(2 stars)

It’s been 13 years since the original “Avatar,” one of the most overrated and forgettable “important” movies of the 21st century. So forgettable that viewers will be forgiven for not quite remembering who’s who and what’s what in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a sequel few people asked for, outside of the franchise’s obsessive auteur, James Cameron, and pandemic-era theaters desperate to lure audiences back into the habit of big-screen moviegoing.

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As “Top Gun: Maverick” proved earlier this year, as long as a sequel is smart, well-written, beautifully cast and stylishly executed, it can take all the time it needs getting here. “The Way of Water” doesn’t necessarily check all those boxes, but what it does right will offer spectators moments of awe, full-body immersion and genuine beauty. Cameron, co-writing here with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, from a story he collaborated on with Jaffa, Silver, Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno, has never been known for his subtle narrative or sophisticated dialogue: “The Way of Water” is frequently clunky and ham-handed in its storytelling, and the words spoken by its characters — human, humanoid and in between — aren’t particularly memorable. But there’s no denying the power of images that can only be described as transporting — literally and figuratively.

“The Way of Water” catches up with “Avatar’s” protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a decade after he’s decided to retire from service with the Marines and take up residence on Pandora (the planet he was sent to colonize), become a member of the native Na’vi tribe and marry Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). As “The Way of Water” opens, we’re introduced to Jake and Neytiri’s spirited children: sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), as well as a little girl named Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). They’ve also adopted Kiri, a sensitive adolescent whose mother, Grace Augustine, was played by Sigourney Weaver in the first “Avatar.” Here, by way of both digital wizardry and her own vocal gifts, Weaver delivers an impressively convincing portrayal of her younger self as a curious, tuned-in girl with profound powers to connect with the universe.

Kiri is one of the fully realized characters in “The Way of Water,” which centers on Jake’s efforts to save his family when rapacious forces once again threaten the peaceable kingdom of Pandora. The gung-ho leader of that hegemonic mission is another familiar face: Quaritch (Stephen Lang), Jake’s ally turned nemesis who was vanquished but has been reconstituted to resemble the towering blue-skinned ectomorphs who inhabit Pandora.

For the first 45 minutes or so, “The Way of Water” busies itself with introducing, reintroducing, explaining and setting up — and also establishing the idyllic family life Jake is trying to hard to preserve. Once he’s forced to flee the forest, the Sullys take refuge with the Metkayina people, whose seaside redoubt resembles the Maldives with way more fantastical flora and fauna.

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It’s at this point that the visual wonders of “The Way of Water” come fully into frame, with Cameron and his visual effects team creating gorgeous underwater vistas of corals, undulating filaments, neon-colored plant life and creatures that float, soar, lunge and balletically breach. The most exhilarating moments of the film come by way of Kiri’s explorations of her new habitat and the adventures of her siblings, who befriend similarly feisty but finned and green-skinned Metkayina kids (their parents are played by Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet). “Finding Nemo” has nothing on the world that Cameron builds undersea, with a far more vibrant color palette and arresting detail than he evinced in the first installment.

The irony of “The Way of Water” is that, for all its kid-centric action, it’s most likely far too intense for anyone under 10. While the Sullys learn how to hold their breath and Lo’ak befriends a whalelike leviathan who’s just as misunderstood as he is, Quaritch is on their trail, leaving nothing but suffering and destruction in his wake. Once he colludes with a greedy boat captain, played with sleazy relish by Brendan Cowell, the twin evils of militarism and capitalism create a thrashing, deeply disquieting tableau of gruesome cruelty and carnage — violence that reaches its peak in a loud, protracted fight sequence that forms the movie’s cacophonous climax.

If wanton destruction punctuated by moments of psychedelic visual splendor and New Age-y philosophizing is your bag, “The Way of Water” provides plenty of value. But as far as the computer-generated techniques have come in the intervening years, there are sequences that are shockingly unattractive, especially live-action scenes whose high frame rate gives them the cheesy, motion-smoothed look of a bad soap opera.

The action in “The Way of Water” is ultimately overwhelming, betraying an uncomfortable truth about Cameron: He might preach environmentalism and balance, calling on Indigenous peoples for their gentle worldviews and material culture. But at heart, he’s just as aggressive and all-commanding as the bad guys he portrays with such oorah swagger. As the annihilation reached its punishingly fevered pitch at a recent screening, the crashes and rumbles and explosions weren’t just deafening, they were palpable to the point that I wondered who was kicking my seat. Then I realized: It was James Cameron all along.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity, and some strong language. 192 minutes.


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