After 13 years of waiting, the first sequel to James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, “Avatar,” has arrived. With “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the screensaver that somehow became the highest-grossing movie of all time is now part of an expanding multi-sequel universe. Let’s call it the JCU. Cameron has already turned in the screenplay for part four. Could he be opening a Pandora’s box?
Maybe. But if there’s one thing movie history has taught us, it’s that we should never underestimate the man who made “Titanic.”
“Titanic” came to mind often while I was watching “Avatar: The Way of Water,” in theaters Dec. 15. Not only does Cameron stage the film’s climax in a large, sinking ship, he casts Kate Winslet as Ronal, the pregnant queen of the aquatic Metkayina people. Their water world exists on the other side of the moon called Pandora, far from the forest world of the Na’vi that “Avatar” explored. The director also recycles dialogue from his 1997 blockbuster. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Cameron’s own diving expeditions have influenced his artistic ones; the underwater sequences are filled with dazzling creatures and a clear understanding of how such a kingdom would operate. Water is a common motif in the director’s work going back to his underrated 1989 classic, “The Abyss.” Knowing Cameron’s penchant for self-promotion, he probably snuck a school of the killer flying piranha from his 1981 feature directorial debut, “Piranha II: The Spawning,” into some corner of his vast ocean.
Unfortunately, the higher frame rate often looks like motion smoothing, giving the otherwise impressive visuals a soap-opera effect — ”A Na’vi World,” perhaps, or “All My Pandoras.”
I saw the digital 3D version (useless to me as I can’t perceive 3D), one of many options viewers can choose from, and fortunately even with those infernal glasses, the effects remained bright and visible. Sure, I felt like I was watching a $350 million fish tank at times, but Cameron’s longtime cinematographer Russell Carpenter’s work is a welcome change from the dull, cost-cutting darkness of most recent action films.
Your favorite characters from the original are back. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human who went full Na’vi for love at the end of “Avatar,” has been gettin’ bizzy with his partner, the Na’vi warrior Neytiri (a fiery Zoe Saldaña). Their family now includes two adolescent sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), as well as a younger daughter, Tuk (Trinity Bliss).
Also in Jake’s clan is an adopted teenage daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), whose origins are left unexplained. Kiri is sweet on a human teenager named Spider (Jack Champion) who runs around practically naked. “Avatar: The Way of Water” keeps these teens from fooling around, but considering how the Na’vi make sexytime, Spider’s equipment might not be able to handle it anyway.
Here’s where I spoil the fun we’ve been having by describing the story. While the screenplay by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver is a major step up from the original, it’s still preachy, predictable, and full of dialogue that lands with a thud, or rather, a belly flop.
Cameron is the king of sequels that are as good as, if not better than, the originals — this film included. But he always makes me think of George Lucas: great with the big-picture scene-setting and visual world-building, not so great with the writing. “Avatar: The Way of Water” boils down to a revenge story we’ve seen before.
Major Quaritch (Stephen Lang), last seen in “Avatar” shot full of arrows by Neytiri, is now reincarnated as a Na’vi seeking vengeance. He’s assisting General Ardmore (Edie Falco) in a mission on Pandora. He takes the job because he wants to destroy Sully. While his motivations make sense, they’re too flimsy to hang an entire movie on. But his mission gets our Na’vi protagonists to the land of the Metkayina, where their blue bodies and forest-based skillsets are initially incompatible with the water-filled environment.
Far more interesting is Cameron’s message about environmental profiteering. The film’s most wondrous creations are the Tulkuns, massive, whale-like creatures sworn into non-violence by the Metkayina people. They’re also easy targets for poachers.
One of these creatures has gone on what appears to be a rogue killing spree and is thrown out of society. Jake’s son Lo’ak, who feels like an outcast compared to his superstar older brother, bonds with this Tulkun. Their relationship is the one point of character interest in “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
I was not a fan of the original “Avatar,” the first Cameron movie I didn’t like, but if you are, add another star to my rating. (If you haven’t seen “Avatar,” you will be lost.) I could never connect with these Pandoran characters.
Cameron’s staging of action sequences remains unparalleled, and that buys some goodwill, but by the end of the movie, I was left with Peggy’s Lee’s immortal question: “Is that all there is?”
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER
Directed by James Cameron. Written by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Jack Champion, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Bliss, Kate Winslet, and Sigourney Weaver. 192 minutes. At AMC Boston Common 19, Landmark Kendall Square, Regal Fenway & RPX, and suburban theaters. Rated PG-13 (violence, profanity, partial nudity, blue and otherwise)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.