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“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a leap forward in virtual filmmaking

Rated: PG-13

Run time: 192 minutes

Score: 2 stars (out of 4)

You know that “Avatar: The Way of Water” has an actual point of view because every time humans appear on screen, they look comically trollish. Lumpy and inelegant, they’re mostly cast as violent colonizers and grunts, slashing and burning their way through the idealized alien world of Pandora.

The indigenous Na’vi, however, are tall, blue, hairless leopards with braids and dreadlocks, all sinew and primal power and spiritual purity. To defend their world from humans, they must rely on the Marine skills of white-dude-gone-native Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), whose consciousness was transferred to a lab-sourced Na’vi “avatar.”

It that sounds like the plot for the 2009 original, it is. It’s also the animating idea behind the second “Avatar,” director James Cameron’s long-in-the-making sequel that’s destined to earn hundreds of millions of dollars starting Dec. 16. The visuals set a new high bar for computer-generated imagery, with luminous, hyper-detailed environments and close-ups that crackle with delicacy and personality. For a movie that looks almost entirely made in a computer, it’s a visceral marvel.

Pity that the rest is still clumsily contrived, simplistic to a fault and emotionally vacant. Cameron and fellow scriptwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver invoke family loyalty, strangers in a strange land, racism and ecological stewardship vs. exploitation, but to no lasting effect. Gorging on all the eye candy — floating, rocky “islands,” sparkling waters and exotic creatures — at least distracts from that.

Cameron, as usual, makes it easier than usual to root against humanity. Despite some hesitation borne of familial bonds, few characters are conflicted in their utter goodness or badness. The prologue builds on the first film by setting up Sully and Na’vi partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) as the doting parents of four kids.

One of them is essentially adopted — the wide-eyed, introverted Kiri, the daughter of the first movie’s main human scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine. She’s voiced by Sigourney Weaver, whose physical presence is missed here. In Cameron’s trio of planned sequels (!), she’ll no doubt move to the center along with the new, younger characters, of which there are many.

Baddie Colonel Miles Quaritch is back again in Na’vi form. His memories were transplanted to a new, permanent avatar after his death and he’s starting to learn the ways of his enemies in order to conquer them. Stephen Lang plays this antagonist as eager to avenge his human death at the hands of Neytiri, but he’s possibly the only character to experience a vague arc as he rediscovers his human son, Miles “Spider” Socorro (Jack Champion) and begins to doubt his mission.

The water comes into play as the Sully family is forced to flee their forest refuge for an oceanic “reef” tribe, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet). Set against Quaritch’s relentless, revenge-driven pursuit, the movie takes us deep into Cameron’s earnest love of deep-sea environments, pristine marine life and panic-inducing, near-drowning incidents on sinking ships.

His mastery of big-budget spectacle, from “Aliens” to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Titanic” and the first “Avatar,” is faultlessly muscular. There is no current equal to “Way of Water’s” visuals, no video game or AI that can touch its gorgeous micro-details. It’s meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with a projector that can handle the 48-frames-per-second Cameron intended, with a 3D format that delivers on its promise instead of fading into the background after a few minutes. Like Peter Jackson’s pioneering but highly flawed “Hobbit” trilogy, it’s virtual filmmaking at its most self-assured, and audiences may finally be ready to welcome the motion-smoothed aesthetic (for better or worse).

But resonance and epic visuals needn’t be mutually exclusive. The bald, button-pushing beats are undermined alternately by Cameron’s unapologetic gun fetishization and overlong “wonder” sequences, turning this into a numbing, three-hour slog instead of an easily achievable two-hour experience.

Naturally, Cameron didn’t set out to make a taut indie drama. He’s pushing big-budget sci-fi/fantasy filmmaking forward in huge bounds and, in that, “The Way of Water” succeeds. It just happens to have left a lot on the sea floor along the way.

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