In The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin is famously sent back from 2029 to rain death and cool Teutonic one-liners on the good people of 1984. For nearly four decades now, that film’s creator, James Cameron, has also seemed like a man outside of time, an emissary from a near-future where movies look like something we’ve only imagined them to be: liquid metals, impossible planets, boats bigger than the Ritz. Avatar: The Way of Water (in theaters Friday) brings that same sense of dissociative wonder. What fantastical blue-people oceania is this? How did we get here? And why does it look so real?
The answer to that first question, as several hundred million fans of the original 2009 Avatar already know, is a mythical place called Pandora. The next two land somewhere between vast technology, sweat equity, and God (and, at this New York press screening at least, a slightly smudgy pair of 3D glasses). The Way of Water is, indeed, spectacularly aquatic, though not quite in the way that the six-time Oscar winner’s eerie deep-sea thriller The Abyss was, or even the vast, ruthless North Atlantic that swallowed Leonardo DiCaprio and 1,500 other doomed souls in his Titanic. This is circa-2022 James Cameron, which is to say he makes it seem a lot like 2032 — a world so immersive and indubitably awesome, in the most literal reading of that word (there will be awe, and more awe, and then some more) that it feels almost shockingly new.
It’s also very much a Cameron movie in that the plot is, at root, blood simple: good, evil, the fate of the free world. Former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has permanently shed his human form to become full Na’vi, the extreme ectomorphs with Smurf-colored skin whose peaceful pantheistic ways have long clashed with their would-be conquerors from Earth, the rampaging, resource-greedy “sky people.” There’s still an American military base there, led by the brusque, efficient General Frances Ardmore (a bemused Edie Falco, incongruous in a uniform). But the Na’vi largely run free, hunting and cavorting and swooping through the air on their dragon-bird steeds, singing the songs of the rainforest and raising little blue babies with swishy tails.
Jake and his Na’Vi princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), now have three offspring of their own, along with an adopted teenage daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the child of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (whom Weaver plays once again in flashbacks), and an orphaned human boy called Spider (Jack Champion), a loinclothed Mowgli they treat more like a stray cat than a son. Jake is the stern patriarch, still a soldier to the bone, and Neytiri is the gentle nurturer; the children, beneath their extraterrestrial skin, are just happy, jostling kids. But when the DNA imprint of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is recovered by science after his fiery defeat in the first film and poured into the healthy body of an Avatar, the resurrected officer vows revenge: While Ardmore & Co. continue to efficiently strip-mine Pandora, he will settle for nothing less than his former protegé’s dishonorable death.
And so Sully and his family are forced to flee, hiding out among the reef-people clan of Metkayina. The taciturn chieftan (Fear the Walking Dead‘s Cliff Curtis) and his wary wife (congratulations if you can tell that’s Kate Winslet) are reluctant to let strangers into their world, especially when they come trailing danger and forest dirt behind them. Socially, most Metkayina are only as welcoming as they strictly need to be, and the Sully family soon finds that living in harmony with the sea also means a steep learning curve for land-bound Na’vi — new customs, new modes of transportation, new ways of breathing.
But that, of course, is where Cameron and his untold scores of studio minions get to shine: The world both above and below the waterline is a thing to behold, a sensory overload of sound and color so richly tactile that it feels psychedelically, almost spiritually sublime. The director, who penned the script with married screenwriting duo Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Jurassic World, Mulan), tends to operate in the grand, muscular mode of Greek myth (or if you’re feeling less generous, the black-and-white clarity of comic books). The storytelling here is deliberately broad and the dialogue often tilts toward pure blockbuster camp. (Not every word out of the colonel’s mouth is “Oorah,” but it might as well be; Jake speaks fluent Hero Cliché, and the Na’vi boys say “bro” like they just escaped from Point Break.)
And yet the movie’s overt themes of familial love and loss, its impassioned indictments of military colonialism and climate destruction, are like a meaty hand grabbing your collar; it works because they work it. The actors, performing in motion capture, do their best to project human-scale feelings on this sprawling, sensational canvas, to varying degrees of success. Saldaña’s mother-warrior makes herself ferociously vulnerable, and Weaver somehow gets us to believe she’s an outcast teen; Worthington often sounds like he’s just doing his best to sound 10 percent less Australian. Even the non-verbal creatures — bioluminescent jellyfish as delicate as fairy wings; whales the size of aircraft carriers, with four eyes and flesh like an unshelled turtle’s — have an uncanny anthropomorphic charm, stealing several moments from their speaking counterparts.
By the third hour, Cameron has shifted into battle mode, and the movie becomes a sort of rock opera, or a sea-salted Apocalypse Now; the “Ride of the Valkyries” thunder rarely feels far behind. The scale of mortal combat in those moments is, one could say, titanic, though it turns out to be a more personal reckoning for Sully and his family too. The final scenes are calculated for maximum impact and not a little bit of emotional manipulation; at 192 minutes, the runtime is almost certainly too long. It’s strange, maybe, or at least wildly uncritical, to say that none of that really matters in the end. The Way of Water has already created its own whole-cloth reality, a meticulous world-building as astonishing and enveloping as anything we’ve ever seen on screen — until that crown is passed, inevitably, in December 2024, the projected release date for Avatar 3.