Monday, December 26, 2022

The most dangerous thing about Pandora is that you might grow to love her too much


Directed by James Cameron
Written by Josh Friedman, Shane Salerno, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and James Cameron

Spoilers: high

It's been thirteen years now since James Cameron rocked our world with a fantasy of guiltless existence captured on the moon Pandora, and, light lag being what it is, thirteen years is inevitably how long it took for a follow-up.  But I can't quite shake the nagging feeling that whatever Cameron intended, Avatar itself never wanted any follow-up, because its fantasy was already complete.  Even the strongest attempt to continue its storywhich Avatar: The Way of Water at least gets pretty close to beingwould reopen the wound it had once dreamed closed.  Logically, that checks out.  I mean, logically, humans return to Pandora with full intention to commit genocide, rather than attempting to do so by way of a tantrum and in something close to a fair fight, at which point it's game over for any folks still at the bottom of a gravity well when their opponents are at the top.

It's a beckoning fantasy, thoughalbeit one prone to being mischaracterized, all the more in 2022 than in 2009, as Way of Water arrives upon a culture that has, they'll tell you, "moved on," though what they mean is a culture that has (ironically, given how little anybody cares about anything anymore besides fantasy intellectual properties) become unremittingly hostile to allegory and dream as modes of artistic expression, so that while I'll easily concede one of the things going on with Avatar was, putting it glibly, some white dude's bizarre transracial fantasy about becoming a Space Indian, it wasn't the thing.  Not very surprisingly, the Canadian used North American First Nations as a starting point, but it was always more atavistic than that, as honestly might make it even less sensitive, but this is something that should be apparent from the basic fact that for all that the Na'vi stand in metaphorically for the indigene mistreated by every earthly conquest, I'm at a loss to name even one indigenous culture, or even any Neolithic one, that rejects, in turn, agriculture and metallurgy and the technology to build, like, roofs over their fucking heads.  (They have houses now in Way of Water, which I'm not sure I like.  But the Na'vi barely had art in the first film, and have only slightly more now.)  It's a movie where I'm fairly sure they only still have bows and arrows because bows and arrows are cool, and you gotta kill space marines with something; it's a movie where animal domestication happens without any of the technology or technique humans developed to tame non-human life, but instead happens with animals who have co-evolved to be tamed, as a fully natural part of their life cycle, so that they practically want to be dominated, pretty much precisely in the sexual sense that this implies, given that the same Na'vi organs are involved in both acts.  Look, it was all very visionary, and I love it.  I fancy I've thought enough about the foundations of its appeal to, you know, grok it in its fullness.  And I still don't know how enough other people loved this extravagantly weird shit to make almost three billion dollars.

Unless, perhaps, they responded to that most human of all fantasies, about giving up being human, about dispensing with every human weakness and every human sin such as are borne by our hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), and about having trippy telepathic furry sex such as Jake has with his impossible girlfriend Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and about keeping just enough human individuality to still experience the awe of living in a world where a literal worldmind connects you in literal harmony with nature, the kind that humans like to pretend exists, while every human society has only ever done what all successful life forms on Earth do, because on Earth there never was any God to tell any of us, from the mightiest civilization down to the humblest cyanobacteria, to stop.  But, on Pandora, there is.

Profound and practically unusable, which is what makes it such good fantasy; but it's not necessarily fantasy made better by turning Jake and the Na'vi's mythic victory against the Sky People into never-ending pain, nor by turning Jake and Neytiri's off-putting furry pornography into Jake and Neytiri's off-putting domestic sitcom, nor, really, by complicating it in any way. Way of Water diminishes Avatar, just by existing.

