A star rating of 3 out of 5.

Those clamouring for a return to the moon world of Pandora are well served by Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s belated sequel to his own 2009 sci-fi blockbuster. With its bioluminescent flora and fauna, its enchanting creatures, and its stunning vistas, Pandora remains an immersive world in which to lose oneself.

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For all the majesty of its setting, though, this long and somewhat meandering sequel frequently struggles to match its visuals with an emotionally satisfying story.

Set years after the events of Avatar, the film picks up with chieftain Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) as they raise their young family. Dutiful eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) is often caught between his parents and his tearaway brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), while Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) is a sensitive enigma whose birth is shrouded in mystery.

When humans return to the moon, more determined than ever to claim it as a new base for mankind, Jake and his family are forced to flee their jungle home. They find sanctuary with the Metkayina clan, an oceanic tribe that lives on one of the many islands of Pandora. But with the humans on a mission to kill Jake, it’s not long before war breaks out once more.

Having directed two of the most successful sequels of all time (Aliens and Terminator: Judgment Day), Cameron has form with follow-ups – and Avatar: The Way of Water is packed to the gills with exactly the kind of spectacle you expect from the blockbuster director. Between a na’vi sea assault and a genuinely nerve-shredding climax, the film delivers action on a massive scale.

Meanwhile, delving into a new corner of Pandora gifts the film with an ocean of riches to explore, and the narrative comes alive in its moments of discovery. The Sully kids’ first dive below the surface is truly magical, as they encounter all manner of underwater organisms. And a moment involving an alien sea predator is breathtaking.

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It’s just a shame that the same care and attention wasn't spent on developing the characters. There are returning faces aplenty (including Stephen Lang’s snarling jarhead from the first film, now in a new incarnation), plus an array of newcomers.

It’s a vast cast to keep track of and, sadly, meaningful character interplay is often sacrificed in favour of set-pieces.

Avatar: The Way of Water
Avatar: The Way of Water. Disney

Of the newbies, Spider (Jack Champion) is one of the most interesting – a human boy born on Pandora, he grew up alongside the Sully clan, ostensibly part of the family. While his own complicated family history forms a key part of the plot, it remains only lightly sketched, with little attempt to explore the deeper ramifications of his situation.

Meanwhile, many of the female characters are short-changed – surprising, given Cameron's track record for writing strong women.

Kate Winslet’s sea queen isn’t given much to do, and her daughter (Bailey Bass) is little more than a vacant love interest. Worst of all is the treatment of Neytiri. Presented in the original film as complex and powerful, she is here merely called upon to scream in horror or frustration at regular intervals.

When the film works, though, it really works. The technology has come on leaps and bounds since 2009, and the film is a non-stop feast for the eyes.

Meanwhile, the Sully children are engaging, with Kiri, in particular, presenting an endearing riff on the “teen weirdo” trope. (That’s no mean feat, given she’s portrayed in motion capture by the significantly older Sigourney Weaver.)

The sheer size of Avatar: The Way of Water makes for big entertainment. This is an intergenerational story about a family at war, and while Cameron is often content to skim the surface of his fascinating set-up, his commitment to the world of Pandora shines through.

With Avatar 3 due in cinemas in December 2024, another paddle in his digital pool would be welcome.

Read more: Kate Winslet held her breath for over 7 minutes filming Avatar scene

Avatar: The Way of Water is showing in UK cinemas from Friday 16th December 2022 and the original Avatar is available to view on Disney Plus – you can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 for a year now.

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