James Cameron's crowd-pleasing sequel is a spectacular technical achievement that, while overlong, manages to dazzle the senses enough to prove that the director is still a visionary. Avatar: The Way of Water isn't a movie you see for its layered, complicated plot. The storyline is simple, and the dialogue is mostly expository or cliché, particularly when Quaritch talks. But it doesn't quite matter, because Cameron puts the movie's $350 million budget to remarkable use in all of the underwater sequences, the incredible creature effects, and the overall immersive return to Pandora. It's worth seeing on the biggest screen possible, in 3D if you can. Yes, the three-hour-plus runtime is long, but it's easy to get lost in the movie's memorable world-building. The motion-capture performances are fascinating to behold, and Winslet and Curtis are welcome additions to the cast. Of the young actors, Dalton stands out as Neytiri and Jake's troublemaking younger son, Lo'ak, who befriends an outcast tulkun (the sacred alien whales). Also worth noting is Jack Champion as Spider, the human boy raised among the Na'vi but whose mask marks him as different. His bond with Kiri, who's also a little bit different, seems headed toward romance, but it's too early to tell (not to mention complicated).
Lang's Quaritch is only slightly less unhinged in this installment than he was in the first film. But he's far from the only antagonist. The Na'vi face seemingly insurmountable odds as the humans' tech gets better and deadlier. The action sequences come mostly in the third act, but there are moments of pulse-pounding peril throughout that will make audiences clutch their seats (or their partners). There's even an extended ship-sinking sequence that's reminiscent of Titanic, right down to how people grip the railing and hold their breath as areas flood. While there's no Pandoran quartet playing classical music, composer Simon Franglen uses the late James Horner's original themes to create an evocative score as the Na'vi fight for their lives. With Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron and cinematographer Russell Carpenter have created something monumental in scope, so much so that the movie's flaws don't prevent it from being stunning.