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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Is a Tender-Hearted Spectacle About How Humans Suck

James Cameron’s belated sequel is really fun to look at—which is more than I can say for most blockbusters.

Aww! Pandorable!
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

You can always count on capitalism to make things worse. What’s more, you can always count on nostalgia to see to it that the products and practices once hyperbolically considered indicators of our cultural decline are now celebrated, just as excessively, as humanity’s greatest triumphs. So 2022, a year audiences were criticized for not appreciating Michael Bay’s genius and Steven Spielberg turned his Fanny and Alexander into an American success story, is the perfect time for James Cameron to re-emerge from the deep as the last fiercely independent blockbuster auteur.

Not that Cameron is living in the past. Avatar: The Way of Water is at the cutting edge of film tech. Marvel flicks look like kids playing with action figures compared to the integration of digital and actual here. If you shell out for the pricier ticket, you’ll see that Cameron makes more effective use of 3D than most, so it stretches beyond the frame rather than just adding depth. I wasn’t completely won over by the use of “TrueCut Motion” during action sequences, which doubles the frame rate to 48 per second to avoid digital blurring and looks conspicuously like motion smoothing. But hey, nobody said progress would be painless.

Avatar: The Way of Water returns Cameron to his true element, literally. The creator of The Abyss even gets to stage a not-quite Titanic ship-sinking, just for old times’ sake. (The sequence once more reveals Cameron’s debt to ‘70s disaster epics, which gives him a leg up on his culturally impoverished younger competition.) And we’re allowed to explore another part of the director’s beloved Pandora, where the seafaring tribes ride eels both above and below the surface, practice breath control that allows them to deep dive for extended periods, and harbor suspicions about the Na’vi outsiders who seek refuge among them.

That would be the family of human-turned-Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldaña, more feral than ever), who you may faintly recall from the original Avatar 13 years ago. (If you’re a little fuzzy on the original’s details, you’ve got 190 minutes here to catch up. Just remember: Gigantic blue feline humanoids good, people bad.) Their new clan includes well-meaning older brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), impetuous younger brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and adorable kid sister Tuk (Trinity Joy-Li Bliss). Then there’s Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), somehow born from the avatar of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (also Sigourney Weaver), who’s got some freaky hoodoo shit going on. Will she be able to harness her power in time for the climactic battle against the Sky People?

Oh, there’s also Spider (Jack Champion), the bare-chested, loin-clothed son of Sully’s arch-foe Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who Jake killed at the end of Avatar. (When were all these children being conceived? Is there a sexy director’s cut of Avatar I somehow missed?) The human kid was left behind when the Earth folk left, and now he Tarzans along happily with his Na’vi pals in a rainforest that has once more turned idyllic since the earthlings were driven out at the end of Avatar.

But wait, Spider’s not exactly an orphan. Quaritch’s personality was downloaded prior to his death and inserted into a lab-made Na’vi resembling his human form. The plan is to use the Na’vi’s strength against them, or something, then humans will colonize Pandora as their new home, the old one being ecologically defunct. Leading a crew of faux Na’vi, Quaritch’s mission is to avenge his own death and crush Jake, which is what leads the Sully family to cross the globe and seek sanctuary with the sea folk.

But enough plot for now. The Way of Water floats dreamily through much of its middle third, unanchored by the demands of narrative. Here Cameron gets to show off his true gift: finding grace and wonder in fussed-over kitsch. The Na’viteens frolic in the waters, feuding and flirting, calling each other “bro” and rolling their eyes at their parents. (Na’vi—they’re just like us!) We’re introduced to some melancholy hyper-intelligent Pandoran leviathans called tulkun. We discover a creature that attaches to your back like butterfly wings and breathes for you underwater. Enthralled with his own creations, Cameron delays serious conflict as long as possible, and honestly I’d be happy with a one-hour plotless silent movie about Na’vi cavorting underwater.

But, of course, Quaritch and his crew, in full Mỹ Lai mode, begin terrorizing the reef Na’vi for news about the Sullys, and eventually a battle must be pitched. And once things start going boom, Cameron, as ever, insists on cramming too much action into his action sequences. (This is, after all, a guy who didn’t think the sinking of the freaking Titanic was dramatic enough on its own without an evil Billy Zane running around with a gun.) No sooner does one crop of Na’viteens escape Quaritch’s grasp then another group is captured. One character is even caught a second time. If Cameron had made Star Wars, he’d have found a way to blow up the Death Star twice in the same movie.

If the too-muchness of the battle sequences is part of the attraction, the real thrill comes from the palpable hatred with which Cameron destroys man-made machinery. Sure, he loves destruction for the sheer psychotic thrill of it, like any popcorn peddler, but he also clearly despises the whole ethos of war machinery (a stand-in for American culture, from our oversized 4X4s to our semiautomatic fetish), which is no match for good ol’ Na’vi ingenuity. There were some humans you could root for in the original Avatar. Nearly every earthling you see here, from the greedy whalers who massacre tulkun to retrieve a single tube of priceless bodily fluids to those reincarnated as Na’vi, deserves the painful death they receive. Even Spider is hardly above reproach. Fine by me: I’d rather root against bloodthirsty Marines than for cocky U.S. jet pilots.

The Way of Water packs more emotional heft than its predecessor (putting kids in danger will do that—I said “no! Tuk!” aloud during one nail-biting scene). The nimble Na’vi sprinting across vines and tree branches can still be breathtaking, and there’s a genuine sense of delight in the way Cameron explores Pandora that’s more classic Disney than modern MCU. But like Avatar, The Way of Water often goes in one eye and out the other. The question you need to answer before you go in is: Is that so bad?

Regardless, Cameron’s weird sincerity prevails. You could certainly accuse him of idealizing and mystifying the simplicity of the Na’vi, and by extension all uncorrupted “pre-modern” peoples. You could say it’s ironic that he amasses the most advanced technology available to create an imaginary society that celebrates a bond with the natural world. Then again, maybe only the most hubristic director of his era could despise human overreach so much—takes one to know one, after all. But hey, if even one kid grows up to be an ecoterrorist because of The Way of Water, that’s a net gain.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in every damn theater everywhere.