At this point my memory may be conveniently failing me, but I don’t think I ever promised anyone that in the event of Avatar 2 being finally released theatrically, I would ‘do a Herzog’ and eat my own shoe. And even if I did, I am officially pleading amnesia because I don’t think I own a pair of shoes I’d be comfortable enough to cook and consume. There’s not enough thyme in the world to make this experience even remotely acceptable.
I suppose what I am trying to articulate is that I am quite astonished by the fact Avatar: The Way of Water was finally unleashed upon the unsuspecting – or perhaps a teensy-weensy sceptical – audience. Scratch that. I am perhaps more astonished not by the simple fact it was released, but by the fact enough people cared about seeing it that, as of the time of writing this article, the movie has grossed nearly 1.5 billion dollars world-wide.
Again, scratch that. I’m not so much astonished by the fact that it was finally released or that it did make a killing at the global box office; I am now officially astonished at the fact it made such ludicrously exorbitant money while being painfully mediocre and woefully taxing both to the intellect having to ingest the content of the film and the body having to remain sedentary for uninterrupted 192 minutes.
I’ll be perfectly honest: the worst kind of movie is the straight-down-the-middle-of-the-road mediocre fare that fails to jolt me in any way, even into violent hatred. I would actually prefer if Avatar: The Way of Water infuriated me, because at the very least I’d be able to say that it somehow profoundly affected my existence. The sad truth is that it did not. I spent well over three hours trapped in the cinema hoping to get the most out of the experience (with 3D and everything), but James Cameron’s long-awaited continuation of the highest-grossing movie of all time left me completely indifferent.
So, I sat there and looked on as the Great Jimmy Cameron – the Steve Jobs of Cinema sans turtleneck, beltless Levi’s and NB sneakers – figuratively stepped upon the world stage to thunderous applause and unveiled how Pandora has changed in the intervening decade-and-a-bit. The movie opened with what I can only imagine was an attempt at rekindling nostalgic reverence for the countless zeros and ones that one day came together to form the stunning vistas of Pandora: the misty floating mountains of wherever-the-hell, the lush jungles of who-gives-a-toss and the endless oceans of I’m-not-sure-I-care-enough-to-remember-the-mythos. He then proceeded to reacquaint me with Jake Sully, now fully transmogrified into a Na’vi, fluent in their language – which the movie cleverly switches into English with the panache last encountered in The Hunt for the Red October – and leisurely leading a tribe as a Smurf equivalent of Paul Atreides, the Toruk Makto or something.
Naturally, the idyllic happiness of frolicking in the forest with his lovely wife and a quartet of younglings is short-lived as the Sky People make a comeback. In fact, in a true Independence Day: Resurgence fashion, they have always intended to do so, because it takes forever for them to travel from Earth to Pandora so technically as the Na’vi staged their valiant revolt, folks on Earth were already gearing up to send reinforcements. It’s just a natural consequence of interstellar travel that the protagonists of the story managed to start their families and almost completely forget about their troubles in the interim. Also, it may serve as convenient explanatory ammunition to the movie’s apologists who would insist we had to wait well over a decade to make sure the actors aged properly to make the experience fathomable.
Nevertheless, the Sky folks are back, this time it seems they are not as interested in mining unobtainium as they are in wholesale destruction of Pandoran rainforests, which maps painfully obviously onto our current environmental woes and perhaps indicts Jair Bolsonaro’s reckless treatment of the Amazon. But that’s not the end. In a throwaway scene somewhere in the middle of the film – following an excruciatingly long sequence of people hunting alien whales – it is revealed that Avatar 2: The Way of Water does indeed have its own personal unobtainium, the spinal fluid harvested from those poor whales that supposedly is a great anti-ageing medicine. But it doesn’t matter and in fact it is likely going to resurface in one of the three hundred sequels Jimmy Cameron is currently shooting back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Instead, what the sequel decides to concern itself with is Jake Sully’s plight to save his family from the impending assault of the Sky People led by Colonel Quaritch reincarnated as a recombinant Na’vi – the blue Darth Vader for all I care.
Thus, having briefly brushed shoulders with tragedy, Sully decides to abandon his tribe and seek sanctuary in the island nations of insert-a-completely-made-up-Na’vi-name which effectively takes the Pocahontas format of the first film and hybridizes it with Moana. But that’s not all, because Sully’s adoptive daughter Kiri is also on a journey of self-discovery to find out she is somehow connected to the spirit of Eywa, which doesn’t necessarily go anywhere substantial enough to function as a fully fleshed-out arc but leaves enough loose threads for Cameron to twist the arm of his financiers in case they lost their appetite for a sequel. After all, you can’t leave the audience hanging! Can someone please think of the children?
Speaking of, we also get to partake in the coming-of-age drama involving Sully’s teenage sons, who struggle to fit with the locals, try to impress girls, learn to mount flying fish, master the local sign language and generally explore the sandbox of the computer-generated coral reef for I want to say at least forty-five minutes.
At least this is what I can remember. And then of course the Sky folks find the Sullys, a confrontation is staged, we get to see a lot of whale action and explosion porn, all seasoned generously with James Cameron’s signature spice mix of earnest cliché, which historically allowed his spectacles to shine through and captivate the viewer for however long was needed. Which doesn’t seem to work anymore. Cameron’s signature spice mix may have gone stale in the intervening years as the movie is above all unacceptably bland.
Sure, it is – just as the first Avatar was in 2009 – an eye-candy that above all else reinforces the now common understanding that James Cameron is the world champion of loving the colour blue, but it is somehow completely devoid of interest. In fact, the film’s lush vistas and tightly woven set pieces rendered razor-sharp by reliance on High Frame-Rate photography serve to alienate rather than to envelop the viewer in the magic of the spectacle. Contrary to what the champions of this technology would like us to believe, this methodology of spectacle craftsmanship does not serve to transport the viewer into the world of the film as though the screen was a window to a magical universe, but rather falls straight into the uncanny valley as it resembles footage rendered for a videogame cutscene.
In all fairness, the whole movie effectively functions as a conglomeration of cutscenes from a video game we are not allowed to play ourselves and end up forced to impotently observe as the action unfolds without our say-so. It turns out the eye-candy spectacle does not work as well as it did in the 90s and at this point I am wondering why that is. Is it possible that the wholesale supplantation of real-life actors with their mo-cap avatars somehow removes us from the drama? And maybe – just maybe – Cameron’s signature reliance on simple clichés no longer works because it’s inherently harder to care for these blue cat-people stand-ins for a conglomeration of Native Americans and various native tribes of the Pacific Island Nations? Maybe it was easier when we had to follow along as Ed Harris was trying to save his marriage using the same exact dramatic clichés, because – after all – we were looking at a human with real human cliché problems? Perhaps when we look at animated creatures with the same cliché problems it all seems somehow weightless…
These painstakingly rendered characters interact with their environment – and by extension with the audience – without the gravity and impactfulness of how a real actor would, which again brings to mind the way video characters interact with the environment they are blatantly composited into. This, unfortunately, translates into the way the drama interacts with the viewer. As a result, the entire experience of watching Avatar: The Way of Water is directly comparable to an act of trying to eat ice cream through a window. It looks nice, but it feels like glass and shattered dreams and tastes like your own saliva tempered with residual Windex. It’s a shallow nothing-burger composed exclusively of empty calories and drama of the calibre that would make video game writers feel like William Faulkner.
Thus, I am not really surprised that this movie is making the money it is making because it is effectively a cinematic chocolate cake. It’s hard to believe anyone would object to a slice, but it is equally not good for anyone. It’s a pile of empty calories that is sure to give people diabetes in the long run and the sad realization is that James Cameron will take it as a stunning endorsement of his baking skills because nobody will have the balls to tell him that a successful chocolate cake can’t be made exclusively from frosting.