Greetings again from the darkness. I’ll admit that I’m not easily dazzled, and I’m very happy to admit that the thirteen years since James Cameron’s AVATAR was not just worth the wait – this latest one truly dazzled me. While the 2009 film was impressive from a technical standpoint, the new one is awe-inspiring, especially in the underwater sequences. I should disclose that I saw this on a huge screen in a theater with a spectacular sound system, and even the 3D glasses didn’t bother me at all (a first). The usually annoying muted color tones of 3D were minimal here, and the colors still popped as the 3D effects became a part of the presentation rather than the typical gimmickry.
Heading back to Pandora is either something you look forward to or could care less about. For those who have been anxiously awaiting the release, prepare to be amazed and stunned at just how far the CGI has come since Cameron set the standard years ago. On the other hand, one should be prepared for a middling, cliché-driven story with a script by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, with story credits to Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno. And since there will be at least one more film in the franchise (filmed simultaneously with this one), and possibly as many as three more, be prepared for unresolved and dangling story lines (that you may or may not care about). The reality is that the magic of the Avatar movies is in the visuals – escapism and fantasy creatures – not in the plot.
A lot has happened since the previous film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human-turned-Na’vi (via genetic engineering) is now a tribal leader on Pandora. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have two teenage sons and a young daughter, as well as an adopted teenage girl Kiri (played via stop-motion by Sigourney Weaver, one of the scientists in the original), and a quasi-adopted human son named Spider (Jack Champion). Family bliss in paradise is a pretty darn good life … at least until the evil humans return, scorching the land with their machinery. Since humans have pretty much ruined Earth, the mission is to find a new homeland, and what better place than Pandora. A miscast Edie Falco is the General leading the mission, and her advanced exoskeleton is a nod to Ripley in Cameron’s ALIENS. Her elite squadron of Na’vi Avatars is led Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a human character who died in the first film, but his memories are now implanted in a physically superior Na’vi body and he has revenge on the mind … specifically hunting Sully and Neytiri.
As beautiful as Pandora is (and it is), the island that Sully and family escape to takes beauty to another level. This tribe of Na’vi has evolved to live at one with the ocean. The water people aren’t overly excited about taking in the forest people, especially since bad guys are chasing the newcomers, and what follows is a stream of predictable interactions – though the predictability is quickly forgiven once Cameron takes us beneath the surface. It’s truly breathtaking to see this underwater world filled with wildlife, plants, and coral. The creatures are unique, colorful and exciting, none more so than the mega-whales considered spirit animals by the water people.
The stop-motion technology means we see only a few actual humans, though the cast is often recognizable, and in addition to Worthington, Saldana, Weaver, Lang, and Champion, it includes Oscar winner Kate Winslet, Jemaine Clement, Cliff Curtis, and CCH Pounder. But this isn’t a showcase for actors. Instead, it’s a showcase for Cameron to blend his love of technology with his love of the ocean and commitment to environmental protection. He succeeds in wowing us and reminding us what a true cinematic spectacle can be. Another warning I’ll offer is that at least one-third (maybe closer to half) of the film is either the hour-long battle in the final act, or some other action sequence sprinkled in. Just don’t think this is a relaxing getaway to Pandora! Lastly, for those interested in seeing this, I encourage you to seek out a local theater that is decked out with the latest technology, and don’t shy away from 3D showings unless you are one of those who get nauseous or experience motion-sickness.
Opens nationwide in theaters on December 16, 2022