The first question most people will want answered in a review of “Avatar: The Way of Water” will probably be: “Will I like it?”
That’s pretty basic, but always unknowable for someone to answer honestly, because each person has different tastes. But in this case, it’s safe to say that you will like the new sequel if you liked the original “Avatar” back in 2009. Since the original racked up $2.85 billion at the box office worldwide, plenty of folks obviously liked the first one. And most experts predict that the sequel will dominate the box office for the rest of the year — at the very least.
From a critical standpoint, the second “Avatar” does not have an outstanding script. It’s the story of a family on Pandora that faces great difficulties in staying together — and safe — because humans from Earth are once again invading their beautiful world. Moviegoers have been there and done that.
But that’s not the point. Director James Cameron has created a technological marvel that can’t help but wow you, with its 3D special effects. Since the movie is more than three hours long, you might wonder whether the “wowing” is sustainable. The answer is a qualified yes.
The movie opens with Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana playing Jake Sully and Neytiri, overseeing a family comprised of Neteyam (Jamie Flanders), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and an adopted teenage daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver).
These children pal around with Spider (Jack Champion), a human child who was orphaned by war in the original “Avatar” and was too small at the time to return to Earth.
The family members live in the forests of the moon Pandora, but they have to flee when the world-destroying humans from Earth come back, seeking to colonize Pandora because they have caused an environmental disaster on their own planet.
So the Sully family flees to territory held by the Metkayina clan, an island-dwelling people who live in harmony with the surrounding oceans. The Metkayina clan is led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis). The clan has a tradition of giving sanctuary to refugees, so the Sully family is welcomed, albeit reluctantly.
While there, the Sullys become acquainted with a variety of ocean creatures, most notably the tulkun, a whale-like species that has a special relationship with the Metkayina clan, communicating through music and keeping the nearby reefs safe and welcoming. The clan also has tattoo patterns that they share with the tulkun.
For Sully’s son Lo’ak, there’s a special tulkun named Payakan, an adolescent outcast who befriends Lo’ak at an especially dangerous time.
Another aquatic creature is the ilu, a playful mammalian species, And there’s the skimwing, a warrior’s mount that has a gill structure but can breathe at the surface of the water. It’s faster and more dangerous that most of the other creatures.
Just as the Sully clan begins to acclimate to the reefs and the oceans, here come the humans, known to those on Pandora as “the Sky People.”
They’re led by Gen. Francis Ardmore (Edie Falco), who dispatches a fighting force to seek out the rebellious Sully, who messed up a human mission in the original “Avatar.”
The fighting force is led by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and it’s not long before Quaritch determines that Sully has fled to the oceans of Pandora. So he begins a brutal search, going island to island, until he finds his target.
Lang’s character died in the original “Avatar,” but he has been reconstituted as an autonomous avatar embedded with the memories of the human whose DNA was used to create it. And as such, he has the nine-foot body of a Na’vi.
All of this probably sounds somewhat ridiculous to an “Avatar” skeptic. But Cameron is seeking to build another world, which isn’t easy for any director. In fact, it’s clear that building and filming the action in this ocean world was a cinematic feat equal to — or even exceeding — the special effects of Cameron’s most notable watery feature, “Titanic.”
To film the latest movie, Cameron’s team built a massive tank at the Manhattan Beach Studios. The tank could hold enough water to allow the filmmaker to replicate ocean conditions. But Cameron’s team also had to come up with performance capture technology that worked underwater.
Cameron originally thought the crew photographing the actors would be wearing SCUBA gear while shooting in the tank, according to press notes. But the gear caused disturbances and air bubbles in the water, which interfered with performance capture technology.
So the crew working in the tank had to “hold their breath” Cameron says in the press notes. “First there was somebody down there holding the light, they were holding their breath. If they were operating a camera, they’re holding their breath. The actors, of course, had to be holding their breath.”
Of all the actors, Winslet adapted to the water most easily, Cameron says. “Kate enjoyed the freedom of being able to express herself underwater. She was able to do a static breath hold for something like seven minutes and 20 seconds. I’ve been a free diver for 50 years, and I think the longest I’ve ever held my breath was five and a half minutes.”
Whether you end up enjoying “Avatar: The Way of Water” is up to you. The script might not be as sophisticated as you would want. The running time is challenging. But you will probably marvel at what Cameron has achieved in this world-building extravaganza.