Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Not on the 2022 list: Avatar: The Way of Water

To prepare for this movie, I rewatched the original Avatar (the theatrical cut, I’m not insane) and I thought it was pretty fucking great.

I was in chemotherapy for most of 2009 and not going to the movies. When it came time for the 2010 Oscars, it was the first year in my adult life I hadn’t seen the nominees. I knew the two frontrunners were Avatar and The Hurt Locker, I knew the stories behind them and I knew what I had heard about the two movies. I knew that James Cameron and Katherine Bigelow had once been married until he left her for a younger woman, and now they were coming up against each other with movies at the Oscars, so obviously, I’m going to root for her in that situation. As for the movies, I had heard that The Hurt Locker was really left wing and critical of the war in Iraq, and Avatar was really right wing in that it was a bullshit white savior power fantasy. So I was totally rooting for The Hurt Locker and happy when it won. Then, a year later, once I was recovered, I actually saw the movies. I discovered that, from my point of view, The Hurt Locker actually felt very right wing and its critique of the US presence in Iraq was shallow and insincere. And Avatar, when I actually saw it, seemed to actually be quite left wing, both in terms of its environmental message and its anti-imperialism. I could still enjoy that Bigelow got revenge on the man who left her, but in terms of the movies themselves, being a leftist, I felt that the wrong team won.

I then, like most moviegoers, forgot about Avatar, assuming I would never watch it again. But lo and behold, 13 years later, a sequel arrived and I decided I’d better brush up on the original.

It’s just a very clean, simple movie, despite its length (even the theatrical version is long). It’s a tale as old as time: Colonizers arrive, seeking a resource under the ground, one colonizer falls in love with a local girl from an ecologically balanced tribe, completely changes his mind and joins their bloody revolt, which is successful. Stand up and cheer. (Yes, it’s a little bit white savior-y in a few shots, but it’s more about humbling himself and learning to live their way than imposing his awesomeness.)

The sequel is, alas, nowhere near as clean or clear. It’s a big ole mess.

What exactly is the humans’ goal? When they first return, we logically assume that they’ve come back for the same thing they originally wanted: unobtanium, so that’s the presumed goal for the first hour. Then Edie Falco reveals that no, that’s not why they came back. Instead, they’ve finally ruined the earth and they just want a new place to live. Okay that’s a good twist and escalation. (Not tremendously logical though, since they can’t breathe the air, but whatever) But then an hour later, we get a completely different answer: they’ve come here to go whaling, because there’s some strange substance inside Pandora’s whales that can make humans live forever. So now, assuming that there’s still unobtanium sitting around, the humans have three competing reasons to re-invade the planet, which is just too much. The original movie was so much cleaner in its plotting.

Another issue was a huge case of repeated beats. The big climax goes on for almost an hour and keeps resetting itself. At one point the villain has two of Jake’s kids hostage and handcuffs them to the railing of the ship with guns to their heads. Jake’s other two kids go to rescue them. 74 plot turns later, the villain now has the other two kids captive and he once again handcuffs them to the same railing and puts a gun to their heads. It may be the most egregious repeated beat I’ve ever seen in a movie.

But the real problem in this movie is that our hero, who so memorably kicked the humans’ asses in the first film, sees that the humans have returned in this movie and so he just runs away, and continues running away for the entire movie. I realize that, ever since Empire Strikes Back, there’s been a sense that the second movie should have the heroes be totally luckless, but that’s no excuse for having the heroes just turn tail and run for the entire 3 hour and 16 minute runtime. Not even at the end do they announce that they’re going to take the fight back to the human villains. They’re just happy they’ll be able to hang out with the water guys a little longer.

As with tomorrow’s movie, I’m glad that this got people back out to the theaters, but it’s a big old mess. Not on the list!

No comments: