Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Avatar The Way of Water

My notes on Avatar The Way of Water

If we give Piranha II a pass note for being tyro work, then Avatar was my least favourite James Cameron movie until this came out – though it’s not a complete write-off and is in many ways astonishing … which goes for the sequel too, with the caveat that the thought of eventually five three-hour plus films of this universe might be too much for the brain to bear.  It’s the Cameronian mix of self-sacrificing soap and intricately detailed worldbuilding again, with literally less and less human element before or behind the cameras.

After the end of Avatar, which I watched again because so little of it had stuck in my memory, the militarist bad guys from Earth were sent packing from Planet Pandora and crippled double agent Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) was permanently fused into his avatar Pandoran body to make a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) … after a brief recap, we pick up the happy blue people with a bunch of blue kids whose names you don’t really need to learn, though Kiri is a tween beanpole with the face of Sigourney Weaver and Spider (Jack Champion) is the left-behind human kid of just-deaded big bad Quaritch (Stephen Lang), whose backup persona is now downloaded into a blue meanie.  For reasons that become clear later on, and would owe a bit to Star Trek Insurrection if we didn’t know Cameron had been brooding on this for decades, the gits and grunts from Earth show up again, intent on punishing insurrectionist traitor Sully and getting what they want from the planet while incidentally displacing and/or killing the indigenous population.  Our hero’s first instinct is to up his family and flee from the forest to the sea, where they have a rough hour or so settling in with a Namor-type local fish-friendly tribe bossed by CGI greenskins for Kate Winslet (her beauty mark is reproduced on her Pandoran face) and Cliff Curtis (who has Maori-type tattoos on top of the green, which is overegging it).  Quaritch and Spider get together and have a fraught relationship of Bad Dad and Kamandi lookalike, while the Sully kids – not all their own – and the fisher kids bicker, bond and have semi-romances.  Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), the Sully kid whose name you’re forced to learn, bonds with an outcast mutilated spacewhale who went rogue after his mother and pod were slaughtered by Earthwhalers led by a nasty Australian (Brendan Cowell) who runs a mammoth aliencetacean-killing ship (which wittily has ‘research’ written on its side – Cameron quite often scores solid hits).  If you saw The Abyss or Titanic, like nine tenths of this planet did, you won’t be surprised that the extended climax comes when the ship sinks and everyone has to struggle to escape from it, while battling each other – with at least one character due to be violently written out to provide angst for next installments and a couple more getting bereaved, mutilated or prodded down a dark path.

When Avatar came out, Cameron was the visionary pioneer of 3D – a mode which has been in retreat for a decade or so now, and seems unlikely to come back in force.  They’ve stopped press-showing the 3D versions of, say, Marvel or DC movies – and when was the last time you randomly turned up to a cinema and found the film showing was in its 3D version?  Now, Cameron adds variable frame-rate to his box of tricks – and makes better use of it than anyone has to date, actually varying the rate rather than just sticking with that look approximating an ITV teatime serial in 1978 that the first Hobbit flick was stuck with.  The effect is particularly handy with water, which helps a finish as vehicles are flooded.  We also get a ton of paperback cover alien fish to go with the dragonthings and bugthings of the first film, plus that whalething which is supposed to be a philosophy genius to make the hunting of the species more tragic but just yawps like Moby Dick 2.0 for the most part.  Cameron still has a knack for orchestrating action scenes with multiple perils like no one else, and effects have leaped over the uncanny valley so you genuinely forget you’re watching big cartoons rather than disturbingly elongated sexualised adolescent actual beings.

It’s only when you discern familiar actor faces under the snarls that the illusion freezes, but the leap I couldn’t make is to care about the agonies of CGI Worthington – hauled back to blockbuster leading man status ten years after he came and went and showed some promise as a character guy (I liked him as a villain in a little western The Keeping Room) – and company, with Saldana pushed out of the picture by the juniors.  With Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, Arnie and Jamie Lee Curtis or Edward Furlong, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio, Cameron has made sacrifice-all-for-family a spine for his whole filmography … but here his own writing as much as the reliance on effects lets the side down.  The tension between tech and humanity has always been a part of Cameron’s world – before and behind the cameras – and he has always owned up to deep suspicion of the military or computer hardware he renders in such cinematic terms … but here he flounders (literally, sometimes) when trying to come up with a positive to set against that negative.  The alien society is all too obviously South Sea island stuff with an outer space makeover – less distinctive than the Mesoamerican rethink of Marvel’s Sub-Mariner in Black Panther Wakanda Forever – and too often the dramatics revert to dim memories of some Jon Hall/Dorothy Lamour kitsch sarong opera of the 1940s.


10 thoughts on “Film review – Avatar The Way of Water

  1. Honestly, I’d much rather see “The Hurricane”, or even the entertainingly goofy “Cobra Woman” than sit though this elephantine cartoon again. And the idea of watching three more of these things almost meets some sort of legal definition for torture.

    Posted by Michael J. McNeil | December 22, 2022, 3:11 pm
  2. I enjoyed the film mostly on its technical merits — the storytelling is incredibly clunky, and while some actors break past the script limitations, Zoe Saldana is reduced to just hissing.

    Posted by joelfinkle | December 22, 2022, 3:44 pm
  3. Looking forward to and dreading this for many of the reasons you describe. Love to see a big Jim Cameron blockbuster, not so keen on the blue people…

    Posted by film-authority.com | December 22, 2022, 4:53 pm
  4. In the long hours of boredom I found myself reflecting that King Kong was a more beautifully rendered jungle picture in all it’s aged b&w celluloid glory. He can still do action but the ending was strangely flat. A good drinking game would be counting how many times they said “Bro”

    Posted by david smith | December 22, 2022, 5:25 pm
  5. I rate this movie 5 out of 10. Story line bad. Would not recommend to adults, but ok for children.

    Posted by Dennis Williams | December 26, 2022, 12:52 am
  6. I loved the film, I normally read reviews and watch them if the reviewers don’t like them as the reviewers nowadays are out of touch arty people in glass houses. I haven’t been disappointed once.

    Posted by Mick | December 26, 2022, 7:30 pm
  7. If you don’t like it just leave it alone! We watched it and liked every minute of it! I can recommend to those who are a fan of the blue people!

    Posted by Rozsa | December 27, 2022, 8:49 am
  8. I loved the first one. One of my all time favourites. Not so much this one. The first hour is beautiful, scene setting and recap. The second hour is equally beautiful, introducing the green people and their habitat. But overall, quite boring so far. The final hour is where the majority of the action is, but I found it all so predictable.

    Posted by nufc1961 | December 27, 2022, 9:34 pm
  9. People just love to jump on the hate band wagon to feel good …. I loved it and looking forward to more ……

    Posted by Paul Woodward | December 28, 2022, 8:29 pm

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