Free Willy in space
I have mixed feelings about this film - I loved the experience, but I still think the first one was better and more focused.
From the start, The Way of Water tries very hard to differentiate itself from its predecessor. After a brief prologue sequence recounting the aftermath of Avatar, we are treated to a sudden time skip that parallels the real life wait for the sequel. Instead of Jake Sully the warrior newcomer, we now see Jake Sully the experienced commander and father, accompanied by a dizzying number of new child characters who take centre stage. Each of these children has their own personality, goals, backstory and connections, from the mysterious Kiri to the (admittedly hard to tell apart) brothers to the indecisive Spider to the little Tuk. The film takes time to really establish their interactions and make them act like a family, before thrusting them into entirely new circumstances, making the story feel quite fresh and averting my fears that it would just be a repeat of the first film.
Once the Sully family exiles themselves to some remote islands, the film throws in even more characters and doubles the size of the cast. I don't remember their names, I just remember that one of them had the broccoli haircut, and of course I had to take a star off for that. If it sounds overstuffed at this point, you'd be right. In its attempt to do every character and plotline justice, the film starts to drag. Demoted back to newcomers, the family gets to grips with their new environment and builds bonds with the new tribe and each other, which is also an opportunity to revel in underwater scenery. This is when the film shines, but also when its three hour runtime becomes obvious.
By the final act, the film has explored the setting of Pandora far beyond the confines of the forest in the first film, yet the stakes feel smaller. The action scenes are intense and non-stop, yet the only thing at risk in the battle is a whaling ship and the hostages, a far cry from the entire planetary intelligence in the previous installment. The climactic fistfight between Jake and the resurrected Quaritch is far less dramatic than the battle in the first film. This move to a smaller scope is probably deliberate, as the film wants us to focus on Jake's family, and it pays off as we know each member intimately by the end and feel like we have grown alongside them.
The sequel's strength is how it (almost) balances its many juggling acts. It makes an effort to connect with the storyline of the first film, yet also presents the audience with a barrage of new material. Long time fans will be pleased to see familiar characters and settings alongside the previously unseen oceans and creatures of Pandora (the film's creators know that we've seen hours of the forests already). It also makes an effort to present a satisfying and self-contained story, yet also sets up storylines for the next sequels. Unanswered questions like Kiri's true nature or Spider's allegiance pique the interest of the audience without feeling like a cop-out. The individual plotlines of the characters are all balanced against each other and returning characters are given new roles to play, especially Quaritch, who feels far more interesting and fleshed out in this iteration. However, as mentioned, the film does get bloated when it tries to to explore so many characters, so perhaps this is one juggling act where it starts to drop the ball.
On the negative side, The Way of Water still inherits a lot of the first film's faults that the series just can't shake off. The humans are still cartoonishly evil and ludicrously inept, which makes the stakes unclear. The exhaust of a landing rocket incinerates the forest, leading to an even bigger base than before, instantly undoing the Na'vi's victory of the first film (why don't they always do that?). The humans and their technology are treated as an oppressive threat but are also dispatched with incredible ease (especially anybody sitting in a cockpit), depending on the needs of the script from scene to scene. Even the "elite" soldiers who are resurrected in Na'vi bodies fare little better than disposable fodder, dropping left, right and centre without posing a real challenge (other than a dated Vietnam War reference). We don't actually see the humans' motivations until about halfway through the movie, when an overzealous captain holds up a vial of a precious resource, cites a dollar amount and whines about quotas, in a scene directly ripped from the first movie. Despite its supposed importance, we never see this resource again. It's all so maddeningly simplistic.
I haven't yet addressed the elephant in the room - the visual effects. The effects in this film were so realistic that I wasn't consciously wowed or impressed, I was just totally immersed in the experience. I watched this film in Dolby 3D with high frame rate but I legitimately can't remember noticing anything in 3D or high frame rate because the immersion was too good (as strange as it sounds). When I came into this movie, I wasn't sure how special effects technology could possibly progress even more than current blockbusters, but James Cameron has outdone himself again and given us another leap ahead. This is probably the closest I'll get to seeing life on another planet until Avatar 3.
All in all, I do think this film was a good experience, but it was trying to do too many things at once, and was not as streamlined or personal as the first Avatar, which had a clear focus on Jake Sully rather than an entire ensemble. If the first film was Pocahontas in space, this one is Free Willy in space - and Moby Dick in space - and The Abyss in Space - and Titanic in space - and... you get the idea.