“Avatar: The Way of Water” (2022): A Wet Blanket (Review)

· Films & Video Games
Authors

★★

It won’t be as easy to dismiss Avatar: The Way of Water as it was the first.

The closest I can get is to call it “Whale Wars: The Avatar Movie.”  But that’s less instinctively intuitive than what everyone called the first: “Dances with Wolves and/or Pocahontas in space with blue cat people.”

I’m not even sure why it’s called Avatar anymore, other than to simply evoke the title of the original.  The Avatar concept in the original is almost entirely absent here.  No one is sleeping in a tube and waking up as a cat, and the closest thing there is to an infiltration gets blown almost instantaneously.  You could just as easily call it Pandora or Na’vi or James Cameron’s 3D Alien Photography, or Another Helicopter Killed by Archery; or just nix the heading entirely, since we’ve all known there’s supposed to be 3-4 sequels to this for reasons that have yet to be offered.

You might say the wait for Ava2 was like waiting for The Winds of Winter, but that’s something people are actually interested in continuing and eagerly waiting for.  No one cared about what happened to the tribe after the end of the first film, and no one was left wondering if humanity was going to be able to live off of something that wasn’t “unobtainium.”   It was a strength of the original film that it’s self contained, even if it was anything but tedious, but the impact of it is one of the stranger moments of foreshadowing for the 2010s decade of terrible movies.  Everyone saw it, perhaps several times, and it broke every box office record around the entire world.  Then it was instantly forgotten and dismissed, with no impact of any kind, except that Marvel eventually caught up and started releasing every film in 3D, IMAX, Dolby, and IMAX 3D.  Now Ava2 arrives, and the only way it stands out from everything else is in the fact that it’s a chance to hang out with the blue man group again and see nice colors.

Concept is the point of emphasis here because there’s nothing else to remark upon.  To the extent that Avatar has an identity as a story, and now a franchise, it’s the concept of James Cameron spending hundreds of millions on filmmaking tech and equipment, and wasting years of his life, to tell everyone about how awful human beings, their expensive ambitions, and their heavy machinery are.  As a creator, he was a lot more interesting in the ’80s when he was just a Cold War critic playing with guns and prosthetics, and when Michael Biehn was in his movies.  Now he’s out of ideas and resorting to old tricks.

You’ll understand what I mean by that in the final act, which takes place entirely inside a sinking ship.  Or you’ll understand what I mean before that when you see the exhaustively boring middle where the Sully family starts communing with undersea life and partially adapting to underwater breath holding, and it’s just a repeat of the first film.  But by inviting that comparison, Ava2 sets itself up to underwhelm by shrinking the scale and the stakes more and more.  First it’s about the family in danger.  Then they make new friends and the movie becomes about a noble species of philosopher whales.  And then it becomes about wrapping it all up in time for almost none of it to matter.

Cameron seems to be suffering from a similar affliction as Bong Joon-ho – a very capable filmmaker who uses every movie he makes to argue that South Korea would be a much better place if it was more like North Korea.  With Avatar, Cameron certainly gets a license to photograph his obsessions and flex his effects muscles, but it’s all just to tell us in various different ways that the Indians who were here before all of us were the noblest people, and anyone who isn’t them is either a colonizer or animal poacher in waiting.  It works better as an abstract subject in the second film because it isn’t copying other movies with such a smug forté, and also because Cameron plays to his strength by spending so much of the film (after the first hour) underwater reveling in coral reefs.  But it’s still wasted as a story, and probably the worst part is its own ending.  That and the fact that a character pulls a deus ex machina, and the only thing the Ava2 is clear about is the fact that all of the scenes that might potentially explain how that was supposed to be work had been deleted.

The first Avatar only feels more contrived today than it did in 2009, but at least it felt huge enough to pass for an epic.  Ava2 is both better and worse.  It has a lot of big shots but it never truly feels big in the way it ought to.  Maybe the next film will explain why James Cameron wants to spend the rest of his life as a filmmaker in this world with all these bluesers.  This one certainly didn’t.

– Vivek

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