Del reviews ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang. Directed by James Cameron. 3 hours, 12 minutes. Rated PG-13. Disney.

Del’s take

You will emerge from “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a changed person – a senior citizen, to be exact. It’s that long. It would take less time to read the U.S. tax code, and who’s to say which is more fun – those amortization tables can be very sexy.

If only the rest of the world loved Pandora as much as James Cameron.

“The Way of Water” is as beautiful as it is tedious, which is to say it resembles a Nat Geo documentary about the Great Barrier Reef, cleaned up and made pretty by Disney Studios. The sights are breathtaking – water with the clarity and color envied by chambers of commerce the world over, teeming with alien life. Too bad the story is the aquatic equivalent of a swimming pool at Motel 6.

These are the broadstrokes:

When we last saw Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in “Avatar,” he had joined the Na’vi, the native race of the moon Pandora, in expelling the evil earthmen who had come to wreck their Gaia-like ecosystem in a greedy quest for unobtanium. 

Now, Sully is living the life of the noble savage with his Na’vi wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and a passel of kids, until one day the evil earthmen return, this time in force. They want to claim Pandora as their own because mankind has made a mess of things on Earth. It only makes sense to relocate to a planet with a poisonous atmosphere and hostile natives.

Sully leads the Na’vi in a guerrilla campaign of harassment until the earthmen introduce a new weapon – a squad of Na’vi-adapted commando soldiers led by Quaritch, the Type A head of security who was killed by Neytiri in the first “Avatar.” His consciousness has been downloaded to a Na’vi body so that he may accomplish a specific mission – kill Jake Sully.

The commandos target Sully’s family. After a harrowing close call, Sully relinquishes his forest-dwelling tribe and takes Neytiri and clan to the land of the water people, Na’vi adapted to live in Pandora’s lush tropical ocean. There, they must learn the water people’s ways and fit in – until the earthmen come calling.

“The Way of Water” is a towering achievement in both concept and special effects. Cameron has created an entire biosphere with breathtaking attention to detail, and the FX are simply the best of any movie ever made. It must be seen in a widescreen theater, although some of the bigger 4K OLED TVs may do it justice.

The story, however, is less ambitious. It is a metaphor for Europe’s arrival in the New World, told from a Native American’s viewpoint, and while it shifts in focus from act to act – at first centering on Sully himself, then enlarging to include his children and how they mesh with the water people culture, then shifting back to Sully and his antagonist, Quaritch – the overall theme remains the same: good vs. evil, and the sacrifices that must be made to serve the greater imperative. At times the Sully character deviates from the archetype established in the first film, but never fear: Events will set the character arc back on track.

Overlooking the plot, “The Way of Water’s” most mention-worthy negative quality is its length. Three hours-plus is a long time to ask an audience to sit in a theater, especially when they’ve seen so much of it before. Expect multiple bathroom trips, dozing, sneaked looks at mobile phones, and maybe a pricey box of buttered popcorn to fend off starvation pains as dinnertime approaches.

Cameron belongs to a special cadre of directors – George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, John Ford, Robert Wise – who tell the big stories, and tell them in big ways. Three of the top 10 highest grossing movies of all time are James Cameron films. Undeniably he is one of the best, if not THE best, director working today. “The Way of Water” is an excellent movie, despite its shopworn plot and excessive length.

I grade it an A-, and I award the minus only because I found it to be oddly unsatisfying. Perhaps you will feel differently.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.