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Avatar: The Way of Water is a gorgeous rehash of all the first film’s triumphs and failures

James Cameron’s second Avatar movie is a visually stunning but narratively uninspired return to Pandora that drowns some of its best ideas in military morass.

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A blue humanoid being with feline features and a thick head of dreadlocks riding on the back of an animal in the middle of the ocean at night. In the background, you can see the moonlit sky and the moon’s reflected light bouncing off the surface of the water.
Jake Sully and his daughter Kiri floating in the ocean.
Image: Disney

James Cameron’s first Avatar was a phenomenon that fundamentally altered the landscape of the entertainment industry with its record-breaking box office success and briefly convinced a generation of theatergoers that 3D movies were great, actually. The original Avatar’s story was little more than a white savior narrative cosplaying as a sci-fi epic. But the movie’s breathtaking visuals and astonishing level of rich detail made the prospect of returning to the alien world of Pandora for multiple sequels an interesting — if a bit dubious — one.

In a number of mostly technical ways, Avatar: The Way of Water is a superior film to its predecessor and a filmmaking marvel that’s a testament to Cameron’s ability to craft immersive, breathtaking set pieces. But for all of its VFX wizardry and moments where it feels like Cameron might have learned something from his previous missteps, The Way of Water ultimately plays like a by-the-numbers sequel that’s too focused on trying to feel relatable when what it needs is to be even more alien.

Set some years after the events of 2009’s Avatar, The Way of Water continues the story of human marine-turned-Na’vi savior Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) as they raise their gaggle of children in Pandora’s lush forests. Though stoic Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), hot head Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and baby of the family Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) all love and revere their father, none of Jake’s biological children can fully understand the significance of him being from Earth or how their human heritage makes them unique among other Na’vi. The same is less true of Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a sensitive teen who has a unique connection to Pandora’s wildlife, and her good friend Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy abandoned on the planet after Earthlings were forced to leave at the end of the first film.

Image: 20th Century Studios

Just in the details of how each of the Sully children is dealing with different aspects of growing up in the shadow of their father — the leader of their forest-dwelling tribe — there’s plenty of material for an interesting tale. But The Way of Water tries to broaden its focus and showcase more of Pandora’s natural wonders by making the Sullys the centerpiece of yet another war that forces them to flee their home as humans return to Pandora once again in search of natural resources and revenge.

In moments when The Way of Water is showcasing new aspects of Pandora’s natural wonders, the movie sings and shines with an undeniable brilliance that will undoubtedly please fans of the original and appeal to those intrigued by the idea of diving deep into a dangerous, alien world. But while the movie is often a visual delight, that delight is consistently undercut by Cameron’s inexplicable decision to shoot the bulk of The Way of Water at 48 frames per second, a choice that leads to the entire thing looking like a very expensive video meant to be played on an array of televisions in a Best Buy.

If you’ve at all followed the genesis of the Avatar franchise, then you’ve undoubtedly heard Cameron and The Way of Water’s cast harping on about how this approach to filmmaking was crucial to properly realizing Pandora and its people for a present-day audience. That may be true to a certain extent. But as you watch The Way of Water — particularly if you’ve recently seen the first Avatar at a lower frame rate — it’s hard not to get the overwhelming sense of technique and tools being consistently prioritized over artistry in ways that detract from the movie’s striking beauty.

Image: 20th Century Studios

While the jarring quality of The Way of Water’s frame rate never really goes away, it’s something that’s easy enough to get used to, especially in the movie’s slower scenes that are really about giving you a moment to drink in the strangeness of Pandora’s flora and fauna. What’s far less easy to grow comfortable with, however, is the way the movie doubles down on most of the first Avatar’s more problematic plot beats and framing the Na’vi as animalistic “savages” whose culture is clearly a hodgepodge of those belonging to real-world indigenous peoples.

It’s both funny and cringe-inducing to watch Jake Sully unironically pontificate about the dangers of the invading “sky people” with a straight face while his alien dreadlocks are blowing ever so slightly in the wind. It’s the sort of visual that perfectly encapsulates everything that was wild (read: exhausting) about the original Avatar and feels reflective of how uninterested Cameron is in elevating the franchise beyond a rather base and fetishistic power fantasy.

Avatar: The Way of Water also stars Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Edie Falco, Cliff Curtis, Giovanni Ribisi, and Jemaine Clement. The film hits theaters on December 16th.