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Movie Review: 'Avatar: The Way of Water'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"Avatar: The Way Of Water" opens this week on close to 54,000 screens worldwide. It's the sequel to the highest-grossing film in movie history, and filmmaker James Cameron says he waited 13 years to make it so that film technology could catch up with his vision of the moon Pandora. Here's critic Bob Mondello to tell us, without spoilers, how that vision plays out.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: More than a decade has passed since the Na'vi sent Pandora's invading humans packing, and their world seems to have more or less healed. The rainforests are as lush as you remember and is filled with digitized wonders. Jake Sully, the first film's hero, having given up his human body for his avatar one, is now tall, blue and handsome on a permanent basis, and proud papa to four kids who call him sir and follow his orders...

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JAMIE FLATTERS: (As Neteyam) I'm a warrior like you. I'm supposed to fight.

MONDELLO: ...Intermittently. His wife, Neytiri, has to remind him occasionally that they're his family, not his squad. But everything's basically fine until just a few minutes into the movie, they spot what looks like a new star in the heavens and realize that the sky people are back. Now, may I just say right here that I don't much like wearing 3D glasses. But when the sky people lit up the forest as they were landing and sparks floated persuasively enough out into the auditorium to have me briefly worrying about the hair of the woman sitting in front of me, I decided I was on board. The visuals in this movie are astonishing, everything you'll have heard and then some, especially when Sully realizes that the humans are after him personally and he and his family join another branch of the Na'vi...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER")

MONDELLO: ...A beach-dwelling turquoise clan that spends a good deal of its time underwater. This being submerged part is the technological advance James Cameron was apparently waiting on, and it's plenty dazzling. I mean, he's already made "Titanic" and "The Abyss," so he knows his way around a wading pool. But between the tattooed four-eyed whales and the rideable flying fish, he's arguably treading new water here - not so much in the plot department where he's recycling everything from "Moby Dick" and "Finding Nemo" to his own greatest hits reel, whole scenes that could have been lifted from "Aliens," "Terminator" and "Titanic." That said, in between the battles and breathtaking visuals, there are clever touches that have nothing to do with images, as when he brings back folks who died in the first "Avatar" - Sigourney Weaver's scientist, for instance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER")

SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (As Grace Augustine) It's like the entire biosphere of Pandora is aware and capable of this cognitive response.

MONDELLO: Her spirit now presents as Sully's adopted Na'vi daughter...

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SAM WORTHINGTON: (As Jake Sully) What is it?

WEAVER: (As Kiri) I feel her, Dad.

MONDELLO: ...An environmentally sensitive 14-year-old...

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WORTHINGTON: (As Jake Sully) Feel who?

WEAVER: (As Kiri) Eywa.

MONDELLO: ...Voiced by Sigourney Weaver.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER")

WEAVER: (As Kiri) I hear her breathing. I hear her heartbeat.

MONDELLO: While I shouldn't go into specifics, for long stretches, this movie belongs to the kids. Think young adult fiction. As lessons are learned, rivalries morph into friendships with the more aquatic teens...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER")

FILIP GELJO: (As Aonung) Keep up, forest boy.

MONDELLO: ...And things get set up for "Avatars" three, four and five. The concentration on family is new this time, but the thing that stayed constant so far is the filmmaker's obviously sincere passion about the environment. It was there at the start, Pandora's ecosystem in perfect balance until the arrival of humans, and "Avatar: Way Of Water" doubles down on that notion - no more talk of strip-mining unobtainium, possibly because it sounds silly. Now the reason humans have come to Pandora is they finally wrecked planet Earth and need a new planet to despoil. That, as Cameron is well aware 13 years after the first "Avatar," doesn't sound silly at all. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.