Avatar: The Way of Water
More or less what I expected from Jimbo. There isn’t an original bone in its body, essentially reheating the original with more polished effects and added underwater. If I hadn’t seen it in 3D, I suspect I’d have been distinctly underwhelmed. Avatar: The Way of Water is a bloated but proficiently serviceable medley of Cameron’s fascinations with hardware, ecology, transhumanism and now – very Vin of him – fam, often accompanied by contradictory and unironic media soundbites from the man himself. But then, if Jim’s a Black Hat turned White Hat, we wouldn’t exactly expect things to be straightforward, now would we?
Ronal: Teach them our ways so they do not suffer the shame of being useless.
Cameron’s screenplay is co-credited to Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy), but for the story you can add Josh Friedman (such gems as Terminator: Dark Fate and The Black Dahlia but also Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and Shane Salerno (such gems as the Alien vs, Predators). Perhaps all the NEW ideas are in Avatar 3 (and 4 & 5). What we have here isn’t really that different to The Force Awaken (if you want to throw the least respectable example its way). The bad guys lost last time we saw them. The villain died. So what do you do? Bring back the bad guys as if they never went away, and bring back the villain in a different outfit. Introduce a new generation. Have some more fights with the good guys, including a tragic loss. Show some conflicted loyalties in the good/bad divide. End on victory but to be continued.
But no one ever claimed Cameron was a great artisan of complex storytelling. What he was great at, at his best, was putting together a well-oiled – superbly-oiled, even – machine, action spectacle that built and built and didn’t let up, and which paid off in satisfying and even rousing fashion. In all fairness to him, he’s always been interested in delivering strong underlying relationships, or archetypes, ones that couch his technical showmanship. The problem with his approach started becoming evident when he felt he there was a serious degree of depth to all this (I wouldn’t accuse him of believing his own hype, as there’s probably no one on Earth who began with less self-belief). His dialogue is frequently risible, and if it carries, it’s invariably because of the conviction his performers imbue (be it Sigourney, or Ed & Mary, or Leo & Kate).
Cameron was one of my favourite directors of the ’80s, but his supremely cemented edifice began to collapse in upon itself with True Lies, where an unsavoury tale on paper could muster no lustre as embodied by Arnie, ill-suited to the jealous spy hubby part. Aggrandisement became the order of the day. Titanic thrived on its congenital corniness. Many were wooed, but if they were, it was about the whole being more than the sum of its parts (of its fourteen Oscar nominations, screenplay was conspicuously absent).
Avatar followed suit. It was singlehandedly responsible for the 3D boom, understandably so, but Jim didn’t have the sure-fired leads on his side this time (there’s a reason Sam Worthington has sunk in everything since). Sure, Stephen Lang’s a fine actor, but his character was sledgehammer even by Jimbo standards. You can point to the film’s thematic relevance, but it’s back-of-a-postcard wisdom as far as eco-substance is concerned. Most particularly, without protagonists you were truly invested in, and without the tangible hardware that previously singled out his action for such acclaim, the movie became a facsimile or avatar itself, of his previous work. It engaged to the extent that Cameron remains an effective filmmaker, but many had good cause to doubts the sequels; few could be heard proclaiming Avatar as one of their favourite movies ever (in contrast to at least four of his earlier outings). One of their favourite moviegoing experiences ever, maybe (the 3D!) but that’s a rather different thing.
That not-quite-glowing template pays off here, in that people know they’ll have an immersive encounter that justifies going to the movies (well, providing they see it in 3D). Cameron’s like a pig in shit when it comes to the undersea life, particularly, borrowing his cues from The Abyss with the luminous properties of selected flora/fauna. What he finds difficult is inducing the genuinely wondrous and transportive, because he’s a bull in a china shop even with the visually poetic. Nevertheless, when it comes to the passages with teen Na’vi Kira (Sigourney Weaver) realising she has a symbiotic, Neo-like affinity with and power over the undersea kingdom, he occasionally achieves even that. Obviously, Jimbo has to overegg it; she’s a virgin birth, Christ reborn as a blue cat girl.
