended, and there seems like there is so much more to explore...not just in this mesmerizing world of Pandora, but within the characters and the families themselves.
All criticisms that I have of "Avatar: The Way of Water" are quibbles at best...and although I didn't quite care for the Spider character or his storyline, I think it opens up lots of possibilities moving forward (the same can't be the same for Jemaine Clement's American-accent-speaking marine biologist, who hopefully ends up dead-in-the-water).
And for the record, I don't care if James Cameron calls his next one "Avatar 3: Escape to NYC," I'll be there for it...my faith in the cinematic experience fully restored by his raw genius.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy.
Run Time: 3 hours 12 minutes.
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Stephen Lang, Edie Falco, CCH Pounder.
Co-Written and Directed by James Cameron ("Avatar," "Titanic," "The Terminator," "T2: Judgment Day," "True Lies").
"Avatar: The Way of Water" is in theaters EVERYWHERE, starting Friday, December 16th, 2022.
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