‘Avatar’ sequel is beautiful but plodding

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, left) and Jake (Sam Washington) confer during a fiery moment in Avatar: The Way of Water. (Photos courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

By Richard Ades

If you plan to see Avatar: The Way of Water, make sure you’re prepared.

Most importantly, visit the restroom before it starts. That’s always a good idea for a movie that runs three hours and 12 minutes, but especially for one that has a whole lot of, you know, water in it.

Almost as important: Refresh your memory about the original Avatar, which opened in 2009. Director James Cameron obviously remembers it well, since he’s been working on this and future sequels for the past 13 years, so he assumes we all do. That’s why he jumps right into the action without explaining who all these people and avatars are, or even what an avatar is.

In brief: An avatar is a genetically engineered body that resembles the Na’vi, the 10-foot-tall inhabitants of the world Pandora, but is remotely controlled by a human whose own body is in stasis. The new film’s main protagonist is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who turned into an avatar in the first outing and later became chief of the local Na’vi clan while starting a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the previous clan chief.

As Jake’s narration explains in the film’s early moments, the Na’vi have led a peaceful existence since repelling human invaders years earlier. However, that peace abruptly ends with the appearance of a new invasion force led by another holdover from the original Avatar, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Since Quaritch was killed during the first incursion, he and his soldiers return thanks to a new type of avatar called a “recombinant,” which is embedded with the memory of a specific human.

The immediate result of the attack is fire and destruction that are keenly seen, heard and even felt by us viewers thanks to 3-D images shot at 48 frames per second (twice the normal rate) and accompanied by sound technology that makes our very seats shake beneath us. If you were looking for a reason to return to the multiplex, this “you are there” experience is it.

A typically awe-inspiring scene from Avatar: The Way of Water

As an innovator and master of cutting-edge technology, Cameron is simply without equal. He uses motion-capture wizardry to not only create an exotic world that is beautiful and fully realized, but to place the viewer right in the middle of it.

Once there, unfortunately, the viewer soon realizes that Cameron is not without equal as a storyteller. He and his four co-scripters set up a bare-bones plot with a predictable progression: Jake becomes a Na’vi resistance leader, then is forced to flee with his family after Quaritch captures Spider (Jack Champion), a human teenager who knows all the rebellion’s secrets. The family seeks refuge among a remote ocean-going clan and hopes Quaritch won’t find them there.

But, of course, it’s only a matter of time before he will. Since there are more than three hours of that time to fill, the flick pads it out with a series of digressions that often come off as mere excuses to show off its impressive imagery while underlining its pro-environment and anti-war messages. Ironically, it all leads to a finale so destructive and drawn out that you eventually start wondering, “Isn’t everyone dead by now?”

Through it all, the movie is an odd combination of images that are gloriously unique and plot points that seem derivative of previous works of cinema, TV and even video gaming. Many have seen similarities to 1990’s Dances With Wolves, while I also saw reflections of Moby Dick, Platoon, Stranger Things and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. By the end, Cameron is even borrowing from his own 1997 blockbuster, Titanic.

At the very end, the movie reveals that it’s only paving the way for more episodes—not surprisingly, since the second sequel was shot concurrently with the first. So go see Avatar: The Way of Water if you can’t resist the chance to bask in its revolutionary technology and imagery. Just be aware that Cameron is in this for the long haul, and he expects you to be as well.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Avatar: The Way of Water (PG-13) opens Dec. 16 in cinemas nationwide.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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