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Is Avatar: The Way Of Water Better Than The Original?

Contains spoilers for "Avatar: The Way of Water."

The ponytails have been braided, and the papyrus font has been dusted off after 13 years as James Cameron takes to alien seas in "Avatar: The Way of Water." After almost a decade of development, the sequel to the biggest blockbuster ever has arrived. While the obvious question is whether or not it's a good film, the other query is if it's as good as its predecessor as well. The age-old requirement for sequels, after all, is bigger and better. While that might be tricky for some, for Cameron, it should be no sweat, having already done it twice with a pair of his earlier projects, considered some of the best sequels ever made (even if one is slightly better).

But in the hands of the master of big screen movie magic, how does his new film "Avatar: The Way of Water" fare against what came before? Given that the time between the two movies equates to a trip to and from Pandora with spare time to set up a space service station in between, you'd think any kinks and issues from Jake Sully's (Sam Worthington) first adventure would be ironed out. Time heals all wounds, after all, even the CGI ones. In the end, though, the case of which one of Cameron's excessively aqua-tinted franchise installments is better is clear as a cup of water but far harder to swallow.

Avatar: The Way of Water is the visual successor — but that's all

Straight out the gate, it's indisputable that "Avatar: The Way of Water" is visually 20,000 leagues or more ahead of Cameron's first chapter of the Pandora-set story he's so set on telling. Much like Jake's first trip in his avatar body, your eyes will take time to adjust to the second visit to this world thanks to its high-frame-rate polish that turns the screen into more of a window, just as "The Hobbit" trilogy and "Gemini Man" did (via /Film). By the time you're settled in, you're back to being amazed by the imagery on display and the brilliantly believable creatures and characters running around in it. Then Cameron heads under the sea and sets us up for even more spectacular scenery.

When Jake and his family take a dip, you'll find yourself holding your breath or leaning back from the screen as the local marine life swims by. Cameron has always had his eye on technological developments in cinema, and it's clear here that it's been on the ball this whole time. Every splash and sprinkle of the wet stuff on the Na'vi, good or bad, adds a layer of realism that is incredibly impressive. Even so, it's in the story for "Way of Water" that it flounders besides the original film, which is an even grander offense than most sequels given what came before.

Avatar doesn't bog itself down with plot holes and loose threads

Sure, "Avatar" might echo the likes of "Dances with Wolves," but at least there were pieces in the space Smurf movie that tried to bring a new twist on a tired formula. With that in mind, it makes the recycled sections from that film washing up in "The Way of Water" all the more egregious. The film takes the easy route of setting up the same issues the head of the family endured the last time. Locals laugh at the outsiders who struggle to learn their ways, even down to similar dialogue (Cliff Curtis' Tonowari compares them to being babies as Neytiri did in the first film). But the sequel's notable fumbles aren't the story segments it retreads but the new plot details it skims over entirely.

The new film houses characters that are either brought back from the dead all casual-like or are the offspring of characters that were never revealed in 2009. It leads to complex and interesting character dynamics that are itching to get dissected and left overlooked, cutting off the chance for side stories we never see. In the end, "The Way of Water" leaves us with more questions than answers, whereas the predecessor, while imitating previous films, still manages to stand on its own. Kind of.

The Way of Water drowns its biggest stars

The other perk Cameron's first Na'vi-infested film has against its follow-up is a balanced attention to its characters. The 2009 film isn't spread so thin that heroes or villains are totally erased, but "The Way of Water" fumbles with this in a very frustrating fashion. Relationships, wrought with friction or not, get far too little screen time, with rivalries or losses feeling unearned or grossly underplayed.

This is another vital sign that Cameron's latest is suffering from pressure to become a greater franchise, whereas "Avatar," for all its faults, is a movie that stands alone. It never held its cards to its chest, waiting for future installments to show what was in its hand as is so annoyingly teased here. The first movie was, without exaggerating, a must-see moment in cinema history, fitting perfectly in line with Cameron's M.O. But with cast members like Kate Winslet (who plays Ronal in the new film) and Zoe Saldana barely getting screen time in a movie spanning over three hours, it's more a baffling attempt at something bigger than it needs to be. In the end, just adding water simply isn't enough.