Friday, December 16, 2022


The great Umberto Eco once reminded us: “Two clichés are laughable. A hundred clichés are affecting.” He was writing about Casablanca, but he might as well have been discussing the films of James Cameron. He’s a filmmaker whose love of towering piles of cliche is the very thing that resolves his contradictions. He’s a precise, technical director drawn to writing sloshing human melodrama. He’s a hard-edged action director with a soft-hearted love of family and romance. He makes gripping, and often intense, genre pictures that turn on protective parents and the warmth of motherhood and True Love. He’s a conceptual, even experimental, hand at pushing the nuts-and-bolts craft behind the camera. (Here, to his use of 3D, he’s added a variable frame rate that’s sometimes distracting, and sometimes enveloping.) And yet he loves pushing this tech in the context of broad, crowd-pleasing, to-the-rafters satisfaction. To do all this at once, and to keep getting away with it at such a high level of success, he simply must make these appealing epics—the Terminators, Titanic, and, yes Avatars that capture an audience’s imagination with the sheer commitment of their tellings, and the total control of one man’s complicated vision. Those cliches that pile up are our way in, and hold us in their thrall, deeper into the earnest plights of the characters on display. To borrow another phrase from Eco, “When all the archetypes shamelessly burst in, we plumb Homeric depths.”

So here we are with Avatar: The Way of Water, a long-awaited sequel to the 2009 original. It picks up over a decade after that one left off, in the far future, with ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) transmogrified into the body of a Na'vi, the blue giants indigenous to the world of Pandora. In that body, he turned against humankind and fought to repel corporate colonists looking to exploit the lush jungles for the minerals beneath the Na’vi’s sacred trees. Quite a feat for Cameron, making a whole new world full of culture and creatures and geography and spirituality, and then staging a rock-‘em-sock-‘em battle that had audiences hooting and hollering for the death of capitalist overlords. But that was then. Now Sully’s a family man, with half-human, half-alien teenagers, two sons and two daughters, he’s raising with his Na’vi warrior wife (Zoe Saldana). There’s also an abandoned human boy (he grows up to be played by newcomer Jack Champion) who dons an oxygen mask and leaps around in a loincloth as an adopted member of the tribe. They all clearly love each other, and enjoy their humble lives mastering their terrain and honoring their cultural traditions. You can tell right away that this is a sequel more intimate and tender, with a smaller interest in a family unit worth preserving even as the larger machinations of their world (and Cameron’s storytelling) are inevitably going to pull them back into the action.

So when the humans arrive for a second attempt at taking the land and its resources, Sully has even more reason to fight. And yet, after all the fighting that settled this issue in the first film, the heroes are reluctant to do it all again. Here’s a sequel about how the heroes would rather not do a sequel, what with life having moved on to more precious concerns. Alas, conflict imposes, and the villains are literal clones of the last ones. And so, what begins as an attempted insurgency becomes an attempt to hide—this time among the water Na’vi who commune with whale-like creatures—even as powerful forces amass to lure them out for the killing. Three acts: Run. Hide. Fight. Simple enough. Cameron knows how to pump up a conflict, stage memorable character moments, and pace a simple story so cleanly and clearly that we are once more drawn into the emotional investment of the world before we even realized that was happening. Of course we want the vulnerable to stay safe, the heroic to prove their worth, and the dastardly to receive comeuppance. There are those archetypes shamelessly bursting in. But Cameron also knows winding them up and letting them go in a fantastical location is enough to get the blood pumping with the earnest emotions and pleasures of the best pulp sci-fi. If you’re going to paint with a broad brush, you need a broad canvas, too.

There’s clear love for this fictional planet in a film that luxuriates in the world Cameron has imagined. First it gets exposition out of the way in the first hour or so. That’s all plot mechanics catching us up on the state of Pandora and its conflict. The middle hour simply wanders the ocean, meeting new tribespeople (Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet) and creatures while learning their ways. I especially liked the whales that understand sign-language and whose murmurs are subtitled. That’s where Cameron once more surfaces his ecological concerns and real empathy for the environmental erosion that accompanies corporate oppression on the march. As he sees the displaced Sully family try to integrate in this potentially safe space, we see the inextricable ties between these people and their home. And it’s communicated through fluid sequences that dance across and underneath the water that generously allow the audience to study the topography and the tides, the flora and the fauna. Watching these Na’vi swim around their tropical paradise, I found myself remembering the Avatar super-fans who reportedly experienced real depression and withdrawal upon exiting the theater after repeat viewings of the original. They were distraught knowing this wonderful planet wasn’t a place they could actually visit. Here’s a movie that’ll repay that interest, dwelling in that long central passage of pure vibes, setting, and design.

I was also so bought-in to the artifice of it all—the motion-capture performances of the bewitching blue characters, the all-encompassing depth and detail to the landscape and the way the sunlight breaks across a clear blue sea—that I would occasionally step out of myself and remember, with real awe, that I was basically watching animation for vast stretches. It’s an impressive technical achievement. But none of that vivid imagination—a cleanly designed comic-book fantasyland excursion—would matter if the story itself, and the characters within it, didn’t come to life, too. That’s the final Cameron contradiction to consider: the elaborate falseness, the enormous machine-tooled fakery, bringing forth ideas of sensitive smallness. Here’s a big-budget business casting its eye on the joys of close community with others and with nature, the restorative pleasures of family, the spiritual sustenance of the wilderness, and the nobility of standing against the calculating profit motive and doing the right thing. So once more he’s made a concussive epic concluding with explosions and gunfire—and this time includes a self-quoting climactic sinking ship to amp up the watery danger—but he’s populated it with such patient archetypical love for nature and these fantasy people that those depths are worth plumbing. Homer, it’s not. But Cameron’s good enough to fill the screen with spectacle straight from the heart of this ocean.

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