Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water ★★

It is hard to know where to start when dissecting a film as large, and as flawed, as this. But, for me, the key issue is framing. Avatar: The Way of Water continues the perspective from the first film, taking baggage with it. Sam Worthington still gives a, let’s say, uninspiring turn in an underwritten (or just poorly written) role; his eyes, or his perspective, guides the story. For example, extended (and rather soporific) sequences he narrates the world to us, and it’s an issue.

He is still the outsider perspective, a thing complicated more if you take the narrative of the first film in your head when sitting with the second. Pandora may have promise as a world but Cameron and co. can’t find a successful way in. The characters we accompany and the stories we are told are uniformly flat; the way we are told about the world is didactic, and always from an external view.

These are ostensibly films about culture, about indigenous culture, but the filmmakers always keep us looked to the perspective of an outsider. There is the presumption that the audience needs a surrogate but the result of this is stories about people as opposed to from people; these are tourism films, even when it comes down to world building. There’s the potential for magic in the minutiae, the details of the world, but the world never expresses itself or exists to be experienced, or uncovered. Because we are always positioned as the outsider, or with them, we are always explained to. Details can’t just be, we don’t learn through expression. There is a detailed culture of space whales but we can’t intuit this, this isn’t shown. Somebody must lecture us on how they have philosophy, mathematics and music. Putting aside, for a moment, that the need to humanise, or link to expected touchstones of culture is reductive, it’s just an uninteresting way of experience a world.

This is especially apparent as the story and characters hold little of value. In so many minutes nobody is really crafted, in terms of characterisation. There is talk of family and the like, but even this is insular. To become self parodic, it’s a colonialist lens — or just a neoliberal lens. Where the cultures depicted have these wider views of family and connection, the filmmakers must pull us back to something synonymous to the ‘family unit’. This is given slight ripple through adopted members but collectivity and belonging here is on the familial, not the societal, level. It is another tell of how it is framed and who it is for. When a film like Powerlands came out this year, directly dealt (yes, it’s a documentary, but still) with indigenous culture in a broad and deeply authentic way, and also is about resource colonialism, the simplicities of The Way of Water start to stick. This is culture as aesthetic and boils down to a tale of the hero (their background as the white, male American always hovering somewhere) taking on new cultures and excelling.

The wider story is just bad. For comedically undermotivated reasons, and after a ‘somehow Palpatine survived’ style retcon, we follow the story of one dude wanting to kill another dude. It is an excuse for a tour through a cinematic world but tour is the operative world. The shallow, ironically I guess, world presentation is theme park ride-esque, but specifically something like It’s a Small World. These morsels of narrative are then supplemented by sequences of cookie-cutter arcs, the feeling of copy and pasted in known dynamics presented with the hope they will create character — they instead evoke apathy.

There is good action. It’s not thrilling but it does compel. It is nicely thrown together and a raw, technical ambition, though it is undercut by the over reliance on CG. This never feels weighty and real, even when you know bits are. The general aesthetic still does nothing for me, a bland screensaver-ish construction that always reminds me of placeholder or concept art — or graphics card boxes. Among all of this are scattered moments of the kind of filmmaking you know Cameron can deliver, but it’s all left lost, drowned under the weight of water.

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