By Dan Schindel
Avatar: The Way of Water
Dir. James Cameron, U.S., 20th Century Studios
In some ways, Avatar may be a victim of its own success. James Cameron and his crew offered a template for meticulous and imaginative digital-based world creation, only for hundreds of subsequent filmmakers to use the same tools in the service of disappointingly banal visions. Inadvertently they facilitated not just the decimation of celluloid filming and projection, but also the rise of “cinematic universes” which trade more on familiar iconography than visual invention to draw audiences. In such company, Avatar feels like but one alternate world of many, one window of “intellectual property” amid a multiverse of screens. But regardless of whether the sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water—arriving after years of technological and creative delays—pays beaucoup dividends for 20th Century Studios (now a subsidiary of Disney), the film functions as a reminder that no one can make a blockbuster like James Cameron.
Commentators have underestimated Cameron and Avatar for other reasons. Many continued to fall back on disparaging the story, which follows the natives of the paradisical world of Pandora defending themselves from exploitative humans, by comparing it to presumed-hackneyed referents like Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. But doing so evinced a lack of literacy in the science fiction and fantasy foundations upon which Cameron was building. In the decade-plus since, some of those sources have themselves been made fodder for big-budget movies, including John Carter of Mars and Dune. Rather than make more learned viewers of sci-fi, these have retroactively made those structural works of the genre look more clichéd. Such dismissals also elide how the Avatar series explores the relationship between the body and the self. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) finds redemption from his past, liberation from a dead Earth and from the paralyzed legs he resents, in remotely piloting the body of an alien Na’vi. Valid criticisms have been made of the first film’s treatment of its subject—its casual cruelty toward disability, the ways in which Jake’s arc renders white appropriation of Black and Indigenous culture as literal physical transformation—but it was onto something in its portrayal of living vicariously through technological means. Subtextually, many of the characters are doing the same thing: motion-capture performance itself is a kind of technological surrogacy.
The Way of Water deepens these ideas of biological doubling. After many years, the villainous Earth corporation RDA has returned to Pandora, and Jake, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and the rest of the Na’vi take up arms against them. As horrific novel counterinsurgency, RDA deploys “recombinants”—avatars imprinted with the uploaded memories of dead personnel. This is how Stephen Lang reprises his cigar-and-scenery-chomping role as Colonel Miles Quaritch, killed at the end of the previous movie but back now as a “recom.” In a morbid spin on the Hamlet “Alas, poor Yorick” monologue, the Quaritch recom discovers and regards the skull of his human predecessor… before crushing it in his bare hand. Though he avows his own distinct personhood, the human Quaritch’s memories haunt the villain; against his better judgment, he holds the same grudges and affections. Sigourney Weaver, too, is back despite her character, the scientist Grace Augustine, dying in the first movie, and in an even more conceptually byzantine way. In another example of the series’ questioning of human iteration, she plays a teenage Na’vi, Kiri, who was born from the body of Grace’s avatar, comatose without a human pilot and whose pregnancy is a complete mystery to her compatriots. Like Quaritch, Kiri’s “past self” looms over her. In some stories, a quest to learn about one’s parent is a metaphorical vector for self-discovery; here those two threads are the same.
Such questions are raised amidst a plot that, even more than in the first movie, feels like an excuse for the crew to conjure a visceral, wondrous world for its viewers. With the recoms after them, Jake and Neytiri relocate their family to the coast, seeking refuge with the reef-dwelling Metkayina tribe. Here the film repeats many beats of the first, with outsiders immersing themselves the ways of an unfamiliar community. The forest-native Na’vi must learn to free dive, wrangle sea creatures, and fish. Most of the runtime is dedicated to these experiences, which are by extension further tours of Pandora for the audience. Jake and Neytiri are sidelined, with much of the film seen through the eyes of their children—primarily Kiri and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton). In parallel, the human foundling Spider (Jack Champion), who spends more time with the Na’vi than his own species, witnesses Quaritch and the other recoms undergoing a dark version of Jake’s evolution from the first film, learning the ways of the Na’vi to better kill them.
