It takes less time to discuss what is different about The Way of Water in relation to its predecessor than to point out the two films’ similarities. The sequel is armed with a sharper but still simplistic script. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) doesn’t dominate the screen time this go around; it’s much more of an ensemble piece. The villain has a more personable connection to the plot, and the stakes are simultaneously scaled down while feeling more emotionally tangible. Yet, this is still an Avatar movie, and Avatar is going to Avatar. So whatever you liked or disliked about Avatar (2009), don’t worry – there are more helpings and larger portions on the menu this time around. The sequel takes the first film and turns the dial up to 12. This isn’t The Empire Strikes Back, and this is Star Wars 2.

That, however, is not a criticism but an explanation of a gonzo sequel that embraces all of its idiosyncrasies. In an era of big-budget filmmaking, where franchises are course-correcting and apologizing for past movies in response to criticism, James “Call me Hov or Jefe” Cameron has doubled down on his grand vision. This time, the humans have returned to the lush moon of Pandora, set on outright colonization. But that’s not the story here. No, the story is much more personal than that, revolving around the return of Colonel Quaritch (a scene-chewing Stephen Lang). He’s a ghost, brought back from the dead by way of a Na’vi memory transplant. Quaritch has revenge on his mind; he needs to track down that turncoat Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), and Jake’s wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). The old Jake Sully wouldn’t hesitate to throw down… but he has a family now, including five children. At this point, The Way of Water becomes a story about how Jake’s life got flipped upside down. Sully’s instinct this time is to run. Quaritch’s instinct is to kill everyone and everything that’s in the way of his path to Sully… or so we think.

The premise is familiar but intriguing. It turns the sequel into something of an action thriller – the heartless bad guy chasing after the on-the-run, virtuous hero. However, the story is but a slingshot point to showcase the film’s groundbreaking visuals. The Way of Water is a better-looking movie than the original by leaps and bounds. It should already permeate the shortlist of the most beautiful and immersive films ever made. Not only has Cameron’s team reached a new plateau for believability in motion capture, but the color gamut and depth of field on display are astonishing. There are money shots in this movie that aren’t even trying to be money shots. Sometimes, it’s just two characters walking on a beach or having a private conversation. And those moments still pop with visual zest.

The characters’ appearances are more defined and symmetrical. When Cameron introduces another breed of Na’vi, the fish-like Metkayina whom Sully’s family seeks out for refuge, they’re a cooler design than our forest-occupying protagonists. They have sturdier physiques, rounder faces, and more variance in hairstyles. Jake, Neytiri, and their young children must deal with the learning curve of a new environment, culture, and population that is perfectly equipped to embrace the ocean. In fact, some of the Metkayina mock the forest people for their inability to swim in Pandora’s immaculate sea. But unlike the Metkayina, the Sully clan can still glow in the dark with those dots on their faces. Take that, Bikini Bottom!

The Sully kids, some of whom are biological children and some adopted, take center stage and are afforded more characterization than their already established parents. They’re being set up as the featured players in possible sequels. The most curious of which is Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born of a mysterious birth from the deceased avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine (also Sigourney Weaver). In the first film, Augustine believed that Pandora had a conscience and a soul that operated like something of a global computer network. One that could hold the histories, memories, spirits, and personalities of all that inhabit it. Kiri, by contrast, is less a student of Pandora’s mysterious network but instead has that connection between mind and planet baked into her very being. There are echoes of the Chosen One myth, along with hints of an inner power reminiscent of a young Gohan or even Neo. Kiri is the most memorable of the Sully children, as Weaver gives a particularly weird yet captivating performance. The character is the embodiment of the movie’s themes of symbiosis.

No pun intended, but James Cameron is not an under-the-surface filmmaker. The most notorious bit of subtext within his filmography, that Aliens (1986) is a narrative about motherhood, isn’t really subtext at all. It’s a loud, obvious theme that announces itself throughout that movie with the subtlety of footsteps from a mech suit. Even the idea of the T-1000 as a warning that you shouldn’t trust the police is pretty obvious to anyone over the age of 12. Both Avatar movies have thus far displayed a harmonious link between the environment and its inhabitants; it’s a saga about environmentalism, and Cameron is determined to make that as apparent as possible. Just as overt is the criticism of colonialism and military aggression. When Quaritch takes an unwilling captive under his wing, his actions read like an eery recruitment tactic.

