Avatar was great when I was 15, but like many things I held dear back then—passions, obsessions, entire belief systems—it’s hard to look back on too fondly. The script is groaningly clunky, and its allegory for indigenous uprising, while well-meaning, devolves into white savior shtick before it can evolve into something subversive. But Avatar’s technical prowess? Now that holds up. Some decried its action sequences as too “video gamey” in 2009, but—perhaps due to the ensuing Marvelization of the American action film—they look as colorful and thrilling as ever today. The Way of Water will probably resurface the video game accusations, but heed not the naysayers: in the grand tradition of video game visuals, the water looks really, really good.

On Pandora, like on Earth, enough time has passed since Avatar for the world to look a lot different: the rainforest Na’vi have recovered, Jake and Neytiri have several kids, and Sam Worthington has learned to act. Jake is still a holdover white savior as chief of the Omaticaya tribe, leading his now-fellow Na’vi against a new human invasion that threatens their peaceful existence. Upon realizing a contingent of humans is out for him specifically, Jake moves his family across the planet to seek asylum with the aquatic Metkayina tribe.

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In a prudent move, Avatar devotee James Cameron and co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have partially backed off from their allegorical pretensions. The humans, once a broadly mixed metaphor of colonial racism and corporate violence, are an even broader invading force now—stock bad guys with disdain for the environment and the single unique feature of being commanded by Edie Falco. The explicit Na’vi/Native American link receives little elaboration, and for all intents and purposes, Jake is just another one of the Na’vi now, letting the film sidestep the “white guy excels at native culture” angle like it never happened. He even grimaces at Neytiri calling him the chosen one, but that particular angle goes unexplored—presumably something for Avatar 6.

The more general “industrialists vs. indigenous” conflict flattens the themes a bit, but coming from the first Avatar, it’s not a bad choice. Equally generic but not as advisable is the new villain, who’s mostly just the old villain again. Colonel Quaritch may have died in the first movie, but Stephen Lang is still alive and kicking and a very good actor, so the humans embed the Colonel’s consciousness and memories into a Na’vi avatar and set him loose on Pandora. There are intriguing ideas here: how might the new, blue Colonel reconcile his selfhood with his assigned identity? Quite easily, it turns out, at least in this film. He readily describes himself as “not the Colonel” and gets on with his generic revenge plot against Jake and Neytiri. The Way of Water’s screenplay feels like the simplest possible version of itself, but at least it’s a great setup—a far more promising jumping-off point than 2009’s Avatar. The endless sequels don’t seem as silly now.

The more interesting aspect of the Colonel’s character is his relationship with the first Colonel’s son, a Tarzan-y human named Spider who’s adopted the Na’vi lifestyle. That familial angle taps into the heart-on-sleeve ardor that Cameron does best. From the story’s holistic interest in Jake and Neytiri’s kids to the deeply felt connections between the Na’vi and Pandora’s wildlife, The Way of Water is a film of tremendous warmth and vulnerability, an adventure swelling with genuine, outsized emotion. The care the protagonists show for all living things, in concert with Cameron’s care for the world he’s created, makes every joy communal and every death, no matter how collateral, a tragedy. Avatar’s heart puts other blockbusters to shame.

So does the submerged lede: the visual effects. There’s surely some technical explanation for how Cameron and co. mastered 3D and high frame rate, but I don’t need to know it, because the results felt like magic. The high frame rate takes some getting used to—for those accustomed to the cinema standard of 24 frames per second, the film at first looks too smooth—but once the camera moves underwater, it’s majestic. Just impossibly beautiful. The 3D and HFR lend Cameron’s dreamscape a naturalism that captivated me utterly. I burst into sobs at the sheer, honest spectacle of it all. See it in IMAX; see it in 3D; see it in theaters that can handle the high frame rate. It’s a technical feat that left me exhilarated for what movies could achieve moving forward (provided their budgets are in the hundreds of millions of dollars). Cancel every Disney franchise and fund ten more of these.

At the film’s close, the simplicity of its conflicts caught up to me, leaving me bobbing at surface level and parched for more depth. The Way of Water is never as potent as it is in the moment. In another 13 years and outside the IMAX screens, maybe it’ll feel as unimpressive as its predecessor. But for now, a psychic whale deflecting a harpoon bomb with its face left me elated and in tears. That’s the power of the movies, baby, and Cameron knows how to harness it.

★★★½   (3.5/5)