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Take the plunge: Avatar's underwater scenes are immersive and extraordinary

Filmmaker James Cameron returns to the world of the Na'vi people in <em>Avatar: The Way of Water.</em>
20th Century Films
Filmmaker James Cameron returns to the world of the Na'vi people in Avatar: The Way of Water.

I wouldn't call Avatar: The Way of Water one of the year's best movies, but it's undoubtedly one of the best movie-going experiences I've had in a while. I had more or less the same reaction to James Cameron's first Avatar in 2009.

It told a thin but trippy Dances with Wolves-ian story about the colonizers v. the colonized, but the world building was spectacular: It was thrilling to visit the faraway moon called Pandora, with its immersive, digitally created jungle landscapes. It was thrilling, too, to root for the towering blue-skinned Na'vi people, brought to life through Cameron's pioneering use of performance-capture technology, which translates actors' movements and facial expressions into computer-generated imagery.

And so it's great to return to Pandora, although since many years have passed since the events of the first movie, there is some clunky exposition to get through. Sam Worthington again plays Jake Sully, a former human now reborn as a Na'vi man, and Zoe Saldaña returns as the fierce warrior princess Neytiri. They have four Na'vi children, including an adopted teenage daughter, Kiri. She's played, through the magic of performance capture, by the decidedly not-teenage Sigourney Weaver. And Weaver, as you might recall, played a human scientist who was killed in the first Avatar.

How the older and younger Weaver characters are connected is one of the new movie's mysteries, but it's clear that Kiri is a child of unique gifts. In one scene, she tells Jake that she feels acutely in tune with Eywa, the powerful deity who maintains balance among all living things on Pandora, saying, "I hear her heartbeat. She's so close. She's just ... there. Like a word about to be spoken."

For some viewers, a little of this Mother Earth stuff will go a long way, though I've always found Cameron's cornball sincerity hard to resist. He may push the technological envelope, but he's an earnest, old-fashioned storyteller at heart.

For some viewers, a little of this Mother Earth stuff will go a long way, though I've always found Cameron's cornball sincerity hard to resist. He may push the technological envelope, but he's an earnest, old-fashioned storyteller at heart. For all its visual sophistication and its three-hour-plus running time, Avatar: The Way of Water tells a simple, straightforward story about a family in danger.

The villain here is once again Jake's archenemy, Col. Miles Quaritch, played by a ferocious Stephen Lang. You might recall that he died in the first Avatar, but Cameron's science-fiction conceit is elastic enough to get over that hurdle. And this time, Quaritch himself has been resurrected as a Na'vi, making him even more fearsome and powerful. He has a score to settle, and so Jake and Neytiri take their kids and flee to the sea, where they hide out among a group of Na'vi beach dwellers.

The movie's second act is basically a charming riff on Swiss Family Robinson, as Jake and Neytiri receive a wary welcome from the community leaders, one of them played by a glaring Kate Winslet. The family is forced to adapt to an entirely new way of life. That means becoming much better swimmers and learning to communicate with the local wildlife, including a giant talking whale-like creature called a Tulkun.

It may sound silly, but this is where the movie soars to life. Cameron knows a thing or two about underwater peril, as his movies Titanic and The Abyss bear out. He's also an accomplished diver, and here, he plunges you into the watery depths and surrounds you with the most surreal-looking alien fish specimens you've ever seen.

In these moments, I didn't feel like I was watching a movie so much as floating in one. In addition to the 3D, which I do recommend, Cameron has tried to heighten the level of detail by shooting at an unusually fast 48 frames per second. It looks a little too smooth at times, especially on dry land, but the effect is stunning underwater. I almost wished the movie would never leave the ocean floor, that it could just sustain this Jacques-Cousteau-on-mushrooms vibe for three hours.

But that's not the Cameron way. He sometimes breaks his own spell by cutting away to Quaritch, which often feels jarring and not that interesting. And as superb as Cameron's eye is, his dialogue remains as tin-eared as ever. But everything does come together in the movie's action-heavy final act, which features extraordinarily well-orchestrated set-pieces both above and below water.

Quaritch is joined by some deadly human fighters too, and Avatar: The Way of Water encourages us — successfully — to root against humanity for all the destruction it's unleashed on the world. We've seen that before, including in the first Avatar, but it speaks to Cameron's real achievement, which is to bring us into total identification with these computer-generated Na'vi characters. I don't know if that will be enough to sustain the Avatar series over three upcoming sequels, but I'm already looking forward to another trip to this alien moon. Until then, Pandora, so long, and thanks for all the fish.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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