In the original, Cameron clearly abhorred the actions of the villainous militia. But in this film, he seems to be all right mocking them. It’s much clearer that their jarhead antics are intended as parodies, as they shout out meaningless expressions of bravado. One scene sees them earnestly chuckling at a deliberately lame joke, and we’re meant to laugh at (not with) them. But these are stock characters; the antagonist with the actual development is Quaritch. The movie demonstrates clearly that Cameron’s big bad is a more exciting character than Jake Sully. This is partly because Sully’s wants were mostly satisfied in the last film. Quaritch is the guy with all the wants now, and it leads to obsession.

But I’d argue that the villain has very little interest, at this point, in colonizing Pandora. That’s just for show; the revenge on Jake Sully is driving the plot. An interesting moment happens when the Colonel views the remains of his past self – a paradoxically trippy experience. He makes a point to figuratively and literally crush his former self, the one who failed. Quaritch takes great shame in his previous downfall and must prove he’s the better Marine, the better soldier than his adversary. This is about ego and honor… or at least, a sick perversion of it. If the villains received news that Jake had suddenly died of natural causes, I wouldn’t be surprised if Quaritch had just packed up all of his stuff and gone home. The thrill would be gone.

It’s this tension, combined with a visual flare that makes looking away from the screen a perilous task, that lifts The Way of Water to become an unbelievably arresting theatrical experience. Its use of 3D takes hold of you like a harness. The underwater effects and gargantuan sea creatures are as close to an actual beach vacation as a movie can bring you. The motion and weight of the various characters/creatures are an improvement on the original. It’s less than 100% photo-realistic (although it gets close) and more than your eye believes in the reality you’re seeing. However, it doesn’t have to look like our world in order to feel real. The sound editing, which will remain an underrated aspect of watching this movie, is some of the best you’ll hear in a blockbuster. When machine guns are firing or ships are crashing down on the water, the amount of piercing clarity is almost even more immersive than the film’s distracting visuals. Combined with a great score, the film’s setpieces are genre-defining and well worth the 13 years of prep needed to get the technology to this point.

The characters are reminiscent of various other stories, but it works. Not because it’s revolutionary but because Cameron is a workmanlike storyteller focused on efficiency and execution rather than narrative innovation. However, not all of the characterization goes smoothly. It does get a bit annoying seeing Jake undermine Neytiri at every turn (you know, the one who taught him everything he knows in the original). But it’s almost made up for when Neytiri has a moment of purely violent catharsis. She’s truly a new action icon now, as this is now two movies in a row where the character has stolen the show on the battlefield.

Some of the dialogue is rote and over the top, particularly from a young human character named Spider (Jack Champion), who must have gone to the Beyoncé school of CAPS LOCK ACTING. Yet, I was charmed by The Way of Water to the point that even its corny moments didn’t bother me. That is not a grace I can afford the original. The sequel proves that embracing itself is actually the best way forward for this franchise. The Way of Water is not going to be confused with something as complex as The Resort or Severance. It’s a throwback, reminiscent of serials or Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. For all the smack talk about Dances With Smurfs, Avatar is just as much a homage to adventurous works like Tarzan… but without all that Eugenics nonsense.

In fact, Cameron argues quite the opposite, that you can adapt, as Jake Sully says at one point. Even the antagonist has shown evidence of adaptation. There’s also a strong moment near the end, where two characters are at a stalemate. However, one of them makes a crucial action, drawing out the true emotions of the other. We discover something about the latter character and are left to wonder if the former would have gone through with their consequential action if they weren’t interrupted. That’s a level of nuance that some would say these movies are incapable of. But James Cameron knows what he wants from this project; it is a saga that is spearheading the future of filmmaking technology in order to recapture a feeling from the past. To once again interrogate the emotions and truths that other space operas and epic spectacles have come to know: war becomes a lot harder once family is involved.

As should be expected, considering who’s behind the camera, The Way of Water has to go down as one of those sequels that surpasses its original. In fact, I don’t even think they’re in the same league. One example of this movie’s power happens to be one of the best stretches of screentime in a film this year, matching some of the moments of spectacle in the likes of Top Gun: Maverick or Everything Everywhere All At Once. Yet, it all starts with a reference to JAWS (1975). You’re thinking… really? In a movie called The Way of Water, he’s really going to reference JAWS? But as much of an eye roll as that idea is on paper, the scene is actually great. I was so caught up in the moment I’d forgotten why the character on-screen was being chased in the first place. That’s how good this movie is – it makes a blatant JAWS reference and gets away with it. When you’re great, you don’t have to apologize.