How much movie can $350 million buy you? See the new ‘Avatar’ and you’ll see
Avatar: The Way of Water
Starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana & Stephen Lang
Directed by James Cameron
See it: In theaters Friday, Dec. 16
Thirteen years after the sensation that was the original Avatar (2009), director James Cameron returns to the fantastical world of Pandora, the far-out celestial home of the peaceful blue-hued humanoid creatures known as the Na’vi. They’re about 10 feet tall, towering over mere humans, but still small fries compared to the all-out epic-ness of this mega-movie spectacle that cries out for the biggest screen possible. It’s a towering cinematic achievement of visceral emotion, slam-bang action and jaw-dropping special effects that show just how far a budget of some $350 million can stretch.
All the money is “showing” in this 3-D saga that moves the story from the lush primordial floating forests of the first film to a more “tropical” island setting, where a group of green-skinned Na’vi have evolved to live for extended periods underwater. (Their tails are thicker, for steering as they swim, and their skins adorned with what look like Mãori tattoos, a distinctively Polynesian touch.) It all looks amazing, richly detailed, hyper tactile and mesmerizingly real, even though you know what you’re seeing is enhanced hi-tech fakery—CGI, created from extensive motion-capture performances by the actors. See it in 3D and you’ll swear things are floating right in front of your face.
Cameron loves the water; his seafaring disaster drama Titanic (1997) was an unqualified smash, the most commercially successful movie ever made, and The Abyss (1989) took a really, really deep dive into oceanographic, extraterrestrial sci-fi. There are swooshy echoes of those previous movies in this galloping golly-whopper, which continues the original Avatar’s themes of cultural coexistence, ecological awareness, the evils of colonization and the atrocity of genocide. Savvy moviegoers will detect other strands of its wide-ranging movie DNA, including cowboys-and-Indians Westerns, Pacific war flicks, chomp-chomp dinosaur romps, robotic dystopias and even Moby Dick.
Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana return to their original roles—as Jake Sulley, the former human earthling who became a Na’vi hybrid through a process of avatar-ization, and his mate, the Pandora homegirl Neytiri. They’re both scrappy fighters when they must be, but mostly they enjoy the laid-back life on Pandora as a happy blue family. Their three kids may have grown up on a distant moon on the other edge of a distant galaxy, but nonetheless are well versed in teen ‘tude, smack-talk and using expressions that sound like they spilled forth from almost high-school hallway in America, like “bro,” “bitch,” “cuz” and “perv.” I guess teen lingo is a truly universal language.
When earthlings—the “sky people”—return to Na’vi to again plunder its bountiful resources and thin out “the hostiles,” they’re led by the menacing Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the macho paramilitary commander from the first film. He’s become an avatar now, too, for Na’vi infiltration purposes, and he has a longstanding grudge to settle with Jake. Quaritch’s vendetta forces the Sullys to flee to a far-flung islandic refuge of the “sea clans,” where they are taken in by the protective leader of the reef people (Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant, holistic wife (Kate Winslet).
But wouldn’t you know it, trouble comes a-callin’.
A couple of characters bridge the old with the present and point the way toward the future. (Cameron plans three more Avatar movies in the coming years.) Sigourney Weaver, who also starred in the original, returns as a new character—the daughter of her old character, in a way that makes sense only in the Avatar-verse. And young Jack Champion (he was the “kid on bike” in Avengers: Endgame) plays Spider, an “outsider” human teen who’s bonded with the Na’vi; he’s clearly queued up for a pivotal role in wherever Avatar goes next. Spider is somewhere on the wild-child spectrum between the “Feral Kid” in Road Warrior and the mouthy runt Tanner in The Bad News Bears—a scruffy, scrappy side dish that becomes essential to the bigger menu.
Cameron, one of the most bankable directors of all time, certainly knows how to build a blockbuster. And this blockbuster-to-be busts out all over the place, in the air, across expanses of blue Pandoran sea and far underneath the ocean waves. It’s a thing of movie wonder, filled with amazing sights, magnificent creatures, fearsome mega machines, a big beating heart and some bone-rattling, Dolby kaboom. A full-on immersion for the senses unlike almost anything else you’ve ever seen, it’s the studio’s big-ticket bet for luring audiences back into theaters. Safe to say it will do just that, and it’s a shoo-in for Oscar nominations in several categories, especially for visual effects and maybe even Best Picture.
Cameron even came up with a new motion-capture innovation, allowing him to shoot extended sequences underwater. Winslet, who also starred in his landmark movie Titanic, set a record for holding her breath while submerged for a scene in The Way of Water (more than five minutes!), besting the previous title holder, one Tom Cruise, renowned for doing his own stunts. Mission Not-So-Impossible, right, Tom?
If you’ve been holding your breath, treading water for more than a decade for another big-screen Avatar adventure, well, your wait is over. You can breathe again, and dive into this splashy Christmas present for anyone who likes their movies super-sized in every way.
As one character says, “The way of water has no beginning and no end.” It sure seems that way for this big blue franchise, which will undoubtedly keep rolling along—and rolling in the green.