In 2009, spectacle filmmaking reached a new high with James Cameron’s Avatar. The same filmmaker who’d previously dominated the all-time box office with Titanic returned to the science-fiction/action genre he’d previous found success in with both Aliens and Terminator 2 (a film which had a profound effect on me personally). While far from novel at the time, Avatar marked the absolute pinnacle of the 3D trend, being a film where the technology used to create and even show it in theaters was as, if not more, important than the story or any of the characters or themes. Through both critical and commercial success, Avatar became the reason for theaters around the world to invest in 3D projectors and the justification for movie studios to produce hundreds more 3D films, most of which had the same lack of concern for story, character, or theme but with none of the care which clearly went into Avatar‘s fictional world of Pandora and its native people. The success of Avatar proved that audiences are willing to pay a premium to watch a five-buck story when it’s accompanied by billion-dollar effects. Over the last thirteen years the film’s legacy has withered, erasing the technological achievements of the original Avatar while leaving a more dubious legacy of derivative storytelling. Yet the film nevertheless remains the most commercially successful film through regular releases whenever there’s a new gimmick to tack on such as 4K resolution or higher frame rates. Now with this new batch of cinematic breakthroughs and technology that has long surpassed the original film, Cameron finally returns to Pandora, and the seeming same priorities, with Avatar: The Way of Water.
Speculation over the success of Avatar often focused on repeat viewings. Much as Titanic attracted six or seven tickets purchases from filmgoers, reported to be primarily teenage girls and middle-aged women, with its glamour and tragic love story, Avatar found its own enthralled audience, this time reported to be mostly single men who found escape in the photo-realistic effects and immersive 3D (and, it should be pointed out, in the blue boobs that James Cameron personally requested). Let’s face it, no one was watching Avatar because they found Jake Sully a compelling protagonist or for its well-meaning if bludgeoning environmental and anti-imperialist messaging. They were watching it because Pandora and the blue-boobed cat-alien were better than their normal lives. The sheer number of people willing to spend up to one hundred dollars and a full day re-re-re-re-living the Avatar experience is a testament to Cameron’s success in creating possibly the most compelling fictional world since Harry Potter or the original Star Wars. However, with Avatar 2, not only has the novelty of Pandora and the Na’vi worn off, audiences aren’t exactly lacking for realistic escapism. Without the emotional pull of favorite characters, the trap of nostalgia, or even the promise breakthrough technology, there’s very little this sequel can do to surpass the original. Worse yet, without the blinding 3D sheen of 2009, The Way of Water‘s faults reflect clearly.
One thing that requires no speculation is that Cameron didn’t spend the thirteen years between films on perfecting Way of Water‘s narrative. Where the original progressed as a hybrid of Pocahontas‘s cross-cultural love story (read: white savior narrative) and FernGully‘s environmental tale (also: white savior narrative), Avatar 2 boils down to a revenge story. There are of course complications that arise, but none that ever blur the loyalty of the characters or change the obvious trajectory. The film makes minor nods towards themes of acceptance but even the original’s overt environmental message isn’t furthered in the film’s three hour runtime. The closest the film offers to any meaning is the repeated phrase of “a father protects his family.” In this case that father is Jake Sully, now living and accepted as an important member of the Na’vi. Yet rather than focusing on what could make this character interesting – how he has adapted to this life, any internal conflict in rectifying that he now lives in an artificial body, or more abstract questions about whether he continues to exist as Jake Sully – the film spends most of its time with his kids. When we see Jake he’s either fighting his enemies, further proving himself to friends, or scolding his kids. Meanwhile his mate Neytiri – one of the main attractions for many repeat viewers – spends vast stretches of time doing nothing. Perhaps the young characters will flesh out in future sequels, much like offspring in science fiction series like Dune (which Cameron has cited as an influence) eventually develop to replace their parents as protagonists, but for now the children are grab bags of character tropes seen in dozens of films, this time blue and animated. At least none of these characters present genuine problems for the film, other than Spider, a human who wants to be a Na’vi, and whose confused motivation isn’t even in the top ten of most baffling elements in Way of Water‘s narrative. But hey, what’s a five-buck story when there’s billion-dollar effects, am I right?
