starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet
screenplay by James Cameron & Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
directed by James Cameron
by Walter Chaw The discourse leading up to James Cameron's Avatar: The Way of Water (hereafter Avatar 2) has been largely about how although the first Avatar is the second-highest-grossing film of all time, it hasn't left much of a mark on popular culture. It's a take derided for the evidence of the numbers and the emergence of a theme-park attraction, though I do wonder if its cultural impact isn't like that Song of the South ride "Splash Mountain," which is only just now, finally, closing in early 2023. I don't know that the vile myth of the happy enslaved person made much of a mark on popular culture, either, insomuch as it is, itself, already and essentially popular culture. Maybe Avatar didn't make much of a "cultural impact" because it didn't introduce any new ideas into the ecosystem while profiting from a few antiquated ones. In the interim between Avatar's release in 2009 and this first of four promised sequels, a lot has changed in terms of cultural tolerances--even if, systemically, things have not only not improved but regressed. Maybe the problem with Avatar is the same one that any stories about first contact with a technologically less sophisticated alien culture share, given how our historical templates for these narratives involve genocide and the pillaging of natural resources. When a white person tells a story of a white man saving an indigenous culture from other white men, however, I start to worry about what kind of fetish is being indulged, and to what purpose/at what cost. What's not in doubt is that Avatar 2 will make bank, because whatever kink is being indulged in white-saviour narratives has proven a durable and profitable one in a white nationalist state. That's one way to look at it, anyway.
A more charitable view holds that Cameron is using his technical mastery, his broad platform and secondary celebrity as an irascible gadfly troubling conventional wisdom, to tell otherwise-incurious people the story of the many atrocities this country has committed in its founding and perpetuation. And that the best way to do it is to provide a white hero working his way through a simplistic linear master plot, because writing a lesson plan pitched to the most gaffed people in class means dumbing it down to broad emotional appeals spiced up with a bit of the old razzle-dazzle. The best way to make an anti-gun/anti-violence film is to disguise it as Terminator 2--and the best way to make an ecological screed is to cosplay it as a picture in which the prevailing stereotype for Native Americans remains the one where they're all spiritual children of a sentient Nature. But I don't think those who need this knowledge are very good listeners, so what Cameron's doing is patronizing the wrong people and gratifying the worst ones. For what it's worth, I believe he means well. If he's racist, it's in the Cloud Atlas sense of a person who never has to deal with racism declaring that racism is silly and should be ignored in questions of well-intentioned representation. We're post-racial, man. (This is why, I assume, when Avatar 2 does the Hunt for Red October/13th Warrior language switch thing from Na'vi to English, the Na'vi voice actors continue to do a pidgin accent most familiar to fans of Apache Chief from the old "Super Friends" cartoon.) A pity it's minorities who are so often tasked with bearing the white man's burden. Like having a white kid with dreadlocks in your half-billion dollar movie, for instance, or Kate Winslet doing the Haka. I'm also reminded of the sharp, brilliant Sarah Silverman gag of protesting she's not racist because she "love(s) chinks! And who doesn't?" It's a perfect gag about how liberals can cause harm through their enthusiastic admiration. So here's James Cameron, one of the most gifted technical filmmakers who ever lived, making a giant film structured around elderly bumper-sticker politick. Baby on board; save the whales; keep America beautiful; save the rainforests; make love, not war.
Avatar 2 is the further adventures of white colonial spoiler Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who, at the end of the first film, had permanently transformed into an indigenous person and shacked up with indigenous warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) upon repelling the invasion of the Sky People (i.e., earthlings). As this movie opens, Jake and Neytiri have sired three offspring and adopted a fourth, moony teen Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). They're minding their own business until the inevitable return of the Sky People, who've come back to Pandora, it seems, not in a quest for more of the original's precious-metal MacGuffin, but because Earth's ecosystem has collapsed and humanity has chosen this planet, which has no breathable atmosphere and is teeming with "hostile" life, as a potential replacement. There have been better plans, but the picture doesn't dwell on it, so I won't either. Spearheading the colonial force is a kill squad composed of "avatars," indigenous meat puppets with white consciousnesses uploaded into them--including the first film's bogey, Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch has left a baby behind, incidentally, called Spider (Jack Champion), a character modelled after Donnie Thornberry or the feral kid from The Road Warrior who is best friends with Kiri and the other Sully kids. Quaritch will abduct Spider to serve as an interpreter on various harassment missions during which Quaritch and his irregulars torture villagers, murder their livestock, and burn their "hooches." Vietnam bad. It becomes muddy immediately as to whether Spider is doing this voluntarily, has inserted himself as a mole acting from the inside, or is merely functioning as an expositional device characters can explain things to. Maybe the answer is all of the above and Cameron is playing four-dimensional chess. Maybe in wearing every hat, Cameron lost a few threads along the way. It gets muddier still when Cameron, not content with the father/son melodrama of Jake and his two teen boys, Lo'ak (Britain Dalton) and Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), gives Spider an Oedipal issue in his inability to split from his demonic father (while identifying as a different species), making us wonder in the end if Spider has forgotten there's a tracking device in his breathing unit when he reunites with the Sullys, or if Cameron has. Maybe this will all be resolved in chapters three, four, and five. I can say that when Spider hides from Neytiri at the end, despite giving her no reason to mistrust him, it becomes clear that even though this film is over three hours long, giant chunks appear to be missing from it.
