James Cameron hasn’t made a movie since the first Avatar in 2009. You may wonder what he’s been doing for the last 13 years — until you watch this sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, which very much feels like a decade’s worth of accumulated ideas crammed into a single, wildly ambitious (and slightly overstuffed) film. It’s jammed with massive action sequences, weird alien lifeforms, and a heartfelt message about the power of family and the importance of living in harmony with the natural world. If all goes as planned, The Way of Water will be the first of four Avatar sequels James Cameron makes over the next six years — but it doesn’t seem like Cameron held anything back for the next three Avatars.

Rather than pretend like no time has passed — which Cameron could have conceivably done since the Avatar cast is mostly a bunch of blue-skinned aliens — The Way of Water works the passage of time into its premise. After a prologue, we return to the planet of Pandora, the native home of said blue-skinned aliens, the Na’vi. The new story follows Avatar’s hero — human Marine turned alien tribal leader Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) — as he struggles to maintain the outer space equivalent of domestic bliss with his Na’vi wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

As they years pass, their family grows to include five kids; three biological and two adopted. One of the latter is Kiri, a teenage Na’vi who was mysteriously born of the “Avatar” — i.e. a lab-grown alien body piloted remotely by a human being — of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a human scientist who died helping the Na’vi in the first film. (The 73-year-old Weaver now plays Kiri through the use of motion-capture technology.) Jake and Neytiri’s other adopted child is Spider (Jack Champion), a human who was orphaned by the events of Avatar and raised by the couple at a certain remove — at least by Neytiri, who doesn’t quite trust Spider despite his close relationships with the couple’s other children, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).  AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER20th Century Studios

Spider may technically be human, but he dresses and acts like a Na’vi; in concept, he’s the inverse of Jake from the first film, who looked like a Na’vi, but had the mentality and perspective of an earthling. And the complex nature of these characters’ identities and allegiances forms a lot of the drama in The Way of Water’s story, which is credited to Cameron and a team of four other writers. Although the Na’vi expelled the human colonists from Pandora at the end of the original Avatar, they make their inevitable return here, with far greater strength and even more intimidating weapons. (Their leaders in The Way of Water include Edie Falco as a no-nonsense general, and Stephen Lang as Col. Miles Quaritch, Jake’s callous commanding officer turned nemesis from the first film.)

Avatar became the highest-grossing motion picture in history on the basis of its stunning, groundbreaking visuals, and its immersive 3D photography. Cameron waited so long to make this sequel that his competitors and their mediocre faux-3D films essentially killed the market he built for stereoscopic cinema. If audiences returns for The Way of Water, they’ll see how the format is meant to look, with a thoroughly convincing illusion of multiple dimensions, and some truly vertiginous digital aerial photography. AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER20th Century Studios

But the first Avatar did have some other elements missing from The Way of Water besides sheer visual novelty. Cameron’s original Avatar conceit was much more dreamlike, with Jake Sully’s consciousness leaping out of his own paralyzed body and into his Na’vi “Avatar.” He would wander the forests of Pandora, romance Neytiri, then return to his “real” body when his Avatar slept. That back-and-forth lent the whole movie a more surreal tone — and tapped into viewers’ subconscious desires for freedom and adventure, escape and romance. While there are a couple of human characters in The Way of Water, Jake himself is now fully Na’vi, and he no longer bounces between two worlds or existences.

Instead, The Way of Water casts him as a paranoid family man. While his Pandoran surroundings remain as vibrant and otherworldly as ever, his struggles are much more grounded — and sometimes even mundane. Cameron takes great pains to show that the struggles of marriage are universal no matter the color of your skin or the number of fingers on your hands. Jake and Neytiri still have to contend with venal human colonizers and uncanny alien creatures — most of them aquatic in nature once the Sullys resettle amongst a clan of “reef people.” But they also have to deal with domestic squabbles and trying to make time for “date nights” while raising a brood of reckless kids. If Avatar was an escapist fantasy, Avatar: The Way of Water is much more an allegorical tale about the weight of paternal responsibility.

At three hours and 15 minutes, it’s also a whole long longer than Avatar. If anyone was looking over Cameron’s shoulder giving notes, making suggestions for cuts, they didn’t have much sway. In addition to the main storyline about Jake, Neytiri, and their family trying to find a safe home on Pandora, there are subplots involving teen romances, ongoing mysteries involving the Kiri and Spider’s parentages, and the bond between one of Jake’s sons and a sentient alien whale. AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER20th Century Studios

There’s also a lengthy middle section where the Sullys learn the ways of the reef people that essentially amounts to an anthropological film about an alien world. (Call it “Interplanetary Geographic”.) As in every scene in The Way of Water, this sequence is made with staggering attention to detail; every tree, fish, and coral reef seems painstakingly considered and designed. But if Cameron had wanted to turn The Way of Water into two (or three?) films all by itself, he easily could have — and the overall experience might have been more satisfying that way.

All of that could make The Way of Water a tougher sell with some audiences, especially younger ones. If the movie crosses over and connects with moviegoers of all ages it will be because of its amazing images and action. In the years since the first Avatar, epic blockbusters have only gotten more elaborate and more frequent, until they now represent almost all of the movies Hollywood studios release in theaters. But few of them can hold a candle to the incredible technical dexterity flexed by Cameron and his special effects artists here. They are, literally and figuratively, on another planet from everyone else working in this realm. AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER20th Century Studios

The Way of Water builds to an epic aquatic conflict between the humans and the Na’vi that, at least on paper, is very similar to the one at the end of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever between the forces of the land-based Wakanda and water-based Talokan. And yet The Way of Water’s version of this sort of sequence is so much more intense, so much clearer, and so much more convincing in its conjuring of a wholly artificial reality. At times, you’d swear James Cameron actually found an inhabited alien world and shot a movie there.

Of course, part of that discrepancy has to do with the fact that Marvel churns out three movies and three TV shows a year, and Cameron spent the majority of the last 13 years working on just this Avatar and its upcoming sequels. His meticulous craftsmanship shows in every amazing sequence like that final battle at sea. If the story occasionally seems a bit all over the place, well, there are worse things in the world than a filmmaker throwing every last morsel of creativity into his work. You can’t say The Way of Water doesn’t give you your money’s worth, especially in the visual department. This thing’s got enough eye candy to give you ocular diabetes.

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