Wearily Wading Through Avatar: The Way of Water

James Cameron welcomes visitors to his cartoonified commercial Eden like an out-of-touch friend suggesting that mutually chugging a jar of syrup counts as having dessert together. Despite having none of the wit, pleasure, or artistry of dessert, you'll never see a concoction more confident in its appeal. Avatar: The Way of Water serves less as an exciting expansion of its world than an excuse to refurbish and resell a used playset filled with inert dolls that recite on command every mediocre blockbuster ever made (including Cameron’s) for the pure profit of doing so. The film’s chilly indifference to any form of emotional complexity or artistic identity makes Disney’s Pocahontas look like a searing humanistic imperative in comparison.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now fully clothed in a permanent native skin, catches the audience up on the interim between Avatar and The Way of Water by chewing through expository dialogue involving the “sky people” (humans) and his brood of now-teenage Na’vi children that he’s had with his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Despite living in paradisical conditions populated by telepathic dinosaurs that can only be ridden after forcefully communing with their glands, their sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) import a cloud of sitcom cringe into their daily lives as often as they can. They want to impress their dad but they hate having to come home before ten. It’s one of those scripts where even if Lo’ak has vital information about the plot, the mean ol’ parents won’t believe him until the information becomes irrelevant. Each scene has its own dislocated priorities, counting time to a misplaced feeling of grandeur calculated numerically rather than dramatically.

The plot is recycled from the first Avatar save for the interracial head-butting between the Na’vi and the Metkayina, their water equivalents up the coast. When the human military starts sniffing around the forest, the Sullies abdicate to their neighbors’ region with all the world-building effort of driving down the block. Cameron overcalculates their initial confrontation with trope-dependent bickering while new eye candy is introduced, including a heavily pregnant muscular warrior mermaid played by Kate Winslet and the obvious love interest of the film played by Bailey Bass, who enters this 2022 science fiction movie with an actual Phoebe Cates sexy water reveal. The designs of these stretched-out Barbie bodies flapping about social hardship, whose proportions overextend ideal traits to grotesqueness, read less like ideal fantasy beings than algorithms designed for maximum monetization in the most profitable Earth markets. If the film was a YouTube video, it would be called "Pregnant Mermaid Superhero War Movie Gummy Fidget Spinner Water Funny Prank Disney Nursery Rhymes for Kids." Its warnings against capitalism are even less sincere than they are in a normal Disney production since Disney didn’t even own Pandora the last time we visited it. Its conquest looms in the background of even allegedly sweet gestures, like an imperial shadow falling over a fishing village.

The presumptive squabbling between tribes only takes an occasional break to check in with the family, as Sully takes the reigns of the Cameronian masculine hardship narrative with simplistic axioms like, “A father protects. That’s what gives him meaning.” The film is so loud and long that it flies under the viewer’s radar that Jake never challenges his assumptions about fatherhood or reconciles his kids’ treatment with their situation. The passive-aggressive moments where family dynamics bubble to the surface reduce a supposedly breathtaking experience to a “Why won’t you believe me?” story, without even the simple pleasure of conflict resolution. The worst offender of its arc-less blunders is a human child called Spider (Jack Champion), tagging along and taxing the matting artists after being left in the forest as an infant after the first film, now sporting a Battlefield Earth hairdo and the attitude of a put-out bystander in a skating video. Despite living in somber naturalism with secluded forest giants in the most beautiful place in existence, he ends a third of his sentences with “bro.” He spends the entire movie enabling the villains before casually rejoining the cast around the three-hour mark as though nothing happened. The characters don't need to question him about anything because they can absorb his experiences through the audience. The viewer's knowledge guides Cameron's pacing far more authoritatively than any dramatic logic.

The most uncomfortable absence in the midst of these algorithmic interactions is that of the Na’vi’s culture. Neither the Na’vi nor Metkayina seem to have any daily lives. They aren’t shown eating or dancing. They seem to have no form of entertainment or art. Their dreary existence is limited to punching in for a hunt that no one sees or repeating a conversation modeled from an Earth blockbuster they’ve never heard of. Satisfying action bits like Saldana’s Neytiri going full warrior babe on some puny soldiers only emphasizes how long she’s absent from the middle of the film in favor of her pouty-lipped kids and their predictable problems (not even the predictably central romance colors an inch outside the lines of the minimum blockbuster formula). A creature designed as a smash-up between a whale shark and hammerhead shark offers the film’s most notable bestiary update and memorable effects sequences, but even its minor dramatic role in the plot is never resolved (they suspect it’s a murderer, someone finds out it isn’t, but no one else ever gets closure on it). It’s just a fragmentary tool in Cameron’s massive mechanical dream-space for splooshing water and making pregnant bellies bounce until his bank account explodes.

