James Cameron returns to the world of Pandora with his 3D extravaganza, Avatar: The Way of Water. In addition to technical illusions, he only presents old camels.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is an event film, few of which are released each year. It should be a box office hit, with no other project is it making its way into the cinemas. James Cameron worked on this sequel for years until it finally sees the light of day. With doggedness and ambition, a director places his magnum opus in the world, which in the end contains little that is surprising. Technology enthusiasts are presented with an outstanding demonstration of effects. What you have to endure in terms of narrative naivety and lack of discourse is just as annoying as in the previous work.
“Avatar” was a revolution in Hollywood, a boom for 3D cinema. Cameron had pushed technical limits. In the meantime, however, more than a decade has passed, the 3D hype story and the creative minds are facing a generational conflict. While many viewers have nostalgic memories of the cinematic magic, a new generation has yet to be excited about the sci-fi epic about the blue natives of Pandora. In this respect, it is not surprising that this sequel so calculated and sluggishly attempts to continue telling the story and yet only remains in repetitions.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a variation on its predecessor
The ecological-sustainable awareness of “Avatar: The Way of Water” is just enough to recycle the previous film. Only the setting has changed a bit. From the dense forest it goes out to the high seas. Facts are created with simple tricks that reset your own world to a new zero point. Although the racist myth of “Pocahontas” has been moved away, the basic conflict and central motives have largely remained the same.