(Bloomberg) — “The most dangerous thing about Pandora is that you may grow to love her too much,” says protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine whose consciousness was uploaded into a skinny blue Na’vi body.
Sully is referring to the planet where the film’s 2009 precursor was set, but he might as well be speaking as the voice of director James Cameron himself, who has fully committed himself to his invented world. Avatar: The Way of Water, estimated to have cost around $250 million, is the first of four greenlit sequels. Happily for the audience, Cameron’s love for Pandora is infectious. Sure, he won’t convince cynics who think his fantasy is just too hokey—because it is hokey—but if you are even a tiny bit impressed by his vision, it’s nearly impossible not to succumb to the overwhelming details that fill the screen.
The plot is fairly simple—a bad guy wants to murder a good guy—but the world-building is extraordinary, from the specks of dust that hover around the characters to the beads of water on their skin to the species of fish that populate Pandora’s seas.
In what is essentially a prologue, Sully, in voiceover, catches the audience up on what has happened since the first movie concluded. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have had three children and adopted a Na’vi child named Kiri, who was born to the avatar of Sigourney Weaver’s scientist after what appears to have been an immaculate conception. In a bizarre and ingenious casting choice, the teenaged Kiri is portrayed by the 73-year-old Weaver, who, despite sounding very much like Sigourney Weaver, effortlessly captures the vibes of a disaffected youth. Jake and Neytiri’s kids’ play companion is a human child called Spider (Jake Champion), a baby who was abandoned at the Pandora base. His father is the villain from the first installment, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose consciousness was uploaded into a Na’vi avatar after his death.
Quaritch, now big and blue and understandably miffed about the death of his human body, is out to kill Jake for revenge. Given his ruthlesslness, the Sullys fear for the safety of their fellow forest Na’vi, and leave their home. They take refuge in a Polynesia-like archipelago, where they are taken in by a different tribe of Na’vi, whose bodies are a light teal and who have bigger feet and tails for swimming purposes.
The middle section of the (more than three hour) movie is filled with Na’vi water lore as the Sullys get acclimated to their new surroundings, and the young ones flirt and fight with their new counterparts. It’s all both goofy and beautiful. There are whale creatures called Tulkun who are spiritually bonded with the Na’vi and communicate via subtitles rendered in Papyrus font. You might giggle the first time it happens—I certainly did—but then you’ll be struck by just how Cameron has figured out a way to convey all the contours of light within these water sequences.
The plot eventually builds to a big final battle between the Sullys and their new water friends and Quaritch’s gang, where Cameron liberally steals from himself. Remember that fiery final factory fight in ? There’s a bit of that here. Have a Pavlovian reaction to gushing water thanks to ? Yes, this will remind you of that. But if any director has earned the right to borrow some of his best moments, it’s James “I’m the king of the world” Cameron, who, in , tries to recreate the same exhilaration with new technology.
He manages it, even if bouncing between rates of 48 frames per second and the usual 24 occasionally creates a choppy visual effect. The 3D is so realistic that as machinery and body parts hurled toward my face, I found myself grabbing the arms of my seat.
The wild glory of the visuals will take your mind off the dopiness of the dialogue. Cameron has never been the most subtle screenwriter, and his script, co-written with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is filled with blunt exposition and the teen characters frequently calling each other “bro.” Some of the younger actors especially have trouble finding any elegance in their lines, even if more skilled performers like Weaver find a strange musicality in calling someone “monkey boy.” And although the language can be almost excruciatingly silly, the earnestness of the saga is also what makes it gripping.
Is that enough to make you want to return to Pandora again and again as Cameron hopes? Sure! Why not? stands alone as a contained story, but tees up more to come in a way that is (almost) counter to how franchise filmmaking currently works. Whereas most superhero movies try to lure audiences back with recognizable characters and star cameos, convinces you that there are more corners of this invented ecosystem to explore. And if the rest of what Cameron has planned is as stunning as , there’s no reason not to jump in.