Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way really quick. The original "Avatar" from 2009 was absolutely stunning to look at but was so derivative when it came to the story, dialogue and characters that it left almost zero cultural imprint, while simultaneously making more money than any other movie ever made. Sam Worthington as the main character and audience surrogate Jake Sully was such drearily dull archetype that the film only came alive when he was interacting with the computer generated Na'vi, a 10-foot tall blue cat-person race that was also a thinly veiled stand-in for indigenous Americans.
In fact, everything aside from the groundbreaking visual effects and world-building of "Avatar" was cribbed from other movies. The plot is a mash-up of "Dances with Wolves" and "Fern Gully." The characters all speak in Saturday Morning Cartoon bursts of exposition and emotion. The villains are one-dimensional colonizers searching for something so dumb that the writers just had to call it "unobtainium."
So, now it's 13 years later, a solid decade of which James Cameron has been working on creating not only "Avatar: The Way of Water," but Avatars 3-5 as well. There's a lot riding on "Ava2ar" to not only keep this mega-billion-dollar franchise alive by making back more than its $400 million budget, but also showing that the story can evolve to something less cliche'd with some actual nuance. Does Cameron succeed? I give it a resounding sorta.
First things first, "The Way of Water" is absolutely transporting. It features what is easily the most groundbreaking visual effects since the original and such immersive 3D IMAX projection that I found myself at points feeling like I was looking through a window into Pandora. The plot is still incredibly basic, while also somehow feeling like an improvement from the first film. I can literally give you the entire plot of the "Water" in one sentence: Jake Sully, his Na'vi partner Neytiri and their FIVE (!) kids have to hide from all the people they pissed off in the first movie.
One of the things I respect the most about "Water" is how much it lets Cameron indulge in his favorite things while he slowly remembers he has a story to tell. We leave the sky jungles of the first film for the Metkayina clan on the eastern seaboard of Pandora and the entire second hour (of the 190-minute runtime) is spent exploring the oceans of this alien world. In a climate where most big-budget blockbusters need to stop for an action sequence every 15 minutes, it's very refreshing spending such an extended period of time watching a bunch of alien kids floating underwater and interacting with the flora and fauna of the ocean.
As beautiful and transportive as the film is to look at, we're still left with a myriad of problems like the basic plot and cliche'd dialogue. Jake Sully is still an uninteresting protagonist (luckily his kids and wife are much more fascinating) and the film grinds to a halt whenever he shows up. The villain is suitably evil but his motivations are without nuance. It's sad how un-involving the story is when Cameron has built a world so complex and beautiful that we could keep exploring it for decades and dozens of movies and never run out of new climates to enjoy.
Yet, "The Way of Water" also has Kate Winslet speaking sign language to a whale, a game of chicken with assault rifles while astride flying creatures and Cameron trying to one-up his sinking of the Titanic, so it's hard to complain about what's missing instead of gushing about what's here. There's still room for lots of improvement and growth as we get more sequels to "Avatar," but if the films remain this transportive and breathtaking to witness, then I'll keep punching my ticket to Pandora.