Avatar: The Way of Water is ludicrous but despite myself I was 3-Delighted
[Just getting into my annual review of Best Picture Oscar nominees! Last week I did Everything Everywhere All At Once – now, this:]
I never saw the first Avatar because I stopped going to movies like that when I became a grown-up. Sorry, I’m not being snotty about it; it was just one of the things I dropped, like blue jeans and snorkel coats and eating ice cream for dinner.
Up to about age 20 I still loved participatory cinema — and I don’t mean Rocky Horror, I mean any movies where you went in with a crowd to thrill and laugh and cheer in sync. I’d loved Star Wars and Jaws and all that when they came out, but once I got out of college and moved into my own place and got a job — and, maybe more importantly, lived someplace where I could see fancy-pants classic movies any day of the week — I began to lose my taste for that kind of thing.
Maybe it was the movies themselves. I remember seeing the first Chris Reeve Superman with a packed, totally psyched audience and thinking: This is just stupid. I totally checked out when Margot Kidder recited the lyrics to “Can You Read My Mind.” I didn’t even like the telephone booth gag. I was over it.
I still like the idea of that sort of movie mind meld, though. When I saw the old prison break film Le Trou at the National Gallery a few years back, the audience was practically breathing in rhythm with it, and collectively gasped at the big reveal at the end (don’t worry, I won’t tell you what it is). We all came out of that as if from a shared experience — like a roller coaster ride or a hostage situation.
But I never feel new movies that are supposed to do the same thing are actually going to do it. Maybe my tastes have just drifted too far from the mainstream. Maybe I’m a snob. Whatever. I never saw Avatar and if my annual pilgrimage through the Best Picture nominees didn’t require it there’s no way in hell I would have seen its sequel.
Now, I won’t say I disliked Avatar: The Way of Water because I can’t. It gave me the old Pavlov movie thrills — got me to cry in places I was meant to cry, got me to almost-laugh at times I was meant to laugh (OK, the Bluecat dad basically saying “you’ll have to forgive my mate, she’s been under a lot of stress” was funny), and during many of the twists and turns in the climactic battle I was literally at the edge of my seat, and only partly because it was 4DX and the chair bucked and rolled like bad turbulence on a small jet. (Also, when someone splashed water in the movie something sprayed jets of air at my face. Were these supposed to have water in them? Did the government make them stop because it was a health hazard?)
When I was done bouncing around, I reflected that the Avatar thing works by scooping out most of the grownup content one normally finds in movies (and plays, books etc.), such as character, complex motivations, and ideas about life on this planet that are not total Hollywood stoner yoga instructor eco-gibberish, and replacing it with tech wizardry — sort of like a bionic crutch —while leaving the simpler Once Upon a Time, thrills ‘n’ chills parts intact. Never mind the trite observation that Avatar: The Way of Water uses technology to criticize technology (ha, gotcha!); more interesting to me is its family resemblance to Gunga Din and Lives of a Bengal Lancer — children’s stories for adults that also use cool battle scenes and emotional triggers like family, loyalty, and autonomy to flesh out their otherwise boney imperialist fantasies. (Maybe that’s trite to observe, too; I’m not up on my Avatar analysis trends.)
Which I guess means it’s time to talk about the plot. James Cameron and his scenarists do a fair job of catching up noobs like me on whatever I missed in Part I: It’s The Future and U.S. Marines go around the universe fucking up planets like they were ‘Nam. (Earth is dying and humanity needs a new home, but still gross.) Pandora, home of the elongated cat people called Na’vi, is one of their targets, and to better physically adapt and infiltrate the Marines use future-sci mumbo jumbo to encase some grunts’ consciousnesses within avatars that have the same characteristics as the species they’re trying to dominate.
One such avatarized grunt, Jake “Sully” Sullivan, was on such a mission in Part I when he fell in love with the Na’vi Neytiri and defected, leading the Na’vi to victory and expelling the Yanks. The Way of Water happens years later; Sully and Neytiri have a lovely mixed family living on Pandora in peace — but surprise, the Marines are returning with new avatars, led by a hardass who carries the uploaded memories of Colonel Quaritch, Sully’s former earth commander, who expectedly has a hard-on for the traitor Sully.
