The Way of Water’ summons another stunning, virtual-reality world

The Way of Water’ summons another stunning, virtual-reality world

Once again, James Cameron has characters leaving a ship that has tipped sideways and is about to sink in “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

The “Titanic” Oscar winner includes a knowing nod to that movie in “Water’s” climactic sequence, in which heroes and villains are stuck in a sinking vessel and hope not to drown. Unlike the first “Avatar”, mainly set in a forest on a moon called Pandora, the new one takes place mostly in a watery corner of Pandora. It’s where the Sullys are resettled after father Jake’s (voiced by Sam Worthington and did the motion capture) evil enemy Quaritch (Stephen Lang) chased them out of their home.

Both Jake and Quaritch are no longer quite themselves – their consciousnesses have been implanted into avatars that remake them as Na’vi, the Windex-colored people of Pandora. Jake is married to Na’vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and they have a bunch of kids who rock out like those on a family sitcom: a do-gooder, a rebel, the cute youngest, etc. (If you haven’t seen “Avatar” since its release in 2009, it might be worth checking out, because there’s no handholding in the sequel, which assumes we know this territory.)

One bit of good news about “Water” — and it’s mostly good news — is that it’s not one of those second-movie-in-a-series that feels incomplete. The surprisingly fast 192-minute film stands on its own, and I suspect you can have a good time watching it even if you haven’t seen the first “Avatar.”

One reason for the complacency of “Water” is that there is so little to the characterization that it doesn’t matter if you know who is who. This means our emotional investment in the people, both human and Pandoran, is low. But luckily, what the script lacks in humanity, it makes up for in messages.

With Quaritch taking on the appearance of Pandora’s people and with the Sully family moving to a water-based community whose inhabitants look like them but with skin a greener shade of blue, it can be hard to find the good distinguishing the guys from the bad. This is on purpose. Cameron’s movie intriguingly experiments with the question of identification, as all the people who look like us are awful (including Edie Falco as a hawkish military type and Brendan Cowell as a keen hunter of cetacean creatures).

Cameron wants us to sit with the idea that we are the bad guys, that we are ruining our planet. The people of Pandora exist in harmony with other living beings, but this is not true of those of us on Earth, who call “Water” “sky people”. As Jake says, “The air people don’t care about the big balance.”

Even more so than in the first “Avatar,” the world-building and creation of “Water” is stunning, with seamless special effects so reliably grand that it’s no stretch to buy into this alternate civilization. And while I’m not generally a 3-D fan, it might be worth attending a 3-D showing. That’s how I saw it, and it’s the sharpest, most consistent 3-D I’ve ever experienced.

Cameron still offers no evidence that he has a sense of humor in “Water,” but his film is thoughtful about grief and hopeful about our ability to work together toward solutions. If the forest people of Pandora can become sea people, as in “Water”, maybe our sky people can change too?

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

*** out of 4 stars

Rated: PG-13 for language and violence.

Where: In theaters.


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