Avatar The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water is tasteless, repulsive and conservative

1 star out of 5

It’s been over 10 years since James Cameron beat every box-office record with Avatar in 2009. Since then, we’ve been subjected to endless conversations about the film’s legacy (or lack thereof) and whether or not his undertaking a series of decades in the making of sequels will be an incredible financial gamble or a disastrous failure. Building on Cameron’s lifelong obsession with the ocean and also advancing technology, Avatar: The Way of Water is a spectacular achievement technically. Particularly in a cinematic landscape of cheap, hastened computer graphics and rehashed superhero narratives, you can hardly fault Cameron for his outsized ambition. Yet, after three hours in Pandora, the takeaway is nothing less than vague repulsion. How do I get off this ride?

Set over a decade after the events of the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water features a Sully family that has grown. Jake and Neytiri have a brood of children and, at least for a while, live peacefully on Pandora. Yet, with the return of the “sky people,” they’re increasingly forced to defend their lands against the encroaching and destructive Earth colonizers until they’re pushed toward the oceans to join a new tribe. 

Avatar runs over three hours and spends most of that runtime marvelling at the majesty of its own imagination. During many sequences, the film embodies a “no thoughts, just vibes” ethos as the Na’vi flit through forests and later are propelled through abundant underwater landscapes. The film captures a vision of a world that has yet to be pilfered by greed, where the line between humanoid and nature has yet to be eroded. It’s a film with a clear, if not simplistic, environmental message: “We’re destroying our planet and look at the relationships we’ve lost as a result.” 

Avatar the Way of Water film review

In many ways, the film is unimpeachable. We live in an era where Disney owns everything and has cut every corner in terms of developing cohesive special effects. Major studios have no vested interest in developing new worlds or tech because they’ve already won the game and the risk of colouring outside the lines is too high. What Avatar achieves with its visual effects is nothing short of incredible. Why, then, does it elicit such a violent negative response in the core of my being? Is this the future of cinema, or the death of it? 

Let’s get to the heart of it: The world Cameron has imagined is ugly — ugly as sin. The sleek, slender bodies of the Na’vi with their glowing cat-like eyes never escape its vaguely fetishistic design. It doesn’t matter how textured the skin is or how incredible the physics that can root them in space is; their lighthouse-like eyes are paradoxically too bright and cold. Their capacity for emotion is so frigid, stiff and monotone. While decorated with details and flourishes that distinguish one from the other, their uniformity feels boxed into a limited capacity for imagination. In a watery close-up of water reflecting off a peach-fuzzed blue stomach with taut abs, their physicality elicits something akin to the uncanny valley, an impending distrust and unease in the image. Still, even that is a generous reading that gives too much credit to the filmmaker. The problem with Avatar isn’t that it’s “too real,” but it’s not real enough.

It’s easy to break Avatar: The Way of Water down to its core themes about environmental sustainability. It’s a “save the whales” narrative that would be admirable if it weren’t so detached from our real world. Cameron has always had a tremendous instinct for action sequences, and he crafts many soulless set pieces that are marvels of editing and scale. He simultaneously shames most contemporary filmmakers while exposing his worldview and imagination as, conservatively speaking, tasteless.

Avatar the Way of Water film review

For all the advances in technology at work here, it’s hard not to be skeptical that they contribute to much of anything. The movie’s impressive underwater sequences decorated with strange animals and plant life never escape their pastel-toned screensaver feel. The added rendering layers are amazing, but seeing more specks of texture and sweat on a photorealistic 3D rendering of a piece of shit doesn’t negate the fact that you’re looking at feces. At least the theoretical piece of shit has an edge of humour and rebellion, two things sorely lacking here. 

Despite what some reviewers suggest, Avatar: The Way of Water does little to overcome the issues in the first film. The movie whitewashes theoretical Indigenous people and their struggles. The characterizations are shallow, and the performances are stiff. The majestic natural world of Pandora doesn’t look good, feeling like a second-rate fever dream of a 16-year-old with a low-level popular Deviantart account circa 2007. The Papyrus font, believe it or not, is still there and used unsparingly throughout the movie. The 3D with the high frame rate is vaguely sickening and has a bit of a soap opera effect, choosing “realism” over artistry. 

For a film that asks me to care about the natural world, it seems surprisingly uninterested in the materiality of our planet. By creating a grand, pale allegory of Earth’s destruction, it feels so distant and alien that it does a disservice to its message. Why am I watching sleek blue people frolic in underwater gardens because I should care about the fact we’re murdering our planet? For all its supposed imagination, the best Cameron can seem to imagine in the fight for our natural world is that we can keep the villains at bay until we can’t anymore. There’s no real plan here; there needs to be a vision for something revolutionary. The status quo is good enough, even though it’s done nothing but fail us thus far. ■

Avatar: The Way of Water (directed by James Cameron)

Avatar: The Way of Water opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 17, and is streaming now in Canada on Disney+.

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