When not dealing with either the revenge plot or problems ripped from after school specials, much of Avatar 2‘s considerable length is devoted to lovingly rendered images of Pandora’s splendor, with exponentially more care placed into the verisimilitude of its flora and fauna than the plausibility of the story in which the planet exists. Long sequences feature characters swimming among the various creatures and learning, and inevitably mastering, unfamiliar skills only so that those creatures or skills can return as the narrative dictates. Sure, the scenes are impressive, and add to the sense of immersion that propelled the original film’s success, but other than those who just want to spend more time in Pandora, watching Jake perfect yet another mount or Kiri stare at the ocean is less enjoyable than perfunctory. Three hour films are like water transportation: they succeed by reducing drag. Someone as experienced in both as James Cameron should know this. Yet there are still many times when Way of Water tells us about something rather than showing us. And still others when it shows while telling. You’d think a filmmaker as skilled and successful as Cameron would also know better than to tell us how intelligent a creature is without at least one sequence which shows its intelligence.
However, Avatar movies aren’t about little things like story, characters, or theme. They’re about much bigger things like special effects, motion capture, 3D, high frame rates, and lovingly crafted alien worlds. More than anything else the film works as a celebration of spectacle cinema. I’d recently mused that certain films should place special effects teams before the main cast in end credits and both Avatar films are definitely included. The gorgeous visuals, alien seascapes, cultural elements (clearly modeled after Cameron’s understanding of Maori behaviors), and barely-clothed cat-aliens assure that many viewers will want to spend several more days escaping into the waters of Pandora. There’s no question that Way of Water is a beautiful experience. Most of the time.
As with the previous push toward 3D films, and the one before that, spectacle filmmakers are now nudging audiences toward higher frame rates with movies such as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Ang Lee’s Gemini Man. Though Cameron wisely saves his use of 48 frames per second to action sequences, the same unreal aspects which detracted from previous films return here. Contrary to giving the film a smoother, more realistic appearance, the 48 frames per second used in action sequences often makes the motion feel jankier than the standard 24 that decades of movie watching have conditioned our brains to accept. Combined with 3D effects and depth of field, large scale scenes look, at best, like overly smooth video game cutscenes or, at worst, herky-jerky stop motion animation. Further, the rounding effect of 3D makes it more difficult to see the edge of a specific object thus blurring the entire picture. Yet worst of all, intentional blur on objects not central to the image can cause discomfort in the viewer. We’re similarly conditioned to understand that blurred objects point our attention where the filmmaker wants it to be, but Avatar‘s 3D tricks our minds into thinking that certain objects are blurred because we aren’t focusing on them. These objects should then come into focus when our attention shifts. They don’t. The result is frequent spikes of discomfort as our eyes try to adjust to something that can’t be adjusted to. With many shots blurring both background and foreground, it could be impossible for most audience members to avoid at least a minor headache while watching Way of Water. When compared, the greater immersion of 3D isn’t worth the added ticket price, the necessity of wearing glasses, the reduced clarity, and the frequent twinges of pain. This is obviously a personal preference but for me, the third dimension doesn’t enhance this second Avatar film as much as it did the first one. Immersion isn’t worth the headache. However, it’s after that immersion sets in, and we stop unconsciously trying to make the images work, that Way of Water finally gets good.
Personally, I spent most of Avatar: The Way of Water leaned back with arms crossed and occasionally groaning at either a poor character choice or an unfocused piece of coral drifting through my focal point. Without characters or a story to invest in, action scenes lack intensity and lingering wonder shots are as engaging as a stranger’s Instagram vacation photos. Then, after about two and a half hours, the film finally pulled me in, and became a genuinely enjoyable experience. Maybe my eyes had finally caught up, maybe I’d stopped trying to find depth in a shallow action movie, or maybe the characters grew on me, but whatever the reason there were several moments during the cinematic act that feel like a culmination of everything James Cameron has made before. Putting skepticism aside my only remaining thought was, “This is actually quite good.” As with drowning, there comes a time when the victim stops struggling, gets pulled under, and the current carries them away. Not to say that watching Way of Water is like being suffocated, but there are times when it is breathtaking. Especially after two and a half hours and we’ve turned our brains off.
We already know there will be at least two more Avatar films. We know that they will be loaded with gorgeous billion-dollar effects. We know, or can expect, that they’ll also have five-buck stories. We know we can’t escape. Perhaps best the thing we can do is stop trying to push against the tide, take a last breath, and let ourselves be swept into James Cameron’s world of lush forests, exotic creatures, explosive battles, mind-numbing narratives, and blue boobs.