I surrender. It’s easy to poke holes in James Cameron’s films because of awkward dialogue or glib characterizations or his propensity for staging climaxes to his climaxes. But I was completely taken in by Avatar: The Way of Water and overwhelmed by its fluid, kinetic action scenes, eye-popping production design and propulsive storytelling.

I have only a sketchy memory of the original film from 2009 and could have used a recap at the outset of this new saga. At first I had trouble distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys in this sequel, but the answers soon became self-evident. The narrative is an obligatory clothesline on which the filmmaker can hang a series of spectacular vignettes. The key ingredient in this epic, expansive movie—which runs more than three hours—is imagination, a profusion of original and ingenious visual ideas. 

Cameron has so perfected his process that I forgot I was watching “visual effects” and invested in the story and cast of characters. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his family flee from home, where they are hunted by the Sky People (representing mankind at its worst) and seek refuge with a race of “water people” who live on an island reef we learn—with them—the wonders of the sea and how they have come to merge with fantastic undersea creatures.

Cameron, who shares screenplay credit with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (whose credits include Jurassic World and Rise of the Planet of the Apes), hews closely to the theme of family, and how a family unit finds strength in staying together. There is humor and humanity in the depiction of the children, who carry much of the story along, with savvy treatment of youthful disobedience and parental angst.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a movie filled with wonder, which has become a rare commodity in the age of CGI. But CGI is just a tool, beholden to the storyteller who can harness its powers. James Cameron is many things: a visualist, a futurist, an innovator. Most of all, he knows how to engage an audience through his gift as a storyteller. Only toward the very end of the 192 minute film did I start to feel impatient for it to wrap things up—but that isn’t Cameron’s way. If some directors are minimalists, he is a maximalist and he has to have one more crisis, one more rescue, before he’s willing to call it quits. It comes with the package. But that’s a minor quibble given the feast of sights and sounds he has given us.

Incidentally, my wife and I saw the movie in the ScreenX format at the CGV Theater in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. It sacrifices 3-D and swaps it out for a Cinerama-like immersion process where in key scenes there is imagery projected on the side walls of the theater, extending the environment depicted on the center screen. This obviously involved extensive planning by the Cameron team and it pays off. Like Cinerama, which utilized a giant curved screen, ScreenX “puts you in the picture.” This is a perfect vehicle to show off the process. To learn more go to

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024