Spectacular 'Avatar: The Way of Water' is a sublime visual feast

Buy a ticket and drift off to another world.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's hard to overstate the astonishing visual achievement of "Avatar: The Way of Water" and the luminous levels of wonderment it achieves. In short, you've absolutely, positively never seen anything like it — and that includes the original "Avatar."

Not seeing the original "Avatar" — or not having seen it since it blew cinemagoers away all the way back in 2009, the same year that Ashton Kutcher and CNN were racing to be the first to get to 1 million Twitter followers and Adam Lambert was on "American Idol" — is not in any way a hindrance to the "Way of Water" viewing experience. Immersing yourself in its visual splendor is like escaping to another world. IMAX and 3D upgrades will kick theater tickets up a few bucks, but how else can you go on vacation for a few hours at around $20 a ticket?

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

"The Way of Water" is at least the third time in 25 years that James Cameron has defied the odds and come out on top. The last two times were the original "Avatar" and 1997's "Titanic," currently the Nos. 1 and 3 worldwide box office hits of all-time. Whether or not "The Way of Water" joins their ranks in a financial sense remains to be seen. But in an artistic sense it's in every way a triumph, and a pushback against everyone who's been cracking jokes about "Avatar" and its legacy in recent years. Joke's on them: This movie and the world it inhabits rules.

We're back on Pandora, the planet populated by the 9-foot tall Na'vi — the peaceful blue people indigenous to the lush, nature-rich planet — but while characters cross over, "The Way of Water" tells a completely different story from "Avatar." (There isn't one mention of unobtanium, which is probably a good thing.)

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

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now fully immersed in the Na'vi, and has three children with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), as well as an adopted teenage daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). There's also what amounts to a sitcom neighbor child running around (Jack Champion, who slightly resembles a dreadlocked Justin Bieber). Themes of fatherhood, family and protection dominate "The Way of Water" and guide the story forward.

Sully and his family are hunted by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the military tough from the first movie, who is now back as a Recombinant, a Na'vi fully outfitted with human memories. And his memories are of Sully turning his back on him, and revenge is on his mind.

Quaritch and his forces send Sully and his family fleeing for safer ground, and they end up taking refuge with the Metkayina, a clan of reef people in a largely water-bound region of Pandora, which looks a lot like what we Earth people know as Bali.

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

The Metkayina — including their leader, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his wife, Ronal (Kate Winslet, and kudos to you if you can find any trace of Kate Winslet in her) — take in the Sullys, but their teenagers face peer pressure and hazing at the hands of the native people. There are other hiccups to their acclimation, including clashes over leadership and the tiny fact that their presence is bringing Quaritch and his army their way.

The messaging — anti-military and pro-climate protection — is as brute force as Quaritch. But aside from that, it's the water world where Cameron really cracks his knuckles and lets loose.

Cameron is most comfortable spending time with the creatures of the sea, diving with them, playing with them and getting to know them, and letting the audience stretch out and get to know them as well. Their renderings are so lifelike that it's easy to forget they're all zeroes and ones, and the smoothed out framerate of the film makes everything look and feel lifelike in ways we're not used to from traditional film. The extended midsection of "The Way of Water" is fueled purely by vibes.

Cameron and his armed forces of tech wizards let the water do its thing, and the actors (who are all CGI, it should be noted) look natural in and out of the water, unlike, say, the awkward up-and-down bobbing among the characters in "Aquaman." Your eye is drawn to the fish and plant life and all the other nifty glowing things that fill the corner of the frames, and "The Way of Water" is like going scuba diving without getting a drop of water on you.

That's the essence of "The Way of Water": It's sheer experience above all else, with a solid, easy-to-follow story underneath it.

Cameron builds to a climax that in many ways recalls "Titanic," playing a bit of greatest hits with himself, as he stages another massive sinking sequence on top of everything else he's built. In that extended set piece, "The Way of Water" begins to feel its three hour-plus runtime, but Cameron has never been one to leave anything on the table. For better and for worse, he puts it all out there and you have to admire his skill, his ambition and his singular ability to keep topping himself. With "The Way of the Water," he's still the King of the World.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Avatar: The Way of Water'

GRADE: A

Rated PG-13: for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language

Running time: 190 minutes

In theaters