Perhaps this isn’t the ideal way to open an article about celebrating the Avatar films, but I feel like I must confess: I don’t love Avatar.
I certainly do like both James Cameron‘s Avatar and its just-released sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water. I saw both in theaters, immensely enjoyed the experience each time, and then went about my life, having quickly forgotten most of what I just saw. This is all to say, Avatar movies are great but I can’t see myself buying a Na’vi lunchbox anytime soon.
And that’s fine. Not every film needs to be loved. Avatar‘s financial bottom line isn’t being hurt because one or more individuals don’t love the movie. Even if Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water don’t need to be loved though, they do need to be respected. More than that, they need to be celebrated.
Avatar: The Way of Water is quite literally historic in the scope and scale of its filmmaking technological advancements. 2009’s Avatar was already groundbreaking, and The Way of Water is even more so. Cameron, already entrenched in the filmmaking canon for his many technical innovations, outdoes himself every way in this film.
The Way of Water basically takes all of the already ethereally stunning imagery of the first movie, perfects it even further, and then puts it under-freaking-water. This genius… this absolute mad man literally put actors in motion-capture suits and then submerged in glorified swimming pools, and had the final product come across as photorealistic. Twenty or so years ago, animators hesitated to build human CGI models with long hair because it was so difficult to render. Now photorealistic blue aliens dance around underwater as their locks perfectly follow their movements. Creating realistic CGI underwater seems like as big a human accomplishment as the moon landing. At the very least, it certainly took more computing power.
Praising the computer-generated visual imagery in any given movie might come across as damning it with faint praise. “Great! This movie looks realistic. Now what? I can point my iPhone camera at a tree and it’ll look real.” That may be true, but I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated enough as a culture just how incredible the Avatar movies look. There are moments in The Way of Water where human actors appear next to Na’vi or another Pandora creature and the level of detail is indistinguishable. If a real-life alien were to examine such a frame with a magnifying glass, it couldn’t tell you which creature(s) were the “real” ones.
In terms of the raw story behind those compelling images, the Avatar franchise brings more to the table than you might recall. We’ve all heard the criticisms that Avatar (and now its sequel) are just repackaged versions of American stories like the highly mythologized account of Pocahontas or the entirely fictional Dances With Wolves. That’s not an inaccurate observation, but it is an unfair one. Grafting larger-than-life stories onto familiar storytelling archetypes is kind of what movies this size do. Avatar: The Way of Water was designed to be a global phenomenon. And to appeal to an audience the size of *check Wikipedia* the 8 billion people on planet Earth, you need to hone in on some universal concepts.
In Avatar, that includes the concept of home and the lengths people go to defend them. In Avatar: The Way of Water, that expands to the concept of a family and the terrifying fragility that comes along with loving them. Both films are bound together by a deep understanding of the endless capacity for human greed and destruction, a concept that surely transcends all language, cultures, and customs.
The story in Avatar: The Way of Water isn’t sophisticated. Hell, it’s basically the same as Avatar. But it still gets the job done all the same… and in an unexpectedly subversive way. In an era where audiences are increasingly sensitive to being “preached” to, Avatar: The Way of Water presents a condemnation of colonialism visceral enough to penetrate the average moviegoer’s mind, but subtle enough to not set off the “woke” panic button the internet installed there. This is an intensely misanthropic film that knows how to win an audience to its side. When human beings and whales engage in battle onscreen, the human being in the reclining Cinemark chair is going to root for the whales every time. Or at least they should.
Avatar: The Way of Water certainly isn’t perfect. Three hours and 10 minutes is quite simply an asinine running time, particularly when the central conceit of the film doesn’t begin until an hour in. Several new characters are forgettable (with equally forgettable Na’vi names) while some returning characters like the terrifying Miles Quatrich (Stephen Lang) are flattened and defanged. I suspect The Way of Water will slowly drip out of the back of my mind just like the original Avatar did. Before it does though, I must take a moment to appreciate it.
So much of the Avatar discourse has historically surrounded what the movies do wrong. Yes, the papyrus font was weird. Yes, names like “Pandora,” “unobtanium,” and even “Avatar” itself feel frustratingly first draft-y. Yes, Avatar doesn’t pop up in common conversation as much as one might expect considering that it’s the most financially successful film of all time. None of that changes the fact that Avatar, and now Avatar: The Way of Water, is spectacle done right.
In a world where most blockbusters are assembly line rollercoaster rides, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate a properly made rollercoaster that submerges its riders underwater.. First ballot Geek Hall-of-Famer James Cameron took $400 million of Fox and Disney’s money and then commanded more than a decade of their patience, all to make the pretty images in his head real.
If that’s not worth celebrating then I don’t know what is.