That aside, there’s a scarcity of sustenance. One of the more interesting aspects of Avatar, even if it’s expectedly devoid of profound philosophical bent, is its invitation to transhumanism as an answer to mankind’s spiritual desolation. Technology can provide you a new, better (Na’vi) body, and a vibrant and rewarding connection to god (nature). Jim, the vegan ecowarrior, was selling you some dark, dark gospel here in the guise of the completely reasonable and laudable yen for returning to a simpler, more in-tune existence. Just, you know, one with computer-generated people, plants and animals.
Cameron presented Jake Sully (Worthington) as the entirely sympathetic “in” to his conceit; he’s a paraplegic, so not only is his need understandable, our rooting for him in his new body is too. He’s whole again. Even more than that, he finds meaning (love) and fulfilment (as a leader, as one freshly attuned to the natural world). Being a Na’vi (entering a pixelated world and escaping the shackles of the human form) is supposed to be alluring, to beat the shit out of being a rubbish human.
To compound his ideas, this tech in bio-clothing, Cameron offers transhumanist-biological neural interfaces. The Na’vi can connect to the flora and fauna of Pandora in a manner that illustrates a truly harmonious relationship. What could be more innocent… to anyone who hasn’t seen the remarkably similar fusions in the likes of Cronenberg’s Videodrome and eXistenz. We even have losing oneself in dreams and memories of a lost past (Minority Report) via the now legitimate (because natural) VR of the Tree of Souls. The Way of Water implicitly progresses this through the allusion of old Sigourney (a stripling of 73) rejuvenated as a teenage self through the magic of transhumanist rebirth (one might also see referencing of the movie’s MacGuffin here…)
So has Cameron done anything to redress this, explicitly, now he’s switched teams? After all, the humans are still very much the inherent bad guys, invading and ruining a world and its wildlife with the aim of terraforming it (one might switch in the Draco, say, and chemtrailing atop the sea of pollutants, but you’re still left with essentially bad humans, barring the rule-proving exception).
One might even suggest the Na’vi themselves are explicitly designed to promote the androgynous form – albeit with head shapes clearly based on Matt Smith – that is part of the transhumanist ordinance. In which case, there’s irony over Cameron’s explicitly hetero original receiving flack (which looks like a windup, to be honest, but only because it’s thirteen years old rather than written yesterday).
But it’s true; one might label The Way of Water anti-woke/ progressive – as in, anti- the artificially prescribed movement, with its ulterior goals, whose advocates take it at face value and believe it simply does what it says on the tin – through its espousal of family values above all else. And not in the surrogate fam sense of the Fast &Furiouses. These are bona-fide family/ies. With bona-fide communities who care for and defend each other, have respect for property, person, and the sustainability of the general locality (there’s no UN on Pandora).
We also have to consider, in the anti-faction, that Cameron is presenting a dead reconstituted villain – a “Recombinant” – whose memories now inhabit a Na’vi avatar. This is, obviously, perilously close to the consciousness chip documented by Donald Marshall. The process, he said, was inherently flawed, and the chipped consciousness – inhabiting a clone body or another human, an appropriated body – was rendered insane and psychotic. If that’s an ideal model for warning of tech gone mad, Cameron appears to have missed it. Avatar chiphead Miles Quaritch is ruthless and single-minded but adaptable, and is shown at the beginning of a potential journey of rehabilitation (most emphatically through saving the actual Miles’ son, who goes on to save him).
I somehow doubt incipient insanity is on the cards; on face value, coming back without a soul – Cameron makes no mention of the soul, for all the nu-Age mumblings of Pandora as a whole – is just the ticket to becoming a better, happier and more productive person. I will say of this, however; from a dramatic standpoint, the prospect of Lang being given an invested storyline has infinitely more potential than any one-note course Worthington is served. I guess it is possible that the gnarly tech-head idea is alluding to a more karmic one, since Miles/ his Recombitant explicitly invokes the idea of punishment for the sins of a past life, and the course being struck is, as noted, one of gradual atonement. If so, that’s the inherent problem of White Hat-inherited material; if the message could as easily be translated as its opposite, is it achieving anything at all?