Not that that's some unforgiveable crime.  If you need a justification for returning to the world of Pandora, that justification is sitting right there in your local theater being amazing (I have every hope it has Avatar's legs, too, because the damage is already done, and if we're going to have one sequel we might as well have all four, for it surely beats anything they've done with fucking Star Wars in thirty-nine years).  It is, it's true, not as novel an experience as Avatar was back in 2009, when it revolutionized mocap animation and resurrected 3-D, confirming the wildest possibilities of CGI if you were willing to put the time in, as well as legitimating 3-D as a potentially profound aesthetic tool if you used it well.  But one can say with little fear of contradiction that this is the best CGI or 3-D since 2009.  Now, I've long-since firmly committed to the opinion that Gravity is the better 3-D experience, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was better at using 3-D; and Way of Water handily surpasses its predecessor on both counts, particularly in the underwater sequences where the 3-D gets that look of refracted, dimmed light juuuust right.  The mo-cap CGI, meanwhilethe "performance capture," to have it Cameron's way for one sentencesomehow feels almost as much of a quantum leap as the first film's, which isn't objectively so, but after thirteen years of studios too often not putting the time in, Way of Water reaffirms what CGI modeling and rendering should always be like in 2022.

In its splendid photorealism, there remains something about Pandora, not that I reject, but that my brain rejects, as really real (in a sense, then, it may just be doing its job), so I still perceive it as a CGI cartoon.  (It's probably the prevalence of blue pigmentation, a vanishing rarity in our biosphere.)  But what a cartoon it is: "real" or not, this is as immersive as CGI animation gets, the addition of 3-D making it moreso, but probably not even serving as a necessary condition for that superlative.  The rigging of the CG faces dropped onto the actors isit's kind of unbelievable how good it is, so that while maybe my brain refuses to entirely concede the physical reality of the Na'vi, their dragons, their leviathans, etc., there is no such barrier to embracing the emotional reality therein, presumably mapped down to the very smallest discrete exertion of muscle tissue in the human faces beneath these non-human faces.  Suddenly, my favorite works of CGI-animated acting (Rapunzel of Tangled, if "pure" CGI animation counts, and Andy Serkis as Caesar if not) are knocked down to, like, honorable mentions. The pantheon is now occupied by every member of this film's Na'vi principal cast and numerous members of its secondary cast (in fact, Cliff Curtis, playing the chief of a new Na'vi clan, is potentially turning in the second-best performance in a film where he's playing the thirteenth most important character, thanks to mo-cap that captures his particular subtleties so well that the funniest thing in a movie that's surprisingly low-key funny, particularly in its performances, comes down to the way he moves his eyes in an embarrassed frown).  But then, those best performances might also number a space whale.

And this is just in the hard daylight, intensified by the light reflected off the waterWay of Water having the best lighting and, appropriately, the best water.  In several night scenes, meanwhile, lit by flames that have an uncanny cast to them, quite possibly because Cameron is a freak who would insist that fire burn a little hotter/quicker on a moon canonically stated to have a higher oxygen concentration, even my brain's quibbles about "physical reality" were silenced.  Every droplet of water and sheen of sweat presents itself as simply undeniable; suddenly, it was impossible to perceive these shadows and this firelight dancing on anything besides true-blue flesh.  There's excess here: I will never be convinced, for example, that Cameron's demand that everybody learn how to hold their breath for twenty minutes or whatever had any point beyond confirming the worst things I already thought about Cameron as a person, and says nothing whatsoever about him as a filmmaker (except he's willing to expend resources on inconsequential shit, because it might be the best cartoon but it's still a fucking cartoon, not an Esther Williams musical, and, Christ, there's no single take that lasts remotely as long as his cast's longest reported free-dives); but, you know, the swimming looks more than outstanding, it looks right.  There is a credibility to this newly-envisioned, even-more-indulgent Pandora that earnestly might outstrip the first film in spectacle and world-building.

