‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ enchants with stunning visuals despite mediocre plot

Media Credit: Lily Speredelozzi | Assistant Photo Editor

The movie soars when the writing takes a back seat to the fantastic underwater world of Pandora – which was actually filmed underwater, raising the film to an even more immersive level.

Thirteen years after shattering box office records, boundary-pushing director James Cameron is back with the sequel to 2009’s visually stunning and technologically groundbreaking “Avatar” – and the movie was more than worth the wait.

“Avatar: The Way of Water,” which hit theaters Dec. 16, takes viewers on a three-hour and 12-minute exploration of two of Cameron’s foremost fascinations during his 40-year career – underwater adventures and alien fight scenes laden with ridiculous special effects. What the movie lacks in compelling storytelling and well-written dialogue, it more than makes up for with the most breathtaking, water-logged images seen on the big screen since, well, the first “Avatar.”

Picking up more than a decade after “Avatar” left off, “The Way of Water” follows the tale of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the lead of the original movie and a human who turned into a Navi, the alien race which inhabits Cameron’s fictional world of Pandora. He and the rest of his Navi family, which includes his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and four newly introduced children, have to leave their forest home for some faraway islands with a different Navi tribe after humans return hunting Sully, the leader of the Navi resistance.

But really, none of that matters. No one is going to see “Avatar” for the incredibly forgettable plot. We’re all here for Cameron’s immersive underwater world of vibrantly colored plants and expansive oceans, which shine as the movie’s best cinematic touches.

For the first hour or so, Cameron flexes his action movie muscles with riveting scenes of Navi raids against supply-carrying trains to obtain weapons for their battles against humans. The beginning of the film also features striking showdowns under the shroud of forest between Sully, who is trying to protect the planet and his family, and the film’s antagonist, Colonel Quatrich (Stephen Lang), a human general trying to wipe out the Navi people.

These opening set pieces do exactly their job – they entertain with their dramatic action while establishing the characters and their relationships through interactions within the Sully family. But the eye-catching, flying, multicolored dragons, rain-soaked neon forest lighting and 10-foot tall blue Navi are just generic action movie fare. These spectacles demonstrate Sully’s devotion to his family and kick the plot into motion, but they don’t provide many memorable moments without much more to offer beyond other familiar set pieces seen in past blockbuster films like the “Terminator” and other big-budget sci-fi flicks.

What doesn’t work at all about the opening hour is the dialogue. Maybe the issue is that Worthington isn’t a particularly compelling leading man – even his most dramatic moments are still conveyed with his flat near monotone – but Cameron doesn’t do him or his co-stars any favors with the generic and cheesy writing featuring many unnatural, poorly flowing lines.

Even though the first hour can drag at times due to its clunky writing, the movie soars when the writing takes a back seat to the fantastic underwater world of Pandora – which was actually filmed underwater, raising the film to an even more immersive level. And the second hour of the movie succeeds in this measure – but not much else.

The film’s last third also struggles with a subpar script with a plot that stalls through large-scale battles leading up the final resolution of the storyline, but the visuals in these scenes continue to save the day and then some. The ending benefits from those thrilling action scenes when the film turns to the water setting where creative underwater fights transpire. An otherwise limited connection to the characters grows deeper due to more emotional payoff in some of the key moments that resolve the fraught relationships within the Sully family toward the end of the film.

Most disappointing, the movie lacks the iconic quotes that have defined Cameron’s other classic films. Instead, the characters embellish in some over-the-top cheesiness in their lines, creating a less majestic and more awkward source of amusement in the film.

Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s jovial declaration, “I’m the king of the world,” in “Titanic” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic “I’ll be back” from “The Terminator,” the movie’s most dramatic scenes hinge on Worthington delivering sludge like “I need you to be strong. Strong heart” and the uncompelling “Sullies stick together.” It’s hard to find a line Cameron can triumphantly call back to if he were to win an Oscar for this movie, like he proclaimed after securing best director for “Titanic.”

While the lackluster dialogue offers little, sending the film’s main characters from their home to the water world is a truly inspired choice for the movie to spend a solid hour delivering colorful, gripping visuals of Pandora. This plot line, albeit predictable, is one that brilliantly facilitates the creation of true movie magic.

The plot of the film doesn’t move much during this part of the movie, but that is by design. It’s all about the visual experience, which introduces the added element of underwater landscapes, the deep blues of the ocean and the striking lights that color Pandora after sunset.

Such scenery transcends mesmerizing escapism. Despite taking 30 minutes to develop the relationship between one of Sully’s sons and a whale-like creature, the audience is able to run away to a fantastical world as the two glide around underwater together in a true delight of the movie-going experience.

I went to see the movie in IMAX 3D, which is really the only way to fully present such stunning visuals, like when the whale-like animals – also known as tulkuns – leap out of the water right at the audience.

The manic creativity and fascinating construction of this fictional world with aesthetically pleasing, if unremarkable, storylines are the backbone of “The Way of Water.” Cameron’s efforts all result in some of the most entertaining hours I’ve experienced in a movie theater in years.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is an experience like no other, with brilliant visual flair. You might not come out of it with tears in your eyes sniffling about how the Sully family always sticks together, but you’ll certainly emerge with wide eyes under your 3D glasses, feeling like you rediscovered the meaning of movie magic.

And ultimately, that’s the most impressive thing a movie can do.

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