Thirteen years after director James Cameron’s original blockbuster “Avatar,” the alien space whales are worth the long journey back to Pandora.
“Avatar: The Way of Water,” the first of four planned sequels to the 2009 sci-fi epic, outperforms the original in almost every way (out of four; rated PG-13; in theatres Friday). It’s a gorgeous and stunning thing to look at, with amazing underwater fauna, and the new film is an emotionally charged outing that revisits colonisation themes while also adding environmental issues and relatable family drama.
“Way of Water” doesn’t have the most complex plot ever, and not everything goes swimmingly, but most viewers won’t notice when they’re watching big blue characters ride cool creatures and swoop and dive in thrilling fashion. (Parents, please be aware that your children may now request a space whale for Christmas.)
Cameron’s latest film is set more than a decade after former Marine Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington in motion capture), his Na’vi love Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and their indigenous clan drove the humans off Pandora’s lush moon. Jake and Neytiri had three children over the years, including warrior-in-training sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and young daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), as well as adopted teen girl Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and feral human kid Spider (Jack Champion).
Humanity disrupts their peaceful existence once more when a much larger force, led by General Frances Ardmore (a scenery-chewing Edie Falco), lands on Pandora looking to take over as a replacement for the increasingly unlivable Earth. This time, humans have created their own 9-foot-tall cloned Na’vi soldiers, including one with the DNA and memories of original film villain Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who was last seen taking two fatal arrows in the chest from Jake and Neytiri.
Jake is at the top of the bad guys’ most wanted list, forcing him and his family to find a new home and keep their clan safe. They eventually find refuge with a village of Na’vi reef people led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and the pregnant Ronal (Kate Winslet), despite being pursued by Quaritch’s goon squad and a legion of human-piloted machinery ranging from high-tech shark subs to robotic crab suits.
This time around, water is a major theme, inspiring some of the more philosophical points (“The way of water connects all things” is a running mantra). The ocean is also where a lot of the coolest things happen: There are plenty of fights and flights of fantasy, but the most heartwarming sequence in the film’s three hours and twelve minutes features troubled middle child Lo’ak befriending an outcast Tulkun, a whale-like creature that can communicate with Na’vi.
The sequel to “Avatar” brings back most of the original film’s main characters as well as a slew of newcomers, but it’s the kids, particularly Kiri and Lo’ak, who really drive the sequel’s strong coming-of-age story.
They bring a sense of freshness when “Way of Water” leans familiar, such as Quaritch 2.0 learning to jibe with Pandoran creatures a la Jake or humans going to extreme lengths for a valuable resource. (Thankfully, it’s not the awkwardly named Unobtanium this time.)
It’s best not to think too hard about certain things – for example, at least one flawless conception – and simply weather others, as in one long segment reminiscent of an extremely cruel animal documentary. And, while the visual effects are generally fantastic, the film occasionally resembles a video game or a theme-park ride that seems a little wonky in comparison to the more sumptuous parts.
While Cameron is a master of franchise sequels, “Way of Water” falls short of his previous works, “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” However, thanks to new characters and vibrant wildlife, this latest journey demonstrates, perhaps surprisingly to some after such a long gap between films, that there is still some gas in the “Avatar” tank after all.