Since I'm holding forth about the tech before arriving upon whatever the story is, it's unfortunate that I have to continue delaying that, since the tech is not all positive: Way of Water's innovation in the arena of THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE comes with its particular spin on high framerate presentation, where Cameron apparently flipped a coin as to whether to present a scene, or a shot, or, sometimes, half of a shot, in 48 frames-per-second or ordinary 24.  Speaking as a proponent of HFR, Cameron's way is, emphatically, not the way forward, which is disappointing given that Cameron's whole career has been gracefully handling one technical bleeding edge after another.  I'm sympathetic to the notion that Way of Water's prodigious length192 minutessuggested caution, for 192 straight minutes of HFR really might've been too much.  But it's possibly even more enervating in microdose; Cameron doesn't do us many favors by operating entirely outside of any comprehensive scheme.  It's more prominently used in "big" scenes (not all big scenes being action scenes, though all action scenes being big scenes), but this isn't uniform; there are expositional dialogue shots that go 48 FPS, and there's action in 24, and it's unnecessarily punishing that neither are we allowed to just get accustomed to this uncanny blurless motion (that doesn't represent real movement very well, incidentally, and just wave your damn hand in front of your face if you don't believe me), nor is it purely confined to sequences where its hyperrealism could function as an escalation of the experience's intensity, though it frequently bumbles into functioning that way.  Some of it, disagreeably, feels like it should have "NOT IN-GAME FOOTAGE" in Papyrus fine print underneath it, especially the flight scenes, where the absent motion blur is downright grating.  I'm tempted to say that it should've been withheld entirely until Jake's family arrives at the sea, maybe not until his daughter's first dive into the ocean; because for the same reason it doesn't work for flight, it works sumptuously for swimming through an undersea wonderland.

So that story, which is pretty much exactly that: "let us swim through this undersea wonderland, which, somewhat later on, we will realize is being mutilated by human greed just like the forest wonderland was in Avatar and also in the first hour of this film."  I'm not sure "hour" is precise, but I won't join the complainers who insist that Way of Water doesn't manage till it finds its title; HFR caveats aside, I was perfectly content to spend some time being reintroduced to Pandora's jungles, reintroduced to Jake and Neytiri and the Omaticaya who live there (Way of Water doesn't demand it, but it suggests that we now begin memorizing the names of these fictional ethnicities on a fictional moon), and reintroduced to the depredations of humanity who flatten what looks like several dozen square kilometers of those jungles just by landing on them.  We also need to be introduced, for the first time, to Jake and Neytiri's childrentheir biological offspring, teen brothers Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton) and young daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), plus their adopted daughter, roughly the same age as Netayam, the "transliteration" calling her "Kiri" though her name sounds in every instance more like "Kitti" or "Kiði" (Sigourney Weaver), and whom you might be able to guess, given her performer, is the child of human scientist Grace Augustine's avatar body, the result of a mysterious conception that isn't very mysterious if you remember Grace's attempt to link to the Eywa worldmind.  Attached to this family but apart from it, for obvious reasons, is "Spider" (Jack Champion), a human abandoned in his infancy during the colonial pause taken eighteen years ago, whose hair feels like active trolling on Cameron's part (I'm not sure I disapprove besides the pettiness, though if JC really wanted to troll it would've been Quaritch's daughter, and we'd see how the costume designers managed to barely hide nipples without recourse to the Na'vi tradition of magical digital glue).  Like Jake before him, Spider desires above all things to be Na'vi, but is relegated to painting blue stripes on himself and tagging along underfoot in a CO2 filter mask being, ultimately, worse than useless, since unlike Jake he has no massive scientific-military complex to give him the body of a big blue demigod.

You know who does, though?  Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), previously dead and presently resurrected as an uploaded save-state into a recombinant Na'vi avatar along with a clutch of other villainous space marines, and sent by the colonial forces' new general (Edie Falco) to eliminate the insurgency Jake's been leading since they returned, specifically by eliminating Jake and the Sullys.  In the film's first stumble over even the mildest complexity, Quaritch actually accomplishes this mission immediately, and with Jake's full cooperation, for in the face of Quaritch's sworn vengeance he takes his family and self-exiles to the far-flung islands, so that the colonizers' strategic goalneutralizing the major source of their opponents' insights into human tech and military operationsJake concedes without a fight.  (Some generals turn out to just be tacticians, I guess.)  Whatever this entails for the Omaticaya is not this Avatar movie's concern, like, at all, but it certainly leaves Quaritch some free time to pursue his personal grudge against Jake and Neytiri, snatching up Spider in the process and being confronted with the revelation that the abandoned child is his own eighteen year-old whoopsie, while also giving the Sullys leave to enjoy, for a while, their new sanctuary, provided by the aquamarine Na'vi of the sea, the Metkayina.

