Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Avatar: The Way of the Water (James Cameron, 2022)


The first Avatar was too long too loud too ludicrous with its bioluminescent creatures (try hide in a forest when you glow in the dark) and floating mountains (apparent side effect of implausibilium-- sorry, unobtainum); worst than the scientific howlers were the dramatic ones, like yet another white savior come to lead the natives out of oppression (T.E. Lawrence, Paul Muad'Dib, Indie Jones, meet Jake from State Farm sorry Corporal Jake Sully, USMC). Cameron has the mindset of a true obsessive, able to blow hundreds of millions of dollars to create intricately realized worlds, but his skill at characterization and realistic human interaction remains at toon level. Some thirteen years later Cameron has re-emerged with not just one but three proposed sequels and one wants to ask: what makes him think we needed another nine hours of what we didn't want in the first place?

I don't know; three hours later with the credits finally crawling across the screen I still don't. Jake from State Farm has not just won the day and the girl but sired three kids (two boys and a girl); adopted a girl and a human boy; waged a year-long insurgency on the sky people (translate: us), who have come back not for implausibilium but for lebensraum: living space. Earth is dying (guess whose fault?) and humans are looking to establish a new home (guess whose planet?). 

All sorts of issues with how Cameron frames the struggle between humans and Na'vi. The humans drop down on billowing rocket fire, torching miles of forest and forest creatures; they set forth shooting said creatures right and left and-- well haven't they heard of the term 'diplomacy?' True there's always awkward history between peoples-- never stopped Italy and the United States or Japan and the United States or Germany and the United States (pattern forming much?) from developing cordial relations. True the Na'vi aren't on the same technological level, much like Native Americans compared to the arriving Europeans, but at least the Europeans made an effort, establishing outposts and trading routes-- but my larger point is this: do we really want yet another story of ugly white imperialists coming down hard on beautifully serene natives? Nine more hours of it, at the cost of I'm guessing 1.2 trillion dollars?

Pity is that for once Cameron might have hit upon a convincing motive for returning to Pandora-- humans invade because they must, for their survival. All kinds of quandaries and complex issues can emerge from that urgent overriding imperative; for once the Na'vi might not even keep the moral high ground. But no-- the soldiers mount their exoskeletons cock their assault rifles fire into the surrounding forest with armor-piercing rounds, killing any chance at dramatic complexity. 

A different filmmaker might have the invaders handing out smallpox-infested blankets-- but that suggests a three-season mini-series, done on a smaller budget, maybe with less CGI. Plus a subtler more sophisticated mind writing a more complex script. Cameron knows his audience needs bang for their bucks now, else this $460 million tulkun will sink straight to the sea bottom. 

Fair nuff-- but three hours? Lav Diaz takes anything from four to eleven hours to unfold his narratives because they need room to sprout stillness and gravitas round their ideas (four to eleven depending on the ideas and how much required-- as Lav puts it it's an organic process). Checking Cameron's script you find points where he's obviously stretching what should be a smart ninety-minute thriller to pseudo-epic length. And O the laziness! If you call in medical help in the form of an airborne ambulance, wouldn't it follow that your enemies will track said ship to your hiding place? If you free kids handcuffed to a metal railing shouldn't said kids be smart enough to dive straight into the sea and hide without hanging around making high fives and getting captured again? If big engines explode do we really need yet another child sucked into the maw of yet another large ship, exposing our heroes to yet another impending peril? And if you decide to face your mortal enemy in a duel to the death shouldn't you expect your fellow tribesmen and sympathetic cetacean to at least hang around and provide moral support-- maybe a helping hand? 

Actually the aforementioned cetacean (a rogue tulkun) seems like the sharpest knife in a shoddily equipped kitchen. When Payakan goes into action the enemy is stunned-- they keep swinging their harpoons round to deal with this massive new threat, but he's constantly a step ahead of these foolish mortals. True he's had years to plan his revenge ("if I meet that demon ship again this is what I'll do") but at least he planned; he doesn't just rush into the fray with little else but a knife and a pure heart.  

A lot of dumb moves from a lot of tall folk-- the Na'vi's height averages three to four meters, reportedly because the planet Pandora has lighter gravity. But if so and taking a page from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels (one of Cameron's crucial inspirations) wouldn't the diminutive Earthfolk with their heavier-gravity muscles prove stronger, capable of fighting the Na'vi at least to a standstill? 

Maybe not Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Scully family's matriarch: when push comes to shove and her children are threatened her lips stretch tight round her teeth and she's a feral fearsome foe. But Neytiri throughout the picture is a passive wife, constantly deferring (tho not without argument) to her supposedly smarter husband. Jake in turn is the family's wise patriarch but makes one dumb move after another ("they're hunting us," he decides, and takes his family into hiding; "it's a trap," he declares, and walks in anyway); I keep waiting for the moment when Neytiri decides she's had enough, stands up, cuts Jake's useless throat, and then kicks serious ass. 

Nitpicking I suppose. But everything from the oppressively blue color palate (the forest people are a deep teal the reef folk a bright cyan) to the monochromatic villains (Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch snarls convincingly but after two hundred and forty minutes the routine gets old) to the boringly noble leads (Sam Worthington as unflappably cool as his State Farm equivalent) to the irritatingly chipper tiresomely hormonal youths makes one feel like standing up and spraying the big screen, using one's personal water to express distaste at all the vast expensive water on useless display. 

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