As many have been lately, this wasn’t a banner week for human beings. It started with folks posting a deluge of AI-rendered fantasy portraits of themselves. It ended with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a film that almost entirely uses CGI versions of actors; those versions can be more easily manipulated by detail-obsessive creators. On the one hand, maybe this will stop the David O Russells and Stanley Kubricks of the world from traumatizing performers who can’t smize right. On the other, the rush to literally strip humanity from art feels…not great?
Talking about what “Way of Water” signifies is more valuable than discussing the film. Because the film is just regular-old stupid and bad. Writer/director James Cameron likely believes multiple billions in box office receipts rendered mute the legitimate concerns about the gross pan-indigenous themes of the original. They’re all here again. Everything is, really. Literally, it brings back dead characters and essentially repeats the final act of the last movie. Then it promises to do it again next time.
Jake (Sam Worthington) was once a human marine and is now living on Pandora in his huge blue alien body. He and his Na’vi wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), have kids now. That’s literally the only character development in the whole film. To be fair, breeding as a stand-in for having a personality isn’t something Cameron invented. The villain of the last film, Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is resurrected into a Na’vi body and immediately hunts down Jake and his family. This includes Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who is maybe Smurf Jesus? She was possibly immaculately conceived when her human mom’s Na’vi avatar body got pregnant and was then adopted by Jake and Neytiri. They don’t explain her biological origins, but hey, the film is only 192 minutes long, so they don’t have time for things like the only weird plot development.
Jake and his posse go on the run from the forest part of Pandora to the water part. This means that instead of plugging their tails into flying creatures they plug their tails into swimming creatures. I can’t say for sure that the Māori-inspired elements of the water tribe are culturally tone deaf or insensitive. I can only say that it feels that way. As the tree folk learn to be ocean folk, Quaritch tracks them down thanks to a feral kid named Spider (Jake Champion). Perhaps the most magical part of “Way of Water” is how it manages to be simplistic and convoluted at the same time. No CGI budget needed for that trick!
Oh, also Edie Falco shows up as a soldier who drinks coffee, while Jermaine Clement has a minor role in which he suppresses his accent poorly and participates in the slaughter of magnificent sea creatures. Right, totally forgot, the film also casually mentions that, in addition to now having the ability to download whole consciousnesses into different bodies, space whales have brain fluid that stops human aging. Either of those would make a fascinating subject for a sci-fi film. Instead, we get nonstop action that is never thrilling so much as oddly uncomfortable.
The technical achievements of the “Avatar” franchise are so often celebrated, as if cinema can (or should) be stripped down for parts. A proof of concept for computer animation isn’t a quality film any more than a Twitter bot is a viable political candidate. I am an absolute advocate for the development of tools that can support genuine, human storytelling. “Way of Water” has none of it. It is hollow, as empty as lungs screaming full-blast for three-plus hours.
To be clear, breakneck blockbuster action counts as genuine, human storytelling. There’s just none of that to revel in here, as the visuals are almost as often upsettingly odd looking as they are “cool.” What is the point of “Way of Water?” It largely ends where it begins, despite a voluminous runtime, and doesn’t even feel like it participates in cliched mythmaking. It feels like what it is: a very rich man who loves ocean shit playing with his newest toys. That’d be totally dismissible if the “technical advances” it purports to further weren’t potentially dangerous.
Laugh it up, but they are coming for our artists. Automation isn’t just for factories. If profit can be made by having things do stuff people are currently getting paid to do, they will find a way to replace them. They will be aided and abetted by control freaks who want playthings instead of actors. As a movie itself, “Way of Water” is just bland action. As a harbinger, it should make us all blue.
Grade = C-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Karen M. Peterson of Citizen Dame says “It is a pretty movie. It is a bad movie. There will be 3-5 more of them and none will achieve the cultural importance a series like this should be able to reach. For a director whose last great film was a quarter century ago, we shouldn’t be surprised, but we can still be disappointed.”
Wenlei Ma at News.com.au says “While the ambition was there, and you can see the emotions etched across the face of each Na’vi character, it doesn’t change the fact that the script was both overwritten and underwritten, which makes it difficult to invest in any of the characters.”
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “Cameron loses track of his characters, snarls his story, squanders his star power, and then dizzies 3D audiences with so much whiz-bang that they might feel attacked in lieu of awed. So, amid its wonders, this sequel sinks by its own grandeur.”