This is very straightforward, in principle, even if it's clunky getting there, but I still have not entirely decided how annoyed I am by this film's plot in its execution, and the substantive objections it generates above and beyond my personal, extrinsic objection, "Avatar is no longer a singular event and the last myth of American cinema, and now is just another IP to be flogged until it dies like everything else," though these objections are bound together: for all that Cameron hates Marvel movies, there's a whole lot about Way of Water that fucking feels like a Marvel movie, in that it does not exist as its own self-contained story but to set up future Avatar stories.  It's known that Way of Water is, basically, the first half of a single movie, and I've enough faith in Cameron that I expect it will feel more self-contained when it's joined by Avatar 3; but that is a fanboy excuse for the effort this film expends on setting up conflicts and concepts that don't actually matter to this movie.  This is particularly the case with Kiri the Kyrie, who might be mesmerizing in the strangeness of Weaver pretending to be a teen (very successfully, even, so that here's the film's very best performance), but only technically matters to the movie in the end, and not entirely in ways that feel that organic to it.  Consider, similarly, the portentous exposition that Falco is tasked with giving regarding the ecological dissolution of the Earth-that-was, and the intimation that Pandora is no longer just a resource but a destination for full-on exodus.  I'll at least give it credit enough that it doesn't belabor how this could be, leaving it to ominous implication that Avatar 3 will be centered upon the perverse spectacle of thousands of human settlers in Na'vi avatars, but that's just a little thing anyway; the abandonment of the ongoing Omaticaya struggle to spend all our time instead with the Sullys' tropical vacation comes off almost like an accident, like nobody even noticed, and that is a big thing.

And this is nothing besides the actual sin of commission here, in that Spider is absolutely superfluous until fifteen minutes before the movie ends, whereupon he suddenly finds himself at the center of a terrific and even queasy (in a good way) (I think) plot convolution, albeit one that doesn't quite pay off: it gives the film permission to reverse-Empire Strikes Back itself but is too half-hearted in the execution to actually be the emotional climax of a whole small movie's (not necessarily always a good movie's) worth of screentime centered upon Spider, who's also just had his infinite trust betrayed and his allegiance very badly complicated.  (A thing that I perceive has gone undiscussed about Way of Water is that it is nastier than Avatar, that is, grayer, and more morally compromised.  It's another aspect of a film that's really only half a film, in that I can't know how I feel about this yet.)  Anyway, the finale in general is indeed a little smallnot emotionally small, and I'm actually startled that an enormous cosmic epic of 192 minutes could possibly be satisfied with stakes as small as the good guys determined to make one particular son of a bitch paybut despite coming at the end of a forty-five minute third act that is basically one giant action scene that sharpens itself down inexorably into a small, intimate action scene, it somehow feels like it's still missing about three minutes of hopeless reversal if it's supposed to be our finale.  In this way it belies that description: what it is is what it still feels like, the rejiggered middle of a six-hour movie.