And that’s an extremely cursory summary! Apart from the big conflict ending in a 30-minute battle royale, there are multiple small intrigues, like the little loinclothed full-human boy Spider who (mild spoiler) turns out to be the son of Quaritch, whose capture of the boy threatens the security of Sully’s tribe and forces him and his family to leave the Omatikaya tribe and live among the watercat Na’vi clan called Metkayina, where Sully’s kids and the kids of the Metkayina chief mix it up, not only leading to Lessons in Life and Love and (it must be said) The Way of Water, but also leading to plot-driving dangerous excursions (I feel like I heard Sully growl “what did I tell you” at the kids at least a half-dozen times).
The most unusual (and, for me, interesting) use of Way of Water’s three-hour-plus screentime is explication of Na’vi lore, particularly when Sully’s family join the Metkayina and have to take WaterWay lessons. Flying dragons and fiber hook-ups between the natives and Mother Nature appear to be canon from Part I, but The Way of Water introduces some even weirder shit, like how the Metkayina (and the forest refugee Sully fam, after a while) can not only go long stretches underwater without oxygen by becoming one with the water or some shit, but also ride the fanciful marine life like Aquaman and even communicate with it, not just telepathically but with language —a little of yours, a little of theirs (squeaks, clicks, etc.).
These psychedelic Marine World shows are a much bigger part of the movie than such scene-setting exposition is in any other fantasy movies I know about, and they were my favorite part of The Way of Water. For one thing, the craftsmanship of Cameron’s worldmaking is just too well done to deny. When lush Pandora first came up on the screen I groaned: Tits ‘n’ Lizards epic alert! But once it got going and the geography and anthropology became more varied and I could see and feel the physical logic of, for example, sea-dinosaur riding, I became, well, immersed.
And once that immersion is achieved — and give Cameron credit for figuring this out — the strange Avatar beliefs and alt-realities, even the most patchouli-scented ones, become much easier to accept. My belief in inter-species bonding is severely limited, for example; I love my cat, but I know our relationship is constrained by anthropological realities and that people who don’t know that need therapy, and I want to save endangered species because destroying them is insane, not because they’re my buddies. But in the thick of the movie, when the Marines willfully kill a whale cow (tulkuns, they’re called here) and the Metkayina chief’s wife howls in agony, and even cries that the dead whale was a “composer” of “great songs” — well, I didn’t laugh, and if you know me that’s saying something. And when a specific tulkun, bonded with one of Sully’s sons, plays a heroic role in the climactic battle, let’s just say I wasn’t inclined to discount the thrill on grounds of anthropomorphism.
This is fortunate because, as I said, the grownup stuff is utterly eviscerated. There is not anything anywhere in the movie that could be called a character. (Given the motion capture, the acting is literally impossible to judge.) Sully’s a jarhead, but the enlightened kind, like Jan-Michael Vincent in Tribes; Neytiri is spiritual and fierce and, well, that’s it. The kids are sitcom tykes and Colonel Quaritch, like his Marine comrades, is merely a concatenation of stereotypical Marine behaviors, such as telling a difficult civilian “I’m gonna do this the nice way and then I’m gonna stop being nice.” Even if you admire that subculture — and Cameron, to his credit, seems to grudgingly admire it — oo-rahs and outstandings do not a character make; next to Quaritch even Private Animal from Full Metal Jacket looks like Hotspur.
But is that a problem? Depends on how much traditional dramaturgy you’re willing to give up for the thrills of the experience — not just the fights and flights that jack the adrenaline, but also the mawkish but deeply-felt ecological overwash of the whole thing. (Though I also gotta say, it’s wild that Cameron came down so hard on American militarism and imperialism — and made literal billions doing it!)
I found myself giving up more than I expected for it. I am rational, I like to think, but I am also a child of the movies, and the sumptuous visual expressions of the eco-jazz overrode my skepticism. When [spoiler] a slain family member’s body was wrapped and ceremonially committed to the sea, and floated down to be nestled, and then subsumed, by glowing yellow sea anemone, and when his parents used the (yes, I know, absurd, ridiculous) neural hookup to relive their lives with their lost child, the make-believe beat the c’mon-now.
So I got enough of the old movie experience to be satisfied, even with the dry spritz. But as to whether it was really a participatory experience — as whether the crowd was with me, or I was with the crowd — who could tell? The sound was too damn loud.