James Cameron’s 13-years-in-the-making Avatar sequel is magnificently out-there, endearingly sincere and unlike just about any other modern day blockbuster you’ll see. Half the fun comes in trying to figure out what you’re actually witnessing. In the spirit of the story’s consciousness-uploading tech, it’s such a rush of epic visuals and action, you’d need your own USB port to absorb it all in one sitting. There’s talking whales, aquatic fairies and myriad other mind-bending wonders. When, as the credits rolled, my friend turned to me and asked: ‘So, was Kate Winslet playing the whale?’ it seemed like an entirely reasonable question.
For the record, Winslet, one of the new additions to the 2009 cast, is not playing the whale. Unrecognisable in mo-cap avatar form, she’s one of the oceanic tribal leaders who offer refuge to Na’vi insurgent and all-round family man Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and the three kids (newcomers Jamie Flatters, Trinity Bliss and Britain Dalton) they’ve had since the first movie. Humans have returned to Pandora with more exploitation in mind and Sully, a towering, blue-skinned William Wallace, is in their sights.
Providing the militaristic yin to the movie’s spiritual yang is once again scenery-chewing leatherneck Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Thought he was dead? Pah. Cameron’s screenplay just resurrects him in Na’vi avatar form, thirsting for revenge on Sully. Into the jungle he heads with a heavily armed team that’s just one whimpering Bill Paxton character short of a Colonial Marines squad.
Needless to say, those allergic to CG deep-fakery should approach this with extreme caution. Rendered with the crystalline clarity of its high frame rate (much less fugly here than in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies), every luminous floating tentacle, every gliding alien fish and every batshit action beat represents a whole galaxy of pixels. In 3D, it’s immersive to the nth degree, if a little uncanny. It’s a movie with its own wavelength – both visually and in its earnest Californian hippie ethos – and you need to be willing to tune in.
With a third (and possibly fourth and fifth) film to come, there are inevitably new McGuffins and future story arcs seeded, although the characters – including the kids – are well enough drawn to deliver some impactful ideas about our responsibilities to our families and to the planet. Heck, it pips Terminator 2 as his best movie about the burdens of parenthood in the face of remorseless killing machines.
Needless to say, those allergic to CG deep-fakery should approach this with caution
There are obvious flaws. The world-building gets a bit too granular in the second hour, the functional plot relies more heavily on easy-to-predict child kidnappings than any movie since Taken 3, and the dialogue isn’t exactly vintage Cameron.
But if the screenwriting misses some of the fizzy put-downs of Aliens, True Lies et al, we’re not back on Pandora for the conversation. Spectacle is the big drawcard here, and The Way of Water really delivers on that. Its subsea world is so immersive and believable, you half-expect David Attenborough to chime in with some informative commentary. Even the great man, however, would have a tough time explaining the vicious, high-speed aquatic predator that chomps through coral reef like candy floss in a gnarly Pandoran riff on Jaws.
‘The most dangerous thing about Pandora,’ someone muses sagely at one point, ‘is that you grow to love it too much.’ Jim Cameron disagrees. He can’t love this place enough – and it’s infectious.
In cinemas worldwide Dec 16.