It is undeniable that there is a real pull that one feels when watching James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. It is a force of fire that burns scorching hot, yet disseminates itself throughout the entire thing. This film is Cameron’s baby, a child that he has given the best attention, nurturing and rearing. Released more than a decade after the first film, Cameron faced the challenge of crafting a direct sequel that essentially requires the audience to still be in tune with the story presented in the previous iteration while the general audience has largely moved on from Pandora. It is inerrant that the audience wants to see a James Cameron picture, no matter what it would be. James Cameron is one of the most outstanding blockbuster-er to ever blockbusts — if I may put it in such an abridged manner. He is at the pinnacle of film technology evermore, a true believer in the medium that intimately crafts beyond the limits of the current zeitgeist yet still plays to the populist nature of a film meant to be consumed by as many people as possible, and to profit as much as possible. Perhaps it would be more right to say that the mass mobilizes themselves for him rather than the opposite. Cameron is a director who, despite working with the biggest film conglomerate on Earth, still stands true to his vision and perspective. This is, indeed, what you would find in Avatar: The Way of Water, a picture so sublimely crafted and presented that one could not help but sit in the dark in awe of the display.
The Great Nature
And yet, I left the theatre and as time passes for me to write this review, I feel a stronger sense of aloofness toward the film. An alienating indifference towards the future of the story. Do not misunderstand, I did not think it was a film without flaws during and directly after leaving the theatre. Rather, despite my mixed feelings towards a great portion of the 3 hour’s runtime, feelings of positivity, hope, and elation enveloped my psyche. More specifically, I cannot deny the beauty of the environmentalist message of the two films, especially The Way of Water. As a person who grew up with nature shows, hardcover encyclopedias and a genuine love for the natural world, parts of the film moved me to tears. Cameron and his team created a true planet with attention to ecological and biological details you would find in fantasy epics like Frank Herbert’s Dune; the tiniest critters to the magnificent giants are realized, and their role in the food chain and the great circle of life manifested.
Cameron’s view of nature is animistic, he anthropomorphizes individual animals and plants and makes them a part of the planet. There is a level of hybridity at play, one somewhat similar to the vision of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki1https://broadly-specific.com/2020/11/05/the-soothing-apocalypse-of-studio-ghibli-films/. The distance between self and other, that is the individual and all the animals and plant life on the planet is blurred and indistinct, or in the case of Pandora’s biological neural linkage and network, non-existent. This vision of nature is important, it seeks to not alienate the human from the non-human. That if you hurt nature, you are essentially hurting yourselves. There is no ‘mother nature’ fighting back and punishing your deeds, only self-harm. That is what the humans of planet Earth in these films have experienced, and what the Na’vi are trying to maintain. The underwater scenes and those featuring the intelligent whale-like Tulkun move me and are some of my favourites in the film. In some ways, I would have loved to have a gentler retelling of this story, as the action and high stakes of The Way of Water fall flat and performed a crash landing.
An Uneven Picture
The film starts with a time skip, a double-edged decision as it mimics the amount of time which has passed in real time since the first film and also allows a new generation of viewers to follow this story but leaves you utterly detached with only faint echoes of the first film lingering despite their importance. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are now parents and for the majority of the film’s runtime, the kids’ journey is what the audience follows. Sully, to me, is a stale protagonist. While he has accepted his role as leader, his continuous conflict with his sons and struggle with getting them in line prove uninteresting and bear no weight. This banal display of fatherhood moves in parallel with Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his Na’vi-raised human son Spider (Jack Champion). Both plotlines were certainly trying to say something, but with these tough masculine fathers and their lack of real expression of emotions except for some reluctant hints of sensitivity, I did not find myself connecting at all. In actuality, I did not connect with most of the characters. Some of the children experience their own branching paths, like Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), but the loose ends still stayed until the ending, and not enough runtime was devoted to these little branches for me to care about what will happen next.
My wish for a gentle Pandora would thematically not correlate with the war and conquest that humanity brings. Indeed, perhaps this yearning for Pandora and a simpler tale of cultures and wildlife is Cameron’s objective and one that he would crush to show humanity’s capitalistic and selfish ambitions. Animals hunted for resources, Pandora ‘tamed’ for settlers; historical parallels certainly abound. Undeniably, it is commendable to portray such rebellion against what is apparent to be imperialist America. However, part of me feels that the depiction of the Na’vi is essentializing and sometimes patronizing. One where forest Na’vi and water Na’vi live and die by their assigned elements, and it took a human-turned-Na’vi to finally wake them up from their tree-sniffing stupor. It weakens the agency of these aboriginal inhabitants of Pandora. Where the story will lead is obvious, to unite the different tribes that will homogeneously be based on their assigned biomes in the fight against the human’s full invading force. It might be too early to say, but Cameron has a lot ahead of him to convince the audience to follow the saga, but I can say he is losing his grip on my own personal engagement.
An Unconvincing Promise
The final hour or so of the film, where one might expect the big battle to take place in these types of blockbusters, is technically done well, but it almost feels like a blur that passes at lightspeed. Or rather, it feels both hasty and undercooked, yet somehow swollen with visual clutter and noise. It is a cacophony of sights and sounds that mess with the senses. The visual economy of the action — or lack thereof — is messy and unimpressive. It does not help that Imax’s HFR (High Frame Rate) displays an uneven picture, where one scene will have multiple cuts with different varieties of smoothness. To be frank, HFR does not look good at all. I do not think there should be a definitive framerate for films, and 24 FPS (Frame Per Second), while being standard, does not have to be the rule. But it does allow visual clarity and realism that the eye simply cannot process with the likes of HFR, the screen becomes uncanny and clay. A more consistent HFR would have done the trick, but switching between them makes it feel like a bad video game. It also feels similar to those AI motion-smoothening of animated films that people have done online, which removes the weight and charm of the medium.
Avatar: The Way of Water is James Cameron’s baby, his passion is as overwhelming as the ocean’s waves that sweep over the audience with force and confidence. He stands evermore at the height of film technology, cutting edge yet so intimately hand-crafted with affection. Nonetheless, the film suffers from its shortage of a coherent visual economy and unconvincing branching narratives that leave the audience wanting. The Avatar series remains dubious in its longevity and place in the grander scheme of storytelling canon. But as some might say, never doubt James Cameron to pull filmmaking feats. I am not a sceptic despite my criticism, the pure joy and communal anticipation for a new Cameron film that would entertain remain, but I cannot deny that it is certainly waning.
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