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Avatar: The Way of Water's creatures, lush sea world and 3D visuals upstage story in James Cameron's sodden sequel

Despite somehow reclaiming its crown as the highest-grossing movie of all time, James Cameron's 2009 sci-fi eco epic Avatar remains that most curious of phenomena: the $2 billion mega-smash that seemed to sink without a cultural trace, consigned to a weird dustbin of history alongside other late 00s ephemera – Black Eyed Peas CDs, white people wearing feathers at Coachella, star Sam Worthington's tribal arm tattoos.

Thirteen long years after the first film revolutionised the movie-going experience (read: kicked off a short-lived phase of 3D films) and introduced "I see you" to the cultural lexicon (wait: it didn't?), Cameron is back with Avatar: The Way of Water, the first in a proposed series of four sequels that the director – his trademark braggadocio in full flight – expects will change the way the world sees movies.

But will audiences be sufficiently dazzled by a computer-generated spectacle the way they were in the relatively more innocent days of 2009, before the landscape shifted toward endless, enervating superhero tentpoles loaded with visual effects that are denuded of wonder?

Will Worthington's marine-turned-blue-alien-native Jake Sully deliver his classic catchphrases "I got this", "Let's do it" and "Hell yeah"?

A generation has passed on Pandora, and Sully (Worthington) – or Toruk Makto, as he's known to the locals – is leading the native Na'vi people's resistance against the continued incursions of the rapacious, planet-mining humans they call the Sky People.

He and his wife Neytiri (a returning Zoe Saldaña) now have a brood of their own: teenage sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), eight-year-old daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and an adopted 14-year-old girl by the name of Kiri – a miraculous offspring of Sigourney Weaver's late Dr Grace Augustine, voiced and performed (via age-defying motion capture) by the 73-year-old Weaver herself.

Also in tow is Spider (Jack Champion), a feral human teenager who's inherited a legacy even more fraught than his white dreadlocks.

(There's not a whole lot to spoil in a plot that could be written on a proverbial cocktail napkin, but look away if you must.)

The Na'vi's semi-peaceful existence is soon disrupted by the return of a familiar threat in the shape of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the gung-ho human villain whose death in the first film hasn't prevented his consciousness from being uploaded into a Na'vi avatar and gathering a small army of marines to hunt down – and exact revenge upon – the traitorous Sully.

Fearing reprisals on the Na'vi, our hero and his family are driven into the realm of Pandora's sea people, where the action – and scene upon scene of visual effects show-reels – plays out for the better part of (brace yourself) 192 minutes.

The Sullys' new hosts, a Na'vi sea clan with aquamarine skin who look like a cross between a Māori tribe and the fish dude from The Shape of Water, give the film's early sequences something of the fun feel of a holiday family hangout: The host chief (Cliff Curtis) and his wife (Kate Winslet, certainly making a…choice with her accent) bicker with their new guests, while their teenage kids (Bailey Bass's Reya; Filip Geljo's Aonung) roast and flirt with their forest-dwelling peers.

The Way of Water's exploration of this new sea world is certainly ravishing in its immersiveness, especially in 3D, and rendered in the kind of state-of-the-art motion capture that puts most big-studio blockbusters to shame.

Translucent sea creatures glimmer and glow under water, ashes dance like fireflies toward the eye, skin textures are incredibly detailed; the tech is undeniably impressive, swinging between eye-pummelling, look-at-me gawping and more wondrous moments of grace.

This hyperreal, experiential sensation – filmed in an uncanny, sometimes exhilarating and speed-shifting high frame rate – is something Cameron was pushing toward in the first Avatar; a style that took its cues less from traditional filmmaking than the first-person immersion of video games.

Once again he's upped the ante for world-building – a somewhat unfortunate term that too often prizes visual spectacle over storytelling momentum and compelling characterisation.

Whenever the movie is plunging into the water alongside its menagerie of alien flying fish, or bringing its teenage characters together with mythical, four-eyed whales, it's a thing to behold, powered by Cameron's obvious delight in showing off his creation and his still-unmatched sense of spatial dynamics – few filmmakers direct action better, no more evident here than during an extended, waterlogged battle that tries to out-Titanic the director's 1997 classic.

It's a shame Cameron doesn't always possess the imagination to match his peerless, high-end technology.

The first time you see The Way of Water's undersea effects, it's pretty cool; five or six repetitious scenes later and it begins to feel like you're watching one of those old IMAX movies designed to show off the size and scope of the screen.

Cameron, who co-wrote the film's screenplay alongside Rise of the Planet of the Apes team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, remains shackled to an old-school form of narrative that clashes with his ambitions for mind-expanding cinema.

His storytelling, to put it kindly, is perfunctory, falling well short of his high-tech prowess.

Without even the first film's sense of new-world discovery, The Way of Water – like so many sequels – is content to repeat the beats of its predecessor, only louder, for longer, and with cosmetic changes to the action.

What good are the medium's most elaborate, awe-inspiring special effects if a film can't tell a story that's new, or alter the way an audience experiences narrative cinema?

If Cameron's point is that stories are as old as time, then his archetypes don't always succeed without sufficient emotional stakes.

For all of the performers' vividly rendered motion capture, the film's creatures have more personality – the whale is the real star – which comes as no surprise when so much of the character interaction relies on tired screenwriting cliches and action movie stand-offs.

His good intentions notwithstanding, Cameron still seems more comfortable in the film's violent, machismo-driven action sequences than those illustrating symbiosis with nature, the oneness of all life – a paradox that's long been at the heart of his work, which strives for humanism while clearly getting off on the thrill of dynamically deployed hardware.

And that's before we get to his unfortunate dialogue – "It's called a punch, bitch" goes one typical example – that's a little too gleefully executed for a filmmaker who claims that testosterone is a toxin. (A scene in which Sully calls his teenage daughter "baby girl", meanwhile, sends the cringe-o-meter way off the charts.)

An uncharitable reading might dismiss this as an old man's action picture in indigenous alien drag.

Those contradictions, of course, are what make these kinds of super-expensive, socially minded movies so fascinating – and, it might be argued, if Cameron has the power and clout to start a conversation about the ravages inflicted on the planet, or the plight of First Nations people, then why shouldn't he use it?

At the very least, with its flashy technological excess masquerading as a social benefit to humanity, it's the perfect blockbuster for the Elon Musk era.

Whether audiences will want to sit through three more of these – The Way of Water reportedly needs to bank $2 billion just to break even – is a mystery. But James Cameron's guess is probably better than anyone's. He's defied the odds before.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas now.

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