I could register other, minor complaints, and since one of them is so pervasive it threatens to become major, it's worth mentioning: I assume responding to the criticism that the dialogue of Avatar was too arch, the dialogue of Way of Water is sometimes obnoxiously naturalistic, to the extent that retitling the film Avatar: The Bros of Water might better-reflect its content, in the same way that Dude, Where's My Car? reflects its.  (Though what really chaps my ass is how freely and interchangably the brothers use both "bro" and "cuz," which might be fine for Earth teenswell, in the year 2000, when James Cameron stopped paying even slight attention to how young'uns talkedbut is unacceptable for Pandora teens speaking translated Omaticaya.  So here's a madperson complaint: I would have liked it if this entire movie were actually in subtitled Na'vi.  For the record, I still think you're dumb for getting upset over a font.  Anyway, I'm mildly annoyed that the language barrier between the Omaticaya and Metkayina, so long-isolated that the latter have, like, freakin' fins growing out of their arms, is overcome in what feels like an afternoon.)  I will not, I believe, complain about Cameron's valedictory self-plagiarism, pretty rampant and shameless throughout, though besides the obvious (The Abyss, plus the plot is basically Terminator 2) there are some extremely specific self-quotations here, from T2, Titanic, and maybe everything except True Lies.  I may complain slightly, however, how much recycling there is, structurally, from the first Avatar.

That is, I realize, a lot of complaining for a story that, even if I don't love it (even if a non-Quaritch version of this story, which turns out to have a perfectly sound basis for a whole new villain, would've worked just as well), is nonetheless awfully sturdy at supporting what Way of Water actually wants to do.  As the bro-centric dialogue suggests, this is actually much more focused on the Sully kids, legacy sequeling in a way that doesn't quite feel like conventional legacy sequeling, so that it genuinely feels like the story of a family, thereby earning both its teen yammering and its significant length.  Cameron has lost none of his skill in the intervening thirteen years in establishing immediately-recognizable personalities and dynamics.  (One of the best little but for that reason entirely perfect details about the movie involves a character I doubt even has a name, a female avatar marine blowing bubblegum during an atrocity.)  Nor has he lost his even-older skill in creating familial rapport.  The sheer elementalism of an Avatar might make it even keener, rendering Worthington's narration (also for the record, I like Worthington, despise his narration) totally redundant in the way it spells some of this shit out, since from the onscreen interactions one already comprehends, instinctively, that this is a story of FATHERS, and MOTHERS, and DAUGHTERS, and SONS, in exactly the blunt way those capitals connote, the latter posed against the former in a bid to individuate themselves in a milieu where individuation could only be that bluntly-expressed.  The "I see you" callback, in its new context, made me realize, with terrible suddenness, I actually care a lot about this blue kid whose name might've been either Neteyam or Lo'ak.  (It's Lo'ak.)

It works completely, despite its very patent weaknesses, and though we (theoretically) go to Cameron for action over everything else, and the final hour of this film is just a superb work of classical action filmmaking, in which Cameron turns his eye towards fixing a new 19th century injustice (that in this case actually was almost entirely fixed), it may actually work best of all in that middle hour, which I've scarcely even mentioned, but which is the heart of it.  It's what makes Way of Water almost unique in the annals of blockbuster cinema, and accordingly almost inutterably distinct in the context of contemporary blockbuster cinema, which has gotten so lore-obsessed and talking-in-rooms it barely remembers it's supposed to be sensation anymore.

There are still character dynamics throughout this hour, principally between Lo'ak and his 80s movie bully counterparts amongst the Metkayina, but it almost ceases to be narrative cinema the way it's currently understood, happyecstaticto become a quasi-documentary teen movie about, well, the way of water, devoting astonishingly long stretches of screentime to just existing in the shallows and not-so-shallows of the reef, delighting us with the new sights and sounds of this corner of Pandora, from the my-heart-actually-skipped unveiling of the Metkayina's flying seahorse things (in the process, somehow transforming the dumbest-seeming sci-fi creature I've ever seen into something incredibly bad-ass and cool), to the obligatory glow-in-the-dark mysticism, to some of the awesomest, most specific dorkiness I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing in any movie, an idea only a creator of a certain age and a very, very particular ideological bent could even come up with as a joke, and this is no joke, but a pure slice of somebody's soul, taking the form of wondrous, super-intelligent space whales, eventually placed in the dire straits of being whaled by ravenous humans but unable to fight back because they're all such pacifists they would rather die than commit the slightest act of violence even in self-defense, and I want to italicize the last thirty fucking words to emphasize how eco-hippie splendid that is to me.

