Avatar: The Way of Water

I was in no hurry to see this long-gestating Avatar sequel. I found the first Avatar to be one big cliché – sometimes exciting but mostly corny and dumb. Dances with Wolves in space. Noting that it fell off the cultural radar so soon after it conquered the box office, I wondered, as many did, whether audiences would really be interested in Avatar 2, especially since it's been thirteen years since its predecessor came and went. Well, audiences were interested in Avatar 2: it made two billion dollars at the global box office within a month. Current score: Slobs: 2, Snobs: 0.

Since I recently signed up to be an AMC Theatres "A List" member, for $25 a month I get to see a dozen movies for free, even 3-D IMAX presentations. Since Avatar 2 – officially Avatar: The Way of Water – is the only game in town right now that deserves such a venue, I decided to drag my skeptical bones to a matinee.

Surprise: I liked this sequel significantly more than the original. That's not to say I think Avatar 2 is an instant classic. But it's far more original and interesting than the first one.

Some credit must go to the four additional writers hired by Cameron: Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno helped him shape the story, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver cowrote the screenplay with him. So many cooks in the kitchen would ordinarily produce a watered-down stew, but these four scribes clearly took Avatar 2's story to better places than Cameron could have on his own.

This time, some years have passed since the events of the first Avatar, and human-turned-Na'vi Jake Sully (motion-captured Sam Worthington) is now living peacefully on pastoral Pandora with his Na'vi wife Neytiri (mocap Zoe Saldaña) and their four kids. But now the planet-killing Earthlings are returning – no longer in search of the mineral unobtainium, which isn't even mentioned this time out, but with plans to colonize Pandora itself. This not-so-little detail is almost thrown away in the dialogue, but I assume it will take precedence in the inevitable Avatar 3.

There are two things James Cameron is brilliant at: staging action sequences and giving us a truly detestable bad guy. Since Stephen Lang's murderous Marine Miles Quaritch made for such a great villain in Avatar, it's no surprise that Cameron and his writers found a way to bring him back from the dead: now his rotten soul is inside a Na'vi body. It's a contrivance, to be sure, but Avatar 2 runs with it. And with space whalers taking the place of space miners, we have even more baddies to loathe. (It says a lot about the film's technology that I found myself caring more for a computer-generated space whale than I did for any of the humanoid characters.) Add to that a change of Pandora scenery and a plot that focuses more on Jake and Neytiri's kids – usually a jump-the-shark decision that would ruin a sequel, but since Worthington and Saldaña didn't have much chemistry to begin with, it works – the screenplay opens up a lot of new avenues.

Ironically, the one thing that failed for me was the IMAX 3-D presentation, the way Cameron wants us to see the movie. Some shots looked incredibly lifelike and cinematic, others totally fake and like a video game. It varied widely, shot by shot throughout the film, and was distracting.

Regardless, I was won over enough to be on board for Avatar 3, whenever it comes out.