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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Looks Even More Sensational Than the First One

The action epic may have a simplistic story, but its otherworldly CGI visuals are overpowering

(Left to right) Neytiri (voice: Zoe Saldana) and Jake Sully (voice: Sam Worthington) in "Avatar: The Way of Water."
(Left to right) Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, and Jake Sully, voiced by Sam Worthington.
Disney

⭐⭐⭐⭐☆ Avatar: The Way of Water, PG-13

In 2009, Avatar became the highest-grossing nonsequel movie ever at $2.9 billion, topping director James Cameron’s earlier $1.8 billion monolith Titanic. It’s about a paraplegic Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who travels to the distant moon Pandora, where he falls in love with the blue, tall and tailed Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), an indigenous Na’vi, realizes his fellow Earthers, “the Sky People,” are genocidal and switches allegiances.

Jake Sully (voice: Sam Worthington), Neytiri (voice: Zoe Saldana) in "Avatar: The Way of Water."
Jake Sully and Neytiri
Disney

Where are we now?

In the second Avatar film (the first of four planned sequels), the mixed marriage of Sully and Neytiri has borne fruit. They are the proud and engaged parents of three biological children, another adopted and a wayward human orphan named Spider. They’re thriving in an Edenic state in the forest, sharing the odd hammock, as the children frolic among stunningly imaginative flora and fauna as hallucinogenic as the unicorns and centaurs in Fantasia.

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Miles Quaritch, voiced by Stephen Lang, in "Avatar: The Way of Water."
Miles Quaritch, voiced by Stephen Lang.
Disney

‘This family is our fortress’

In a script prone to declamatory voiceover narration, we soon discover that the family “fort” is under siege — by the return of the original’s uber-villain. Remember Stephen Lang’s nasty, gnarly Col. Miles Quaritch? He’s back (having died and been reconstituted as an undercover Na’Vi) and on a brutal, colonialist mission to eradicate Sully, his family and as many happy villagers and sea animals as possible. Will the family fortress hold as the Sullys flee to the far side of the moon and a sea-loving indigenous stronghold? Also returning is Sigourney Weaver in a dual role and Edie Falco as a general who disappears from the plot early on, perhaps promising to reappear in a future sequel.

Avatar: The Way of Water
Disney

A whale of a tale

Like the previous Avatar, only with 13 more years of FX development, the spectacle captivates. Take the tulkun, whale-like creatures with strong tribal and mother-child bonds. When mature, they can stretch to the size of a football field. There are skimwings and ilus and ikran, dragon-like predators that make the fire-breathing beasts in Game of Thrones seem like beagles. Cameron completely succeeds in world-building — he’s the Jacques Cousteau of CGI undersea photography.

Jake Sully in "Avatar: The Way of Water."
Disney

Why do you build me up, Buttercup…

However, like a bratty child who builds the Notre Dame Cathedral out of Legos only to kick it to bits, Cameron creates a creature of such empathy and joy only to set the obvious villains on it with electronic super-harpoons and futuristic bazookas, submarines and speedboats. Run, little baby tulkun, run! Mama can’t save you! And that’s pretty much the way the movie treats its Pandoran paradise. Show how wonderful these imaginary creatures built from flickers of light are, then napalm them back to the Stone Age. This is Cameron’s Achilles heel. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. For the millions who want an action movie that out-Moby Dicks Moby Dick, this is it.

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Jake Sully in "Avatar: The Way of Water."
Jake Sully
Disney

Visual effects for the win

In 2010, the original harpooned three Oscars — for visual effects, cinematography and art direction — but no best picture. And it’s likely to be a repeat in 2023. Avatar: The Way of Water will probably get a nomination, because it may be the movie that most exemplifies why we should go out to the theater for that big screen, big special effects experience. Who doesn’t love iridescent sea creatures, fiery cinders and weapons poking into the theater through the magic of 3D? If there’s only one movie you put on pants and leave the house for, this one is it for the visuals alone.

Long on spectacle, short on story

In the end, we get it: The family who fights together stays together. Fatherhood is good. Ecologists are good. Mother Earth is good. Na’vi with cool tails and toned bodies are good. However, that imperialist military industrial complex? Those greedy whale hunters? Not so much. But, oh, as Louis Armstrong sang, “What a wonderful world.”

Watch it: Avatar: The Way of Water, coming to theaters Dec. 16.

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