Don’t make the same mistake I made with ‘Avatar’

I am among the lost souls who did not see director James Cameron’s original “Avatar” in a theater, in IMAX, in 3D. No, I saw that movie on DVD. An actual, physical DVD. That is not the “Avatar” that Cameron wanted me, or anyone else, to see. He wanted me there in the theater, 3D glasses digging into my temples, oohing and ahhing at all of the space pterodactyls and elongated smurf people. Had I done as Cameron wished, maybe I would’ve appreciated “Avatar” the way everyone else did in 2009, instead of actively despising it. But apparently I was too busy shopping for low-rise jeans at that time.

So, to rectify a personal wrong and as a journalistic service to you, the reader, I saw Cameron’s sequel (one of four planned!), “Avatar: The Way of Water,” in theaters this weekend. In IMAX. In 3D. In one of those plush movie seats that isn’t quite as nice as your home recliner but is still plush nonetheless. I am now ready to answer all of your (my) questions about it, so let this FAQ guide you. Let it surround you, fill your lungs and touch your soul.

A scene from “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Courtesy of Disney

How are the special effects?

Incredible. That’s what you’re paying for when you see an “Avatar” movie. (Cameron once said that movie ticket prices should fluctuate based on their respective production budgets, and the $25 price tag for an IMAX 3D screening essentially fulfills that wish for him.) This is a VR experience, much in the way Star Tours is at Disneyland. Some of the images in the foreground get a little choppy, but otherwise you feel as if you’re looking through a physical window into another planet. It’s all real. Tangible. I am a grotesque visual effects snob, which is why it pleased me to see Cameron nail virtually every detail of his imagined world so that it felt touchable and not like a rush job that an outsourced VFX house was ordered to do in four days. I wish every movie had effects this good, yet I know that will never be the case for two reasons: There’s only one James Cameron, and I saw the 3D trailer for “Ant-Man 3” before this movie started.

OK, but what’s the plot?

Ah right, the story. Well, lead actor Sam Worthington is back. Good to see him gainfully employed again. We’re a few years past the events of the original “Avatar,” and Worthington’s Jake Sully is now an official member of Pandora’s Blue Man Group. His wife is purebred Na’vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and together they have … three … kids? I think three, all of them hybrid species. Sigourney Weaver might be one of them. They also have a teenage human sidekick named Spider.

Is Spider annoying?

For the most part. It’s not unlike the original “Transformers” animated show where all these giant robots hang out with a little human kid named Daniel and take him everywhere they go, even though bringing a human child into the middle of a galactic war with a bunch of other space robots is a remarkably s—tty idea. 

Anyway, Spider likes to hang with the Na’vi and go loping around their space forest. In real life, this kid would get eaten by a giant luminescent flower within four seconds of touching down on this moon. But no, apparently Spider is hardier than that. He doesn’t look it.

A scene from "Avatar: The Way of Water."

A scene from “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Courtesy of Disney

You haven’t told me the story yet

Right! Sully and his family are living peacefully in the forest when the humans, or “sky people” in screenwriter-ese, return to Pandora after Sully helped the natives oust them. Those sky people are led, once again, by bad guy Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who died in the original “Avatar” but has been resurrected as an avatar — a Na’vi bioshell that’s been implanted with a human’s memory and mind — to return to Pandora and get his revenge. He’s also Spider’s dad. Kinda.

With Quaritch on his ass, Sully has no choice but to flee the space forest with his family and relocate to a space archipelago, which is populated by the Metkayina reef people, who are more green than blue. While the Metkayina are hostile to Sully and his brood at first, they soon embrace them and teach them the way of … well, you know.

How’s the water?

Incredible. Once the Sullys had moved out of the woods (roughly an hour into the movie, which is very long) and the water appeared, I quietly said to myself, “That’s the water.” This is less a movie than it is a tour through an aquarium/zoo/planetarium, and you can tell how much care Cameron, who once descended the Mariana Trench, put into the marine biology of this film. These creatures all look and feel real — so much so that I’m irritated I can’t buy any of them at my local Petco. But there’s one sea creature in this movie that trumps all the others, and you’ve probably heard about it.

A scene from "Avatar: The Way of Water."

A scene from “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Courtesy of Disney

The space whales, right?

That’s right. The space whales are amazing; they alone are worth the hefty price of admission. There’s one space whale in particular, named Payakan, who bonds with Sully’s son and becomes the showstopper in the biggest action sequence toward the end of “TWOW.” It is, without hyperbole, one of the best action sequences ever filmed. And Cameron did it all in water, which is notoriously impossible to film in, even if you’ve got a s—tload of computers handy.

Will the 3D make me nauseous?

Depends on your constitution. I got the hang of it as the movie progressed. But when I had to get up midway through to take a leak, it was like I had just chugged six beers and played a game of dizzy bat. Rough sledding.

Does everything in the movie blow up real good?

Does it ever. The important thing to remember is that James Cameron is, at his core, an action movie director. He learned his trade under the wing of B-movie horror legend Roger Corman and made his own name directing “The Terminator,” which is arguably the greatest B-movie action thriller ever made. So whenever Action Time arrives in a Cameron film, and it always does, you can tell he’s in his element (apologies to water). All of the tedious exposition you had to endure at the beginning of this movie exists solely to pay off when the guns come out and Payakan starts f—king up some space boats. The action is coherent, tense and spectacular. For that alone, you get your money’s worth. In fact, watch “TWOW” and you’ll get to see Cameron play all of his greatest hits.

A scene from "Avatar: The Way of Water."

A scene from “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Courtesy of Disney

How do you mean?

There are elements of all of Cameron’s previous movies in this one film alone. Did you love the exoskeleton that Weaver rocked in the finale of “Aliens”? There are tons of them here. Love the big machines and bravura action set pieces in “True Lies”? Payakan and the Sullys deliver them. Was your favorite part of “Titanic” when the ship turned vertical and everyone got their s—t ruined? An even bigger ship turns vertical in this one. And if you love a “T2”-esque bratty teen who implores a sociopathic villain to, like, be nicer, well there’s Spider.

OK, but what sucks in this movie?

While Cameron is an incredible stickler for story detail, he’s strangely bad at writing memorable dialogue. That’s what made the first “Avatar” forgettable despite its status as the No. 1 all-time box-office champ, and “TWOW” is similarly lacking in great exchanges. This is why Arnold Schwarzenegger was the perfect James Cameron actor. Arnold had a unique talent for making corny dialogue memorable. Sam Worthington does not possess that skill, nor do any of the otherwise talented actors and actresses in this cast. I didn’t even realize Kate Winslet’s character was Kate Winslet until I did my homework for this review. This is largely because Winslet is green in “TWOW,” but it’s also because her character is underwritten and her daughter (played by Bailey Bass) gets the cooler role.

Otherwise, it’s awfully difficult to criticize this movie when you can see how much craftsmanship went into it. In terms of both engineering and biology, it goes so far beyond other tentpole movies as to exist in its own medium. You don’t go to Disney World because you love reading all the placards while you’re in line for Space Mountain, do you? Same deal here. It’s a ride and nothing past that. But it’s an awfully good one.

Would you ever see this movie again?


Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the character of Spike was misidentified in an earlier version. The story as updated at 1:10 p.m., Dec. 19, to correct this error

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