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Take the plunge: Avatar's underwater scenes are immersive and extraordinary

Avatar: The Way of Water isn't one of the year's best movies, but it's undoubtedly one of the best movie-going experiences Justin Chang has had in a while.

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Other segments from the episode on December 16, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 16, 2022: Interview with Glenn Frankel; Review of Avatar: The Way of Water

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 2009, writer-director James Cameron broke box office records with "Avatar," his science fiction epic set on a distant moon called Pandora. Thirteen years later, he returns to Pandora with "Avatar: The Way Of Water." The movie opens this week in theaters in 2D and 3D versions. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I wouldn't call "Avatar: The Way Of Water" one of the year's best movies, but it's undoubtedly one of the best moviegoing experiences I've had in a while. I had more or less the same reaction to James Cameron's first "Avatar" in 2009. It told a thin but trippy "Dances With Wolves"-ian (ph) story about the colonizers versus the colonized. But the worldbuilding was spectacular. It was thrilling to visit the faraway moon called Pandora, with its immersive, digitally created jungle landscapes. It was thrilling too to root for the towering blue-skinned Na'vi people, brought to life through Cameron's pioneering use of performance capture technology, which translates actors' movements and facial expressions into computer-generated imagery.

And so it's great to return to Pandora, although since many years have passed since the events of the first movie, there is some clunky exposition to get through. Sam Worthington again plays Jake Sully, a former human now reborn as a Na'vi man. And Zoe Saldana returns as the fierce warrior princess Neytiri. They have four Na'vi children, including an adopted teenage daughter, Kiri. She's played through the magic of performance capture by the decidedly not teenage Sigourney Weaver. And Weaver, as you might recall, played a human scientist who was killed in the first "Avatar." How the older and younger Weaver characters are connected is one of the new movie's mysteries.

But it's clear that Kiri is a child of unique gifts. In this scene, she tells Jake that she feels acutely in tune with Eywa, the powerful deity who maintains balance among all living things on Pandora.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER")

SAM WORTHINGTON: (As Jake) So what is it?

SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (As Kiri) I feel her, Dad.

WORTHINGTON: (As Jake, inaudible).

WEAVER: (As Kiri) Eywa. I hear her breathing. I hear her heartbeat. She's so close. She's just there, like a word about to be spoken.

CHANG: For some viewers, a little of this Mother Earth stuff will go a long way, though I've wife always found Cameron's cornball sincerity hard to resist. He may push the technological envelope, but he's an earnest, old-fashioned storyteller at heart. For all its visual sophistication and its 3-hour-plus running time "Avatar: The Way Of Water" tells a simple, straightforward story about a family in danger. The villain here is, once again, Jake's arch enemy, Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by a ferocious Stephen Lang. You might recall that he died in the first "Avatar," but Cameron's science fiction conceit is elastic enough to get over that hurdle. And this time, Quaritch himself has been resurrected as a Na'vi, making him even more fearsome and powerful. He has a score to settle. And so Jake and Neytiri take their kids and flee to the sea, where they hide out among a group of Na'vi beach dwellers.

The movie's second act is basically a charming riff on "Swiss Family Robinson" as Jake and Neytiri receive a weary welcome from the community leaders, one of them played by a glaring Kate Winslet. The family is forced to adapt to an entirely new way of life. That means becoming much better swimmers and learning to communicate with the local wildlife, including a giant talking whale-like creature called a Tulcan. It may sound silly, but this is where the movie soars. Cameron knows a thing or two about underwater peril, as his movies "Titanic" and "The Abyss" bare out. He's also an accomplished diver. And here, he plunges you into the watery depths and surrounds you with the most surreal looking alien fish specimens you've ever seen. In these moments, I didn't feel like I was watching a movie so much as floating in one. In addition to the 3D, which I do recommend, Cameron has tried to heighten the level of detail by shooting at an unusually fast 48 frames per second. It looks a little too smooth at times, especially on dry land, but the effect is stunning underwater.

I almost wish the movie would never leave the ocean floor, that it could just sustain this Jacques-Cousteau-on-mushrooms vibe for 3 hours. But that's not the Cameron way. He sometimes breaks his own spell by cutting away to Quaritch, which often feels jarring and not that interesting. And as superb as Cameron's eye is, his dialogue remains as tenured (ph) as ever. But everything does come together in the movie's action-heavy final act, which features extraordinarily well-orchestrated set pieces both above and below water. Quaritch is joined by some deadly human fighters, too. And "Avatar: The Way Of Water" encourages us successfully to root against humanity for all the destruction it's unleashed on the world. We've seen that before, including in the first "Avatar." But it speaks to Cameron's real achievement, which is to bring us into total identification with these computer-generated Na'vi characters. I don't know if that will be enough to sustain the "Avatar" series over three upcoming sequels, but I'm already looking forward to another trip to this alien moon. Until then, Pandora, so long, and thanks for all the fish.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed James Cameron's new film "Avatar: The Way Of Water." On Monday's show, writer Kevin Hazzard tells us how a community group in a Black neighborhood in Pittsburg sparked a revolution in emergency medicine in the 1960s. Freedom House Enterprises trained some of the nation's first paramedics, creating an ambulance service that earned national attention and spawned similar programs in other cities. Hazard's book is "American Sirens." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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