Astonish me! That's the command from audiences who've mostly deserted theaters since the pandemic. And astonishment is what James Cameron delivers in "Avatar: The Way of Water," an eye-popping, jaw-dropping, shoot-the-works spectacle that fills the screen to bursting.
As a sequel to 2009's "Avatar" -- at nearly $3 billion it's still the top grossing movie blockbuster of all time -- filling seats won't be a problem. Fulfilling expectations is another matter. "The Way of Water" is a big swing, that's for sure. But is bigger always better?
That's Hollywood heresy to Cameron, who lets us see every dime of the $350 million he spent on the first of four follow-ups to the magnum opus that made him king of the world. Actually 1997's "Titanic" did that, but you get my point. It's good to remember that Cameron works wonders with sequels -- think of his "Aliens" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."
"The Way of Water" pops with the thrilling visual astonishments Cameron unleashes over three hours and 12 minutes -- in high frame rate 3D -- but you can feel audiences keeping score. Can Cameron really do it again? Ha. Just try and stop him.
Still, it's a long sit. The movie drags in spots and Cameron hasn't lost his tin ear for dialogue. Then there's the Marvel Cinematic Universe distracting us in the 13 years since Cameron started work on this sequel. Do we even remember the characters from the original? Fear not. Cameron and his co-screenwriters spend the first hour of "The Way of Water" playing catch-up.
Sam Worthington is back as Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine who came to side with the Na'vi, the 10-feet tall, blue-skinned aliens on the moon planet of Pandora. Old Jake is now a Na'Vi chief intent on keeping humans, aka "sky people," from despoiling the Na'vi rainforest.
Jake and his warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now parent their own brood, biological and adopted. There are teen sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), baby sister Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and human teen Spider (Jack Champion).
If you find that confusing there's also Kiri, voiced by Sigourney Weaver whose scientist character Grace died in the first film but returns here to play her own 14-year-old daughter. Got that? Wait, there's more.
The vengeful and presumed dead Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is also back, his toxic consciousness now disguised in a Na'vi body. The military invasion of Pandora is now in the hands of General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco), who wreaks havoc from inside an exoskeleton.
Don't ask. Just know that the human invasion forces Sully and the family to retreat from land and head out to sea, where another Na'Vi tribe, the aquatic and initially hostile Metkayina, is led by Kate Winslet's Ronal. It's too much to hope that a blue-ish Leonardo DiCaprio might turn up for a "Titanic" reunion of Jack and Rose. For coming-of-age drama, you'll have to depend on Kiri and Lo'ak, who befriends one of the flying whales called tulkun, easily the film's most magical special effect.
To boil down the plot: Humans suck since they want to colonize Pandora and its indigenous people after destroying the environment on Earth. Na'vi sovereignty is worth fighting for. Cameron tops himself with underwater sequences that qualify as visionary miracles.
Sadly, the barely serviceable plot is no match for computer-generated effects that are spectacular in every sense of the word. How does the cast, most of whom are forced to act through motion-capture suits, even compete? Short answer: They can't. No performance manages to cut through the thick layer of technology.
Still, nobody does world building better than Cameron as he creates sights and sounds that belong in the cinema time capsule.
It's in character building that he comes up short. Shy on humor and short on subtlety and soul, his self-righteous epic condemns the human race in favor of the non-stop nobility displayed by digital Na'vi creatures. What's left for the rest of us besides pixel envy?
Back in 1989's "The Abyss," an under-appreciated gem, Cameron brought flesh-and-blood vulnerability to his indisputable showmanship on land and sea. No more. For all its powerhouse optics, "Avatar: The Way of Water" feels untouched by human hands.
But, oh, the dream worlds that dance in Cameron's head and now in ours. You've never seen anything like it in your life.