James Cameron hasn’t made a new film in over a decade.

The blockbuster spectacle-creator behind epic movies like Aliens, The Terminator and Titanic last showed his craft on the big screen in 2009 with a technologically revolutionary feature about human colonizers on a space world in Avatar, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture that won several technical awards.

Since then, Cameron has long sought to make a follow-up, but sequels languished in pre-production for world building and then a four-year shoot for the next two installments has kept his burgeoning Avatar franchise on hold.

The wait finally ended this past weekend as Avatar: The Way of Water arrived to great fanfare in theaters nationwide. The immersive world of Pandora takes on new life thanks to digital innovations Cameron adds to his arsenal as audiences are transported under the sea creating new depths and expanding the universe of Cameron’s narrative.

Way of Water catches up with Jake Sully and his Na’vi family ten years after the events of the original film which saw the tribal clan run Earth military off Pandora completely.  Sully believes himself to be at peace until the “sky-people” return to hunt him down and fully colonize Pandora.

Returning from the original film, Sam Worthington is less stiff in his second foray as Sully, in part because he doesn’t have to emote in human form and the expressiveness on his face is partially digitized. Even still, Worthington has more of a gruff military persona than anything although it’s clear that he’s capable of showing Sully’s sense of duty as a father. 

For whatever reason, the Avatar films aren’t as much about character as they are about spectacle. Cameron is less interested in telling a story than crafting a world and this comes through in elongated sequences that take 20 minutes when two would have sufficed.

Because the characters ultimately don’t matter, the actors portraying them are left with little to identify with. 

This is especially true of the film’s female performances, where Zoe Saldana is largely left to sob and showcase her action prowess while being shoved into the background after her Neytiri was a pivotal character in the original.

Kate Winslet joins the cast as a rival chief’s wife and perhaps has 10-15 lines of dialogue despite being in most scenes, while Sigourney Weaver returns as her character’s own daughter in a perplexing, disjointed bit of storytelling that might only make sense when the next film arrives in theaters.

If there are any stars of the show, they come in the form of the film’s young actors who play the next generation of Na’vi, but truly in Avatar, the only character that matters is Cameron himself.

For the most part, audiences will come to see Way of Water not for the story, but for the visuals that define the franchise.

It’s a film that’s gorgeous to look at even with the sound completely off that truly takes advantage of a cinematic master’s ability to visually world-build.

Underwater sequences bring new life to Way of Water and break up segments of the film that often feel somewhat repetitive to the original film and although it’s somewhat engaging for viewers to feel Pandora just beyond their fingertips, Way of Water isn’t a feature that demands viewing in 3D despite Cameron’s crafting the mold for blockbuster films to leap off the screen for the better part of a decade.

The film’s over three-hour running time is especially draining on viewers not completely immersed in the story-telling. 

Despite the visual wonders, there isn’t enough substance to justify the length and Cameron’s cut of the film lacks proper pacing to balance out story with visuals. It’s almost as if the veteran filmmaker decided to leave almost nothing on the cutting room floor, allowing each one of his sequences to play out fully because they look cool rather than adding to the overall narrative.

As a result, Way of Water can feel at times like a theme park ride rather than a theatrical movie experience.

Regardless, the film – if on pedigree alone – will be a major contender this awards season for both best picture and a frontrunner in many technical categories, with Cameron likely to be given a best director nomination as well.

With the holidays bringing families together at the theaters, Avatar: The Way of Water will likely appeal to those wanting to get out of the house and yet feel closer to their own families. Now will be as good a time as ever to see Way of Water the way Cameron intends, but at the end, the sequel fails to live up to the promise of the original.

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