“You know my favorite thing about the movie is, like, it feels like a movie. It feels like, a real, like, go-to-the-theater film movie.”

That vibey-ass Harry Styles press junket quote bounced around my brain while watching Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s much-anticipated follow-up to the highest-grossing movie of all time. The Way of Water dared to ask its post-streaming, post-pandemic audience to still be invested in a story from 13 years ago and, furthermore, to sit down for more than three hours for it. After officially opening last weekend, it looks like Cameron’s bet somewhat paid off. Early box office numbers look fine (not jaw-dropping), bringing in a cool $134 million.

In a sense, the science-fiction epic is peak “go-to-the-theater film” movie—immersive and cutting-edge visuals, original intellectual property, a blockbuster attitude, character archetypes out the wazoo, intertitles in Papyrus font for some inexplicable reason, a plea to save the environment. But it's also kinda smooth brain too—slick visuals and (mostly) hollow characterization, a lush imagination and a corny core. It's the best movie to see with your family over the holidays and the worst movie to ever bring up to a film critic. And while much can be said about the experience of seeing The Way of Water, a lot is left to be desired with, well, everything else. 

Set more than a decade after the first installment's events, The Way of Water obliquely rehashes the same tensions as Avatar. Former human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is fully integrated as a Na'vi, becoming leader of the Omaticaya and making a cute family with his partner, warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). After an old threat from the Sky People (AKA humans) threatens to destroy everything that Jake and Neytiri have built for themselves, they take their kids and flee the forest, seeking refuge among teal Metkayina reef people far away. But the wheels of fate grind in such a way that their brood isn't safe for long and, soon, the family and newfound friends must square up once again with those bloodthirsty humans to save the environment they call home. 

The world-building is the most impressive part of the film. Much of the movie's runtime is devoted to exploring underwater parts of Pandora, which is stunningly crafted and imagined. Cameron and his crew basically invented a new way to film actors underwater (requiring most of the cast to learn how to free dive), became experts in hydrodynamics, and created dozens of species of freaky little sea creatures. Pandora's crystal clear oceans are teeming with strange whale-like animals, light-up butterfly-looking fish, and flying ocean dragons. There's such a veneer of reality to the way that the CGI water sloshes around and how light moves through it, that there's no uncanny valley to be caught up in at all. Suffice it to say, if George Méliés ever saw this, he'd definitely explode. 

And, of course, Sigourney Weaver. In the original film, she played Dr. Grace Augustine, a human who died siding with the Na'vi. In this film, however, she plays her own half-Na'vi, half-human daughter, Kiri, impressively embodying the mannerisms of a sensitive alien teenager, as weird as that may sound. Unfortunately, the most compelling character from Avatar, Saldaña's Neytiri, is sidelined from most of the film's story, scream-crying on the margins. While The Way of Water is primarily focused on developing Neytiri and Jake's younger family members, the film's emotions leave a lot to be desired. The bad guy is doing bad things because he's bad. Jake is protecting his family because he's a dad. If only the inner worlds of these characters were as rich as the worlds they inhabit. 

In a way, I think The Way of Water would make an excellent-yet-weird double feature with Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans, the storied director's rumination on his deeply personal origins as a filmmaker. The Way of Water's production and themes feel like a giant mishmash of other Cameron productions—a little Titanic here, a little Aliens there, and a whole lot of The Abyss. Like Spielberg in The Fabelmans, Cameron leans into all the qualities that made him such a successful director—a penchant for big storytelling, pushing the literal limits of the medium, lacing stories with corny-if-not-regressive themes of family and duty. It can be tiresome at times, but it is well worth the watch if just for the underwater sequences alone. 

Avatar: The Way of Water is showing at Pioneer Place, Living Room Theaters, Laurelhurst Theater, Bagdad, and more.