Producers: James Cameron and Jon Landau   Director: James Cameron   Screenplay: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet, Britain Dalton, Jamie Flatters, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass, Edie Falco, CCH Pounder, Jemaine Clement, Brendan Cowell, Joel David Moore, Filip Geljo, Duane Evans Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao, CJ Jones, Matt Gerald and Alicia Vela-Bailey    Distributor: Disney/Twentieth Century Films

Grade: C

James Cameron’s long-gestating sequel to his mammoth 2009 boxoffice smash has the same strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor.  It’s visually and technically magnificent, but woefully deficient in plot, characterization and dialogue.  That didn’t matter to the millions who shelled out billions to watch the first film, or to the majority of the critical community, and perhaps it won’t matter to them this time around either.  But it’s sad that over thirteen years Cameron seems to have given less thought to the story he would tell than the spectacular way he would tell it.

Of course the tales the director has chosen to tell over the years have always been simple, from “Piranha II” on, and this one is no exception.  The first “Avatar” was basically “Dances with Wolves,” melded with the 1964 “Outer Limits” episode “The Chameleon.” The tall, blue-skinned Na’vi replaced the Sioux (or the peace-loving aliens of “Chameleon”), and John Dunbar (or Louis Mace) morphed into Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the warrior who went native in the form of his Na’vi avatar, turning against the malevolent earthlings attempting to conquer the moon called Pandora to mine the valuable mineral called unobtainium.  “The Way of Water,” set about a decade and a half later, is a straightforward continuation in the form of a chase in which Jake is pursued by a maniacal old foe determined to avenge his supposed betrayal of the human race.

As well as his own death, because the pursuer is none other than Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the ex-Marine security head of the Resources Development Association (RDA), the militant arm in charge of the Pandoran conquest.  He was killed at the end of “Avatar,” of course, but in typical comic-book fashion has been resuscitated in the form of a Na’vi avatar himself, thirsting for revenge against Jake; he leads a squad of similarly-altered super-soldiers.  They’re tasked by General Ardmore (Edie Falco), the head of the RDA conquest-and-colonization team, with dealing with Jake and the Na’vi by any means necessary. 

In an initial encounter the children of Jake and his Na’vi mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña)—sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and adopted teen daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), as well as their jungle-boy human chum Spider (Jack Champion)—are briefly captured by Quaritch, but all escape except Spider, whom the colonel forces to join him as an unwilling scout.

What does Jake do in response?  In essence he flees, abandoning the forest tribe he’s led for years and taking his family to seek refuge with the distant sea Na’vi; for the rest of the film nothing is heard of what’s happening back in the forest.  This might seem the equivalent of John Dunbar leaving the Sioux at the approach of the cavalry to live with the Apache, but what Cameron is embracing is the old western cliché of the peace-loving man who does all he can to avoid violence until he’s compelled to use it to save his family. 

And actually this decision introduces the best section of the film, in which the Sullys find uneasy sanctuary on the island presided over by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his shamanistic wife Ronal (Kate Winslet).  For long stretches, however, the focus passes from the adults to the children, who learn “the way of water,” sometimes through bullying from Tonowari’s son Aonung (Filip Geljo) and his friends and sometimes through the kindly instruction of his daughter Tsireya (Bailey Bass).  Here Neteyam and Lo’ak often take center stage, the former as the youngsters’ protector and the latter as the short-tempered rebel who often earns his father’s testy remonstrance.  Lo’ak’s befriending of an outcast Pandoran whale—he actually pulls a remnant of a harpoon out of its fin, like Androcles and the lion’s paw!—becomes a major plot point in the last act.

That’s because in order to track down Sully, Quaritch has commandeered a RDA ship whose captain (Brendan Cowell) is a whale hunter. The earthlings, you see, are malevolent in a variety of ways: they not only threaten the land with their mining operations and plan to colonize the moon because their own planet is becoming uninhabitable, presumably killing off the Na’vi in the process, but they’re harvesting the whales in order to extract from their super-developed brains a liquid that can slow the human aging process.  The rest of the huge beast they simply toss aside, the way buffalo hunters disposed of the meat after taking the hides.

That sets the stage for the big final confrontation, which is indeed humongous, as well as very long and repetitive (the poor Sully girls get captured and tied up repeatedly on the whaling vessel).  One can glimpse bits of many other films—a snatch of “Free Willy” here, a conflicted father-son moment reminiscent of “The Empire Strikes Back” there, even a “Moby Dick” moment—before the battle ends as you would expect given that Cameron is preparing a couple more installments in the franchise.  But the heroes suffer losses, which bring a teary reminder of the “Circle of Life” on Pandora, where the Na’vi and their environment live in harmony and only the human interlopers threaten destruction.

It goes without saying that “The Way of Water” is a visual feast.  Cameron has advanced the motion-capture process once more, and together with visual effects supervisors Joe Letteri and Richard Baneham has fashioned figures far advanced from the dead-eyed creations remembered from pictures like “The Polar Express.”  They still don’t look “real,” though, and the performances of the actors playing them can’t be assessed in the normal fashion.  In fact, the few humans are a relief by comparison, even if their acting is not of the best (e.g., frantic Cowell and prosaic Falco); among them the best is certainly Champion, who gives Spider some authentic emotion.  But one also has to admire Weaver, who appears in a few scenes as her original, now-deceased “Avatar” character Grace, but also takes on the job of playing a fourteen-year old.  It helps none of them, though, that the dialogue throughout is so juvenile; how many times does one need to hear somebody say “Let’s do this!” or “Go, go, go!”?   

The backgrounds in which the characters are set, on the other hand, are mostly magnificent, with the underwater “locales” particularly gorgeous, the imaginatively rendered, often luminous, creatures—including that Willy-like whale—impressive indeed.  (The exception is the finale, with its setting on the whaling vessel, a thoroughly conventional construct.)  Kudos are certainly due production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter, costume designer Deborah L. Scott and cinematographer Russell Carpenter, even if one questions the wisdom of Cameron’s decision to shoot at 48 frames per second, which adds clarity at the expense of realism.  But though having to wear glasses is burdensome (especially if one already wears a pair), the 3D effect is striking.  The same can’t be said of Simon Franglen’s score, which is for the most part ordinary bluster.

The one technical aspect subject to serious criticism is the editing, credited to Stephen Rivkin, David Brenner and John Refoua along with Cameron.  Given the extraordinary labor that must have gone into every frame, one can understand the reluctance to lose any of them, but at well over three hours the film wears out its welcome long before the endless final credits roll; in particular the climactic battle feels padded.  We are told, over and over again (the script has a propensity to repeat what Cameron apparently considers gems of dialogue), “The Way of Water has no beginning and no end.”  We know the first half of the formulation is wrong, because we experience the Twentieth Century fanfare at the start; but there are times as you watch when you fear the second half might prove all too true.

In the end—and fortunately, there is one—it comes down to the same question that hovered over the original “Avatar.”  Is the visual spectacle enough to make up for the script’s myriad weaknesses?  One suspects that for many viewers, the answer will again be yes, though not perhaps to the same degree.  It will be difficult for even Cameron to top the highest-grossing movie of all time.