2022 | PG-13 | starring voices of Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, CCH Pounder and Edie Falco, Jack Champion and Jemaine Clement | directed by James Cameron | 3h 12m |

It’s been a whopping 12 years since James Cameron’s 2009 3D, motion-capture sci-fi environmentalist epic Avatar. That timespan is common now for reboots, but for one sequel? It’s enough to have most fans of the first film age out of it and everyone else wonder if anyone cares about Avatar sequel that doesn’t capitalize on the 3D theater craze of the time. For a movie that one time held the Box Office record for the highest grossing of all time, it’s shocking how little anyone talks about Avatar in the decade since. 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a marvel of mixing animation flawlessly into live action. In Avatar: The Way of Water we get the inverse, a few real humans are mixed flawlessly into an animated film.

Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) now lives his life comfortably among the Na’vi tribe on Pandora with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and 4 children, including the adopted daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine’s clone, the immaculately conceived Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) and a human ally Spider (Jack Champion, Scream VI). The peace is interrupted by the return of Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose consciousness has been downloaded into the body of a Na’vi avatar allowing him and his group of mercenaries to infiltrate the Na’vi lands undercover forcing Sully and his family to take refuge across the world to Metkayena, a water-based tribe that communes with the creatures of the sea.

Save for a few wrinkles, 12 years and 5 writers came up with an Avatar sequel that pretty much safety retreads the original. A movie I have very little appreciation for to begin with. It trades training montages of flying dragons and sweeping runs through the trees of Pandora for training montages of riding whales and sea creatures in the oceans of Pandora. The water sequences are immersive to be sure and it doesn’t follow as strictly the White Savior/Noble Savage tropes of the first film. All in all the story doesn’t feel quite as strictly on the rails as Avatar did. I enjoyed The Way of Water more than Avatar, but it’s still hampered down by Cameron’s hackneyed dialog and painfully simple themes.

Thankfully, there is no mention of cinema history’s silliest McGuffin, Unobtainium, in Way of Water. Instead the story is even simpler and arguably more streamlined. While we get a passing interest in a substance in alien whale brains that can “stop the aging process”, most of Water is even less concerned with why The Sky People need to exploit the Pandora and more in a slapping together a revenge story between Quaritch and Sulley. For most of it’s absurd 3 hour running time, Cameron and crew put Sully in the backseat to focus on his children, how they adapt to the new tribe and bond with the ocean life. Cameron seems more at home here than he was in assembling an adult romance, so Avatar moves more organically than it did in 2009.

In Water’s climax, the film turns into a greatest hits of James Cameron’s filmography. Aliens, robots, a sinking ship and the threat of rising water. While Avatar hasn’t changed much at all in the last 12 years, big budget movies sure have and every one of those trends only makes Way of Water feel more refreshing by comparison. Since 2009 we’ve been drowned in Star Wars and superhero movies. Pandora is beautiful and doesn’t feel lived in for a moment, but at least it’s not another dusty robot cantina. Since 2009 blockbuster movies have thrown out a 3 act structure offering for a 2-act set-up/payoff/battle. Way of Water focuses on characters and has a 2nd act. The movie has a strong environmentalist message, but at least it’s earnest about it without any irony and condescension toward the material. What in 2009 felt like beating us over the head with a message now feels like simple storytelling. Now, we get beaten over the head all the time.