Also on the “What is Cameron saying here?” front, we have the sequel’s MacGuffin, it’s unobtanium, in the form of ambergris amrita (Sanskrit for immortality). Amrita is extracted from lovely beautiful Na’vi whales so as to provide an elixir of eternal youth for those nasty humans. For whales and amrita, swap in children and adrenochrome respectively, and the idea becomes fairly evident. This exposition forms part of what seemed like a twenty-minute save-the-whales lecture that had me stifling a long yawn (Brendan Cowell’s unrepentant hunter elicits the most undiluted venom because he kills animals: so much worse than people. And so, he must die via rousing mutilation. This is The Way of Vegan). Jimbo lecturing is sheer torture, obviously, as anyone who has seen T-Arnie asking why John Connor’s eyes are leaking will affirm.
That’s the only point I was actively disengaged, though. True, aside from Sigourney’s space-cadet teen, none of the younger characters have much going for them. What counts, though, is that they’re functional: a well-enough performed bunch, sure, all pitched at an easily identifiable, broad-stroke traits level. With much John-Hughesian parental conflict thrown into the mix. Mission accomplished, Jim. We see occasional moments that offer a surprise, such as Spider’s well-founded fear of Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and her berserker rage at the loss of her son; she cuts his throat and is apparently ready to go the whole hog in response to Quaritch threatening Kiri. They’re few and far between, though. That’s singularly what The Way of Water lacks: anything surprising. Even with the 3D, you’re well aware of the kind of “wow” you’ll be getting.
Random Observations. On the subject of past lives, one has to assume Cameron was trapped in a sinking vessel in one, given his movie preferences (The Abyss, Titanic, now this); the entire climax is based on this patented brand of potential expiration. Anyone who doesn’t laugh when Mr Whale tells Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) “It’s too painful” in response to some amateur-psychologist probing is far purer of heart than I, clearly. The choice to avoid Na’vi language is the old “We shail into Sean Connery” trick and works reasonably well. On the casting front, I wouldn’t have figured that was Kate Winslet (Cliff Curtis, yeah). I don’t know if that’s good or bad, to be honest. Jermaine Clement is given a straight-man role, which is disappointing. Sigourney runs away with the movie, both because she’s the best actor in the cast and because she has the most interesting part (here too, we may wish to perceive Cameron displaying either White Hat or unfiltered nu-Age principles. Kira’s spiritual connection is misdiagnosed by materialist science as temporal epilepsy; it takes holistic principles to bring her back into balance).
As for funny stuff, I had to laugh both at Jim’s classically shlocky 3D touch of severing
Scoresby’s arm and having it fly away in glorious 3D. This coming from – I’d be guessing this was a form of atonement, except that he has form for spouting indigestible nonsense – the man who proudly “cut about ten minutes of the movie targeting gunplay action”. That’s because “What’s happening with guns in our society turns my stomach”. In contrast to graphic impalement and dismemberment, which totally flies (away in glorious 3D). Lest we forget, Jim also demanded the entire cast and crew turn vegan for the shoot and has issued some absurdist remarks about the dangers of testosterone. He’s a joker, that Jimbo.
The score from Simon Franglen – who worked with deceased James Horner on Avatar – is utterly unmemorable. More noteworthy is Sully’s plan, as it’s utterly ridiculous. I mean, is he a moron? At least that would be an excuse. He leaves his forest-dwelling Omaticaya because he knows Quaritch is after him, and quite sensibly, he feels his people shouldn’t suffer for his sake. So what does he do? Rather than take his family to some isolated spot where no one else can fall into harm’s way, he goes fishing, asking the Metkayina clan for shelter so THEY can suffer for his sake in due course. Does he tell them Miles will inevitably come a-hunting their way and do for them too? You bet he doesn’t.
The verdict, then? Some nice psychedelic sea life, but like the blockbuster Avatar: The Way of Water has just supplanted as 2022’s biggest hit, there’s nothing truly new to celebrate, beyond the bells and whistles of technical expertise. There’s an argument Avatar 2 and Top Gun 2 have been big hits because they aren’t battering their audiences with super-wokeness, but the more likely principle being satisfied is that they’re formidably executed entertainments; such a quality still counts for something, even when the content itself is creatively bereft. The Way of Water is probably no better or worse than Avatar, on balance, just way longer.