Visually dazzling. Technically unimpeachable. Still needs a soul.

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Avatar: The Way of Water
Opens Dec. 16
3.5 out of 5

There’s no riskier proposition in cinema than bringing a mythology to the big screen. Best case scenario, you have Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, well regarded sagas that made so much money, small economies formed around them. But if audiences fail to care (Jupiter Ascending, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), you end up with expensive flops capable of sinking studios.

To break even, Avatar: The Way of Water would have to make US$1 billion. Only James Cameron could get away with spending so much money. The film builds on his smash hit from 13 years ago and gives us a universe incredibly deep and textured, with 3D of such quality it almost makes us forget the many mediocre films that abused the format. If only the characters weren’t paper thin, or Cameron had the capacity to laugh at himself.

It’s hard to cram 3.5 hours of plot into a paragraph. Suffice to say that since we last saw them, Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had a bunch of kids, some theirs, some adopted. After over a decade of bliss, they’ve been displaced once again by the “sky people” (humans), intent on stripping Pandora of their resources.

The water angle comes from the coastal Na’vi community that reluctantly receives Sully and Co. in their moment of need. Their blue skin is more aquamarine and they’re formidable in the ocean. No matter. Resources Development Administration wants what it wants, and they bring the presumed dead Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) back as muscle. How? You’ll have to watch.

I didn’t care for the original Avatar: too basic beyond the dazzling visuals. Way of Water is a superior film. Cameron uses his skills as action director to great effect, particularly in a balls-out third act. Sure, he takes a full hour to set the stage, but there are a couple of emotional payoffs later in the film that justify the initial slog.

Look past the bells and whistles and you’ll find there isn’t much new content: the environmental message is the same as before (nature is a single entity, the balance between species has been irrevocably altered, humanity is the worst, you know the drill). Sweet, but doesn’t register anymore. A nod to the refugee crisis dies on the vine. Cameron doesn’t deal in nuances, so the emotions are big and loud.

One detail that separates Avatar: The Way of Water from, say, Top Gun: Maverick is how antimilitaristic it is. The main villain and his sidekicks are all marines, happy to maim and destroy the locals to serve capitalism. If there’s something Cameron has taught us it’s to distrust authority (see Aliens, Terminator 2, The Abyss, Titanic). I wish we could see more of that sweater-clad nonconformist, and less of the blue people he’s so enamoured with. ■