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"Avatar: The Way of Water" is one whale of a tale

Avatar: The Way of Water

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton,Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, Edie Falco, Jemaine Clement, Joel David Moore and Giovanni Ribisi. Written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Directed by James Cameron. Now playing at theatres everywhere. 192 minutes. PG

⭐️⭐️⭐️½ (out of 4)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

A long wait for a sequel rarely does a movie franchise any favours. Actors age, cultural moments change and audiences lose interest, as such decades-later underachievers as “Indiana Jones 4,” “The Godfather 3” and “Basic Instinct 2” bear witness.

Yet sometimes a lengthy interval between chapters pays off by giving creators a chance to enrich a story and its characters. Such was happily the case this past summer with the success of “Top Gun: Maverick,” opening 36 years after the original 1986 film’s acclaim.

Now comes “Avatar: The Way of Water,” arriving a comparatively brisk 13 years after its 2009 forebear, “Avatar,” which still holds the title of the most successful movie ever made. This first of multiple planned “Avatar” sequels is set to make a big splash during the holiday season, possibly even a record-breaking one. It deserves attention, if only for its show-stopping marine creatures.

The liquid subtitle tips to the film’s outstanding immersive qualities and environmental concerns. Canadian director/co-writer James Cameron is at his best in the water, as seen in “Titanic,” “The Abyss” and his real-life undersea exploration of the Mariana Trench depths. He waited to make this film until technology advanced to render his water scenes, real and imaginary, as convincing as possible.

“The Way of Water” dives deeper into the “Avatar” myth of distant moon Pandora, with stronger storytelling and spectacular H2O effects and sea beasts (especially a whale-like one named Payakan). All are presented via headache-free 3D, which is all the better when viewed on an IMAX screen.

The movie continues the exploits of paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who has left his human body and fully integrated into his giant blue alien form as leader of the Omatikaya clan of the Na’vi people, the Indigenous rain forest inhabitants of Earth-like Pandora.

Sully and his Pandoran spouse Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are happily raising a rambunctious brood: sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and daughters Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and Kiri.

Teenage Kiri is adopted. Wait for the reveal about her past (and the actor who plays her), but it’s worth noting that one of the film’s many technological feats is making the aging of actors almost irrelevant.

The Sullys have also taken under their wings Spider (Jack Champion), a human child who was abandoned on Pandora as a toddler.

Jake and Neytiri school their offspring in the virtues of togetherness and caring for their remote paradise: “This family is our fortress,” Jake tells them.

Their idylls are rudely interrupted and that family motto is put to the test by the return of “the Sky People,” the earthling interlopers from the first film. This time they’re looking for not just unobtanium, the valuable mineral sought by the rapacious Resources Development Administration (RDA). They’re also seeking to colonize Pandora with billions of refugees from a dying Earth.

The military side of the RDA is led by a familiar figure who gets my vote for the most hissable villain of 21st-century cinema. Chances are you already know who it is, but let’s just say the body-swapping conceit of “Avatar” convincingly allows departed characters to be reborn as recombinant (“recom”) soldiers, making them all the more dangerous. Jake, Neytiri and their Na’vi brethren bravely confront the invaders.

“The Way of Water” begins much like the humans vs. Na’vi conflicts of the original “Avatar.” This dramatically changes when the Sullys make the strategic decision to relocate to the distant watery domain of the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan, which is led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis). Ronal, Tonowari and their children aren’t exactly delighted by the newcomers, but they realize they have common cause in fighting the Sky People.

It’s a lot of characters and incidents to process. But Cameron and his co-writers focus our attention on Lo’ak, the younger son of the Sullys, and his new-found pal Payakan, a whale-like creature with armour-like skin and endearing orange eyes. Payakan and its empathetic brethren are loved by the Na’vi but hunted by the Sky People, who seek to exploit this natural resource much the way whalers do on Earth.

Lo’ak and Payakan both feel like outsiders from their respective families. Their interspecies bonding and quest to prove themselves are a big part of the appeal of “The Way of Water,” even if the film threatens to test viewers’ patience (and bladders) with a running time exceeding three hours.

It’s time well spent for a movie set in deep space that turns out to be a free-flowing whale of a tale. 🌓

(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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