It seems absurd, but one of my favorite scenes in this movie, which is pretty much all "favorite scenes" anyway, is a bunch of cartoon alien humanoids having sign-language conversations with cartoon alien whales about, like, their day, and how things have been going.  As exciting as it can be, I'm not stoked about further atrocities wrought upon the Na'vi and their world, not really.  But this?  I can get stoked about this.

Score: fuck it, 10/10, the main thing holding it back was HFR shenanigans


  1. Wow. 10/10?! Madness. I'd give it maybe a 6/10? The plot was formulaic and yet also all over the place. The acting was uneven. Worthington's accent still grates on me and Jake is just "gruff dad" the whole film. Saldana was utterly wasted as Neytiri where 90% of her screentime was her in total emotional breakdown crying intensely. The kids were uneven with the boys being either blatantly lined up to die (Neteyam) with how little they were shown other than as a foil or a little too douchey for my tastes (Lo'ak). The girls were great as well as Tsireya. The Quaritch angle was unnecessary and, honestly, felt a little contrived and annoying. It also saddled us with Spider's connection to a reborn "father" and all of the extra padding that added to the film. The Pandora Titanic scenes were dreadful, waaaaaaay too long, and honestly felt incredibly excessive and exhausting. The build-up in the beginning seemed far too detached from the rest of the story, too. It was incredibly odd. The movie badly needed a proper editor to give it a thorough trimming to focus it and highlight the good parts. The world and visuals of Avatar deserve that as well as a much better writer than Cameron. He's an amazing director in terms of putting visuals on a screen, but his writing, editing, casting choices, and other aspects of his work are anywhere from brilliantly flawed to dreadful.

    I watched the film on a faux IMAX 3D showing and, as you state, the visuals are absolutely stunning. The colors, the effects, the world's flora and fauna... all gorgeous and well worth the (hefty) price of admission. They were even enough to outweigh the often times massive flaws in so many other parts of the film for me. I re-watched the first film, read the companion book from the first film, and read one of the Darkhorse comics the night before going to get me in the mood and... it might have actually made things a little worse? It highlighted all of the problems (and the good parts) of the franchise. I really love the world of Avatar. Pandora is a beautifully realized place and I wish it got the stories it deserved. I desperately hope that Cameron somehow takes a momentary check on his ego (not bloody likely with how much money it is making and with it nominated for Best Picture) and hires a writer and editor for the remaining film(s).

    1. Oh! I totally agree on the dialogue, too. I found them all speaking English to be massively distracting and weird. I was hoping so much for a ton of Na'vi language usage or even English when it was all Na'vi and then Na'vi when they were around humans who didn't speak Na'vi, a la the brilliant usage of Chinese, English, and accented language in Warrior the HBOMAX show (P.S. Watch it if you haven't. It is glorious).

    2. I dunno, I'm just less exercised about the story than some. Some of it is definitely a leap of faith, Cameron-wise, that it'll feel more complete as a piece of space opera once Avatar 3 arrives. But I've got infinite love in my heart for any movie that can do what this simple, simplistic story lets this one do in the middle--I really do feel like it's unique enough to merit a soft 10/10. (I think we probably disagree on whether Cameron's simplicity is good simplicity--he's always got some iffy dialogue, but in a lot of respects the shorthand of it is refreshing in a milieu where so many movies get over-written.)

      And if it helps it is the 10/10 this year that I feel least good about giving full marks, particularly as I'm already probably giving it too much leeway for the variable HFR. But ultimately if it's the kind of thing that gets me excited, I like to ride that wave, since what's a numerical score anyhow but a representation of one's excitement over something? (Now, I don't ever mean "10/10" as perfect, mind you...)

      Plus just the freakin' tech behind that mo-cap.