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AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER: 4 STARS. “James Cameron shoots for the moon.”

“Avatar: The Way of Water” harkens back to a time when Hollywood bigshots thought, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a 3D picture is worth a million words.” The original film, 2009’s “Avatar” was director James Cameron’s grand experiment in the audience’s tolerance for 2 hours 42 minutes of images popping off the screen.

Thirteen years ago, the million words theory worked. “Avatar” was a massive hit, grossing almost 3 billion dollars worldwide, as rumors of a series of sequels hung in the air. Delay after delay kept the blue people off screens for so long, four presidents came and went while Cameron tinkered with the story and the technology to bring his vision to life.

The tinkering is finally over. Cameron returns to theatres with the first of four planned sequels, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” an epic 3D sequel that mixes astonishing visuals with eye-rolling teenagers, a character with the b-movie name Z-Dog and a 3 hour and 12-minute tale of colonialism.

Set on Pandora, an Earth-like habitable extrasolar moon from the Alpha Centauri System populated by the Na’vi, the 9 to 10 feet tall Indigenous peoples, the movie picks up the action more than a decade after the events of the first film. Former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who left his human body behind to permanently become Na’vi, lives on the peaceful planet with wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and children.

Their idyll is interrupted with the return of the Sky People, humans who want to“pacify the hostiles” and takeover Pandora.

“Earth is dying,” says General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco). “Pandora is the new frontier.”

Despite having been killed off in the original, the Pandora-bound team is led by the ruthless Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a genetically engineered “recombinant” or avatar version of the late Marine, implanted with his mind and emotions. “We have been brought back in the form of our enemy,” he says of he and his team. He plans on taking Pandora at any cost, and getting revenge on Sully, who he sees as a traitor.

Forced into hiding with Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), Ronal (Kate Winslet) and the reef people clan of Metkayina, Sully and his family learn the way of water—”no beginning and no end”—and fight to defend their world.

So, the big question is: Was “Avatar: The Way of Water” worth the wait?

As a technical achievement, yes, unquestionably. The visuals are stunning, particularly in the underwater scenes. Cameron’s camera has a nimbleness often missing in 3D films, which often feel locked-down. His fluid camera roams, on land and sea, capturing some of the most eye-popping, breathtaking scenes of this, or any other, season. Each and every frame is carefully considered, and most could be cut out, framed and hung on the wall to great effect.

The visuals facilitate Cameron’s world building, providing tantalizing views of the forest land of Pandora and the wet ‘n wild world of Metkayina, complete with giant whale-like creatures that could have sprung from the imagination of Ray Harryhausen, and lush, colorful flora and fauna.

It does not look like any other 3D film—even the original “Avatar”—and will engage the eye and stimulate the brain.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the story, which is as simple as the images are complex. Essentially, Cameron continues the colonialization themes of the first film, while adding in mysticism, traditional medicine, poachers and even a nod to Jonah and the Whale.

Most of all, it is a story of family, of parents and children. Apparently, Pandorian kids behave sort of like Earth teens, eye rolls, attitude and all. The family relationships add an intimate element to the epic story, but the visuals often get in the way of the storytelling.

Long action sequences, like a spectacular sea creature attack, take away from the movie’s main thrust, pushing the running time upwards, but not advancing the story. Perhaps they are scheduled in to accommodate bathroom breaks. Whatever the reason, they showcase Cameron’s mastery of the form but often feel spectacular simply for the sake of spectacle.

Loud and proud, “Avatar: The Way of Water” can be, by times, overwhelming, but it’s also the kind of grand scale movie that demands to be seen on the biggest, most immersive screen possible. Cameron shoots for the moon, but goes even further, to a place called Pandora.

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