Like the chunk where the blue John Ford-era Native American cat people who live near the water explain how their best friends are whales that have been gone for a long time in what voiceover unhelpfully informs us is their "endless migration." A significant portion of Avatar 2 is devoted to the Sullys relocating from their arboreal tribe to a waterlogged one as part of a doomed plan to escape Quaritch and the Sky People, leading to myriad 3-D shots of blue John Ford-era Native American cat people underwater and a subplot about how Lo'ak is jealous of the attention his older brother Neteyam receives from Jake and so makes a series of rebellious decisions meant to prove his virility and impress his dad. Lo'ak finally finds a best friend in a whale exiled from his pod for engaging in violence. It's a little like the relationship between John Connor and the T-800: the same excited talking, desperate imprinting, and cautions not to kill anybody. Many a scene is burned on Lo'ak trying to explain how Free Willy is a friendly whale and stalking around moodily when no one wants to hear it. I want to note, too, how another of the blue John Ford-era Native American cat people declares that a lady whale is her "spirit sister," which is, of course, perilously close to the term "spirit animal" but different because they're both animals, I guess.
It seems the Sky People hunt these whales for their space ambergris--a surprise to me, because the whaling enterprise we witness (and we do get to watch a horrible whale-hunting sequence) can't possibly be as established as portrayed since the Sky People just got there, right? The parallel storylines--Jake running from the Sky People, and the whales--converge when Quaritch hijacks a whaling vessel to aid in the search for Jake among the blue John Ford-era Native American cat people who live near water. This leads to the final hour or so of the film, in which Sully tries to rescue his kids, who are taken hostage in one scenario after another, and the blue John Ford-era Native American cat people who live near water muster an army that promptly disappears for the last half-hour for no reason. At one point there's a fire on the water and Neytiri tells her daughter to run back onto a sinking ship to avoid it rather than dive down underneath it after we've spent what feels like a week watching these blue John Ford-era Native American cat people swimming underwater, the better to set up a Titanic/Newt-in-the-sewage-system-in-Aliens action sequence. I get it but, boy, is this a tortured way to contrive a set-piece.
Aside from the simplistic race commentary, ecological message, and familial interplay, what's most disappointing about Avatar 2 are these manifold inconsistencies. Consider the thread concerning the bullying of Sully's "half-breed" children for having five fingers instead of four, and how Neteyam notably has four fingers for most of the third act in either a rejection of the declaration that miscegenation is acceptable or an example of how wrangling a beast the size of this production is perhaps too big a job for even the mighty James Cameron. For all the scope of its digital landscapes (history's most expensive Ferngully cut-scene), the film is conspicuously half-baked. There are no surprising story beats save the thing with the whales, and that's only because it's such cornball hokum. Is it a spoiler to say a three-hour film that doesn't end is incoherent? What's left to recommend it is the opportunity to bear witness to the unbelievable ballsiness of making something like this and doing it without listening to anyone's warnings. There's a scene where a giant hovercraft emerges from behind a gate and I thought, "Spruce Goose"--a probably unintentional recognition that Avatar 2 is an act of notable arrogance, another monument to hubris--like, say, the HMS Titanic--challenging the limits of human technology so laden with manifest purpose it can only really be discussed in cautionary or ironic terms. There's a lot to pull out of any cultural artifact this immense; you can't make a thing that consumes this many resources and sucks up this much air without being emblematic of the times and circumstances surrounding its creation. It's garbage, but it's ours. Time to start sifting.