Thirteen years after the record-breaking Avatar was released, we finally get the first of several sequels. I managed to see it under the best of (visual) circumstances, in our local IMAX theater. Yes, it’s stunning to the eye, and actually takes its time to occasionally luxuriate in its imaginary environment. There is nothing else out there like it in terms of creating its own filmic world, and Cameron deserves credit for that. There are some visual references to Terminator and Titanic (and even to Apocalypse Now), and perhaps more of Cameron’s previous work. That can be engaging, or off-putting, or not worth doing anything other than noting it. I chose the last option.
Cameron, never the best scriptwriter, tries to update the story for us and make it more relatable to a modern audience. He and his several other writers do it with many family-and-children related jokes, such as recognizable sibling rivalry, crude teenage speech, giving the middle finger, etc., even using the “Are we there yet?” question in one traveling scene that every parent has heard on a long trip. Yes, this is a basically a YA movie with great effects, and my guess is that the most appropriate audience for those looking beyond the visuals is that young adult audience. Nearly all of these additions can be called “cute,” but they tend to take the viewer out of the film.
I don’t like giving plot lines away, especially as I write more of an analysis than a review; I think plot developments should be discovered by the audience while they view the film. The original Avatar was Dances With Wolves on Pandora. This time it’s a chase/revenge film that drives the plot, which is an acceptable through-line in theory but which gets old rather quickly as it makes less and less sense as the film goes on. To keep momentum going as that plot-line gets thinner and thinner, we have a build-up of the usual big fight scenes and an increasing element of “this time it’s personal” added to the mayhem.
Hanging on to that through-line are many “we are family” and “family sticks together” moments and statements. This is about as deep as the film gets, and yet this theme is often contradicted by Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) own behavior. Sully treats his family as if he is still a military man, and any connection we might make with him as our lead and leader is consistently challenged by his lack of warmth and emotional support for his children. He keeps telling us that what a father primarily does is protect his family, but clearly, he only means it in the most superficial and physical sense.
A good deal of the film’s time is spent with Sully’s children, with the usual childish rivalries and reactions. They provide a number of funny moments, tense moments, and greatly add to the film’s running time. But considering that Jake is something of a jerk, and that we are robbed of any serious father-mother romantic time between Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) that might have helped round out his character, we’re torn between the plot’s insistence that he is the plot-driving central character and the fact that his kids are more interesting.
One new element was the young adult (really, mid-teenage) character of Spider (Jack Champion), who is Colonel Miles Quaritch’s (Stephen Lang) son, but who in his heart is an adopted member of the Sully family. Why he is there in the film and what he is supposed to contribute to the father/son themes of the film is beyond me. He acquits himself well and handles the dramatic challenges given him, and I am left to wonder if the sequels are going to make greater use of his character. He is personable and easily grabs the viewer’s sympathies, but his presence is often confusing.
And then there is the Job/Moby Dick-like side story of the Sully boy who communicates with the great fish. This pulls the film into a Disney direction that goes beyond the usual man-and-nature connections the film leans so heavily on.
Perhaps it’s because the film took so long to arrive on screens, but much of it feels dated. The pantheism that seemed at least different in 2009 now comes off as yesterday’s attempt at spirituality. The prayers to “Mother” seem just as retro. And the environmentalism and anti-colonialism (as well as the anti-capitalism) no longer supply the same energy and come off as a bit stale. Even the “I see you” aspect of the first film is repeated here in what seems perfunctory rather than earned.
What makes up for all that are the incredible visuals. Pandora and its environs are no longer new and surprising, but Cameron allows the film plenty of time to linger in its beauty. To many, those sequences may be the highlight of the film. The final sequences are textbook battle scenes, and they are stretched out to rather unbelievable effect. They bring much-needed dynamism to the last portion of the film, but it tends to bring the film into the Marvel/DC camp of “let’s end this thing with a knock-down, drag-out fight”. There are other imaginable endings.
While the first Avatar made a huge amount of money, it’s been noted that it had little long-range cultural impact. The same can be said of The Way of Water. It’s perhaps a little richer thematically than its predecessor, but it’s ultimately just as shallow.