In many respects Avatar now feels like a dry run for its successor. In the reef biome the famously ocean-loving Cameron and the film’s army of artists and animators are creatively unfettered. The jungle of Pandora was lush and detailed, but the sheer ecological verisimilitude of the reef here is even more impressive. Many of the technical delays came with figuring out how to make submerged motion capture work, and it’s paid off. Venturing underwater allows Cameron to flex his prowess as a visualist, ensuring that this stands above a crowd of indifferently shot blockbuster competitors. These are rare films where 3D exhibition feels like an asset; Cameron understands such technology not as a simple excuse for things “coming at” the viewer, but as a natural deepening of the three-dimensional parallax which any good filmmaker can construct. The camera is frequently in motion, shifting elements like characters, animals, vehicles, and terrain in an intricate dance. Despite the impossibility of the otherworldly imagery, every shot feels like it comes from an actual camera perspective, which lends the film its verisimilitude. When Jake has an abortive first flight on a flying fish, one shot is styled like a handheld strapped to the saddle, with him haplessly clinging to it while fighting the rush of wind and water.
The Way of Water constructs this paracosm so confidently that the viewer’s empathy naturally extends to telepathic whales. The Metkayina consider themselves kin to the pods of tulkun (whales, but with more eyes and horns) which periodically visit them, and much of the film’s middle hour follows Lo’ak bonding with an outcast tulkun named Payakan. These creatures, and the RDA’s hunts for them, form the crux of the environmentalist message here. Their brain enzymes can halt human aging (again, an overt reference to the similarly environmentally minded Dune and its all-important “geriatric spice”), and so the tulkun have supplanted the “unobtanium” of the first movie as Pandora’s premier resource for devastating human extractivism. A foundational premise of Avatar is that all Pandora’s fauna are psychically connected, allowing the films to imagine the concept of nature “fighting back” quite literally. The film is at its most satisfying during such moments, and some of its biggest cheers during its extended climax belong to a whale righteously attacking a ship full of soldiers. It speaks to how narrative engagement will always usurp technological advancement.
The Way of Water is unabashed in its messaging, another quality that drew derision toward the first film. If anything, though, years of blockbusters studiously avoiding overt sincerity for fear of appearing “cringe” and basking in glibness have since made the original’s earnestness stand out all the more. The unsubtle references to “shock and awe” campaigns and the collapse of the World Trade Center in the first film were dismissed as a hangover anti-Bushism. Subsequent years of continued U.S. warmongering under “liberal” governments have since illuminated the audacity of layering 9/11 imagery to the tragedy of a people experiencing an analogue of U.S. imperialism.
That is the central contradiction of Avatar as a whole: it is a full-throated, sincere anticolonial text, but it also trades in a host of tired ethnographic tropes of indigeneity in its imagining of the Na’vi. Returning to the subject of whales, anthropologist Arne Kalland has theorized that, rather than accurately conceive of individual whale species, humans tend to conflate the qualities of disparate whales into an imagined “super-whale.” Cameron and his cohort have done something similar with various tribes and nations the world over in their conception of the Na’vi. Though the film’s sympathies never leave this side of the conflict, this kind of generalization can register as its own dehumanization. The Na’vi are simultaneously African, Native American, Pacific Islanders, Asian, but also none of those. Such is the pitfall of parable.
Avatar is more successful where it grapples with the traditional iconography of science fiction, particularly since Cameron has played a large role in shaping modern movie sci-fi imagery through the Terminator and Alien series. That these films get audiences to root against the genre’s usual heroes—the aggressively patriotic figures of the space marines, and the attendant man-machine melding of the mech—is another of their triumphs. There’s a scene in Avatar in which Jake dangles off the wing of a gunship, seizes a missile, and throws it into an engine, downing the ship. It’s an inversion of the climax of True Lies, a masterfully made actioner that’s also gleefully racist. (It has one of the largest entries in Jack Shaheen’s essential historical overview Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.) In Avatar, the subjugated victim of imperialism and the capable space marine are combined into one, and he manages to outwit and overpower his vastly better-equipped foe. That’s more subversive than the lip service the film pays to “the way of water,” a highly nonspecific new-agey liturgy that gains no additional heft no matter how many times it’s repeated.
As the second of a planned five parts, Avatar: The Way of Water cannot escape that feeling of liminal, transitional narrative which plagues so many “cinematic universes.” Various mysteries are set up and then strewn aside, character arcs are gestured toward but unfulfilled, future conflicts are promised without much sense of resolution. Lacking a way to feel self-contained the way the first film did, this installment struggles to muster a satisfying conclusion, settling for three stacked climactic set pieces that wear thin toward the finish. For all its technological breakthroughs, skillful construction, and refreshing sincerity, Avatar is, ultimately, still a modern movie franchise.