The sinister sky people return to picturesque Pandora more than a decade after being driven off in Avatar: The Way of Water.
It’s been more than 10 years since the technologically advanced people of Earth were defeated and expelled in their bid to drain Pandora of its natural resources. One-time human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now a native Na’vi, lives a simpler, peaceful life with wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their four mainly teenage children. (Don’t do the math.)
Their serenity is suddenly shattered when the sky people (as the humans are known) return to colonize their paradisal planet. Among the invaders is the vengeful avatar of the long-deceased Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who’s single-mindedly intent on completing his human form’s original mission — destroy Sully no matter what the cost.
Legendary writer/director James Cameron finally delivers on perhaps the most anticipated sequel in the history of Hollywood. The original Avatar hit U.S. screens in the winter of 2009-10 and surpassed Cameron’s own Titanic — in just 47 days — to be crowned the highest grossing movie of all time. It was clear to virtually everyone that a new franchise was born. New sequels would surely follow soon after to leverage this newfound fascination with all things Na’vi. The only wrinkle in the plan was that Cameron had little intention of meeting the demands of the distributors. This was his baby, and like all of his digital offspring, no one was going to tell him how to proceed. Audiences waited through one rumor and delay after another to the point where many thought that they might not ever see another chapter in this story if they even cared for one.
Well, the wait is over. Was it worth it? The new Avatar is, in many ways, a form-fitting avatar of its own self. In every way, the original moved the bar; so, too, does this entry. It’s a technological marvel just like its predecessor. It’s destined to rewrite the record books just like the first film, and its plot is every bit as basic and banal.
Cameron’s films excel at being epic. This is no different. Once again, the visuals are awe-inspiring. This water-bound journey impresses in much the same way that Finding Nemo and Moana did in their days, but even more so. If you don’t see it in IMAX 3D, then you haven’t seen it. Viewers would be forgiven for getting lost in the majesty of Cameron’s underwater world — a world that he is perhaps singularly prepared to present given all of his years exploring the deepest oceans. His clear love for that environment seeps into every frame.
This film is a bit like Top Gun: Maverick, except for die-hard fantasy fans. The story doesn’t really need to carry the film. The adventure and adrenaline are the stars, and here, they’re as bright as anything else put out this year.
My first challenge is in just trying to remember where the story left off. I would have loved it if Cameron provided a short before the feature that caught you up on what came before. The names of the characters alone are so unique that it’s hard to know exactly who’s who for quite a while. I felt like I needed a cheat sheet to keep up.
The plot also suffers from Cameron’s less-than-flawless writing skills. Many of the details are highly derivative — often not in any good way. The bad guys (the humans) are all deeply flawed to the point of absurdity. Cameron makes sure that you know that they’re bad by invoking racist Vietnam war tropes and makes them heartless whalers. I was surprised that he didn’t insist on them all being cannibals just to ensure that no one missed the point. There’s also his penchant for things going wrong, but always on a tight schedule. One scene takes place on a boat that you’re told is sinking, but it seems perfectly sound right up to the moment when the main interaction on it comes to an end. Afterwards, it practically evaporates into the sea in mere moments.
All that said, for a film decently over three hours, it sure flies by in a blur of childlike wonder, and that’s a testament to Cameron that trumps almost everything else. The records this one sets are likely to be picked up by seismic sensors all over the ocean’s floor.