The film’s technical achievements restrict rather than enable cinematic artistry because the film is constructed at such a magnitude that artistic indifference becomes a necessary survival instinct. Shots are often locked off from single angles to make the motion-capturing easier and only on the occasions that real cameras capture some underwater footage does the film wake up from its stationary stupor for a second of dynamic movement. Luminescent beings undulate under sunlight as the blue Barbies and stretch Kens look with wide kitten eyes at all the wonders. But more often, conversations are filmed with the blatant serviceability of an assembly line worker taping lids onto boxes, with a snore-inducing editing rhythm that places ease of use over any visual impact and contributes to the film’s lack of intrigue despite its refusal to dip below a tone of cosmic significance. Though the cinematographer Russell Carpenter shot Titanic once upon a time, his capacity to craft an engaging frame is MIA in The Way of Water, replaced by the weightless apathy of his more recent work, which includes the McG Charlie’s Angels movies, XXX: Return of Xander Cage, and the romcom Noelle on Disney+.

With the visuals merely serving the plot details as an aid, there's no way to make heads or tails of the tone of any situation once it's further flattened out into predictability by the viscous dialogue writing (“Hey, you okay?” someone says after reuniting with kidnapped characters after two hours spent apart, “Great cuz. Never better”). Those characters are kidnapped by the screenwriter’s preconceptions more than the villain’s strategy. One of the kids remarks in a quick comedic cutaway, “I can’t believe I’m tied up again,” as though the film took three hours to learn the possibility of editing comedy into action, albeit in that awkward way unique to editors who feel the pressure to make action less serious by patching drive-by jokes into a tapestry of effects sequences. No one in the theater laughed, but it didn’t even feel made for a laugh, like the humor equivalent of shrapnel. After escaping, they mystifyingly go back onto the ship to be quietly captured again two minutes later because the last punch of the action still needed bait to coax out the third climax.

The film intercuts between the military’s encroachment and the Sullies’ adjustment period like a 192-minute game of ping pong, rarely committing to any dramatic scenes that might slow the pace of the back-and-forth (one exception being a perfunctory "you must think I'm crazy" scene, featuring a teenage half-Na'vi/human teen played by Sigourney Weaver). The benefit of this pacing is that the film never lingers for long, but it prohibits any drama that would require lingering. The humans recite boilerplate cautionary dialogue without even pretending to pull off a dramatic effect (Jemaine Clement appears in the film in a role that somehow makes one of the quirkiest and most recognizable character actors currently working an unrecognizable peon). Jake and the Metkayina leader (Cliff Curtis) only interact or reconcile their children’s conflicts at the minimum level required to keep the plot going. The Metkayina never learn the unique aptitudes of forest-dwelling or find a use for the Na'vi in their society (it’s up to the Na’vi to learn “the way of water,” essentially just holding your breath). The interactions rarely evolve beyond the simplest backhanded conflict between bickering teens, shunting the characters with potential emotional complexity like Neytiri into passive background roles. She only comes to the foreground to react to something, which is still the least attractive of Cameron’s technological “advances” for the Avatar format. Saldana’s voice may be angry or grieving at an emotional 10, but her cartoon face can only achieve a 6. Any time the Na’vi move too quickly or stop and start, or move in the background, or react with too much passion, the technology comes busting out of its seams in choppy bits that break up the world for a second before calming back down into sustainable functionality. A single actor in a room in Na’vi makeup could create a more immersive experience.

To secure his office as king of the world of $2 billion movies, Cameron conceived Avatar: The Way of Water as a calculated numbers game, a perfect balance between being acceptable enough to be praised without being creative enough to be criticized. Despite its unreserved favoritism for the native cultures vs the megalomaniacal profit-seekers, it can’t find the will to develop them any more complexly than their villainous invaders. Every aesthetic and dramatic pattern follows the same methodical indifference, including the film’s sexuality, which is obvious enough to inspire simping but not explicit enough to twinge the nerves of parents content to keep their kids quiet and airconditioned for three hours and change. The film gets away with openly criticizing capitalism while remaining, along with the first film, the most well-calculated monument to profit-driven filmmaking ever made.

Even its dialogue seems tailor-made for easy conversion in foreign markets, avoiding subtext, big words, and tricky multi-sentence constructs that might have taxed the translators. It’s not even passionate enough to be sanctimonious. Avatar: The Way of Water is a face-value creation, only expressing the actions and emotions physically on-screen at the time. Watching it, I began to feel like one of the Mentats of Dune, who can detect shadows of the future like ripples in a pond – I could instinctually see the next movement or line of dialogue in my head because I’ve seen it all before in other movies. I could go to the bathroom and continue watching the film in my head until I got back. It’s just franchise content, bro. It's frozen, pack-and-ship, just-add-water entertainment. That doesn't make it unique, but the runtime and the delirious self-importance do. Cameron’s cynically genius identikit production model successfully omits all possible art from the art of making movies, even the art of the average action blockbuster. The third film will be here before this one even gets committed to long-term memory.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©20th Century Studios/Lightstorm Entertainment

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