Rating: 5 out of 5.

I will never forget the first time I went to see the original Avatar in 2009. Working at AMC theaters at the time, I was of course privy to free tickets; I made a family event out of it, sure to travel to Pandora a total of four times while it was playing in theaters. It became a comfort watch at home, and one of my mother’s favorites to revisit. Now, almost exactly thirteen years later, the long-awaited follow up once again co-written and directed by James Cameron himself is finally here in all its splendid, eye-popping glory. I tried my hardest to temper my expectations as the film’s release finally inched closer to becoming a reality. First announced in 2010, Avatar: The Way of Water is a technical marvel, an emotionally-moving environmental love letter, and a riveting family drama rolled into one intoxicating fantasy/action masterpiece.

In the wake of facing off against the dastardly Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, Don’t Breathe), Jake’s consciousness was permanently transferred into his Avatar body during the conclusion of the first Avatar. Now, Jake (Sam Worthington, Clash of the Titans) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Guardians of the Galaxy) are just trying to raise a family while juggling the challenges of leading the forest Na’vi people. Jake rules over them as the sixth Toruk Makto, but his reign doesn’t come without its fair share of challenges. The first chunk of Avatar: The Way of Water catches us up on their whole unit—two boys and two girls, plus a vital outlier.

There’s reckless youngster Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), his responsible goody-two-shoes older brother, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters, The School for Good and Evil), the youngest daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and the fascinating, mystically-mysterious daughter of the first film’s Dr. Grace Augustine, Kiri (a digitally de-aged Na’vi version of Sigourney Weaver). Once the leader of the Avatar program, Grace’s body is now left floating in a form of cryogenic suspension—Kiri is just as curious and nature-obsessed as her mother once was, though her differences seen as a half breed are major roadblocks for her self esteem. Also along for the ride is Quaritch’s abandoned son, Spider (Jack Champion, the upcoming Scream VI), who has grown up with the Na’vi and Jake’s family in particular over the years since his father’s untimely passing.

Quaritch returns in a surprising way that doesn’t just feel like a rehash of either the story beats or central motivations of his character we have previously seen. Vengeance is the name of the game here. Stephen Lang is far less one-note than the first time around, mainly thanks to a believable bond he has with Spider. Though Quaritch sees red when it comes to Jake, he doesn’t just stop there. His crosshairs are on the whole family unit. Jake comes to the unfortunate realization that the only way to escape Quaritch’s clutches will be to completely abandon their forest tribe and his mantle as Toruk Makto. Massive ultra-smart whale-like creatures called Tulkun become targets of Quaritch’s rampage, as he thinks it will drive the Sullys out of hiding. By keeping the actual narrative itself more of a simple affair, Cameron allows the filmmaking to lean hard into the dazzling spectacle of Pandora’s locales and creatures.

Focusing this time on the reefs and waters of Pandora, Cameron is able to open a whole new book on the mythology and ecosystem of the planet and its various tribes. The Tulkun are my favorite of the new ones, mainly driven by their bold connections to the Na’vi at large. Lo’ak’s bond with an outcast Tulkun is one of The Way of Water’s most successful plot threads. I fell in love with the animals, and tensed up at the slightest hint of danger. A new tribe led by Ronal (Kate Winslet, Titanic) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis, Fear the Walking Dead) make their mark, and as soon as they arrive, The Way of Water suddenly finds its sweet spot. An often slow build of character mashups makes the path to a nearly hour-long finale that much more satisfying. In the home stretch, Cameron gives new meaning to the word “iconic.”

If I had to really nitpick, the only hole I could poke in this flawless epic would be that the dialogue is occasionally clunky. I could think of many better insults than using “butthole” twice, but I do understand that at the end of the day this is still PG-13 rated family entertainment. At just over three hours long, Avatar: The Way of Water is an impressive, potent, fast-moving juggernaught that still manages to leave room for intimate character moments. My favorite of the new ones are Spider, Lo’ak, and Kiri, the latter of whom manages to completely steal the show, delivering one of Weaver’s best performances to date in the process.

If one may be curious as to the best format to see Avatar: The Way of Water with so many different options available, I can highly suggest going out of one’s way to watch in 3D with high frame rate. It gives depth, crispness, and smooth fluidity to the motion, especially during action sequences, and is so seamless that it is one of the few 3D features I have seen in years that didn’t give me an instant migraine. A full immersion into the world of Pandora makes me instantly interested in whatever Cameron has planned next for Avatar 3-5. If they are even a fraction as show-stopping as these first two entries, we are in for some serious excellence. Were my mom still with us, I would take her to see this one again and again. One thing is for sure: in ten year’s time, I will still remember how The Way of Water made me feel. If the tale’s imprint on the mind isn’t a definite stamp of quality, I don’t know what is.

Avatar: The Way of Water sends ripples into theaters everywhere on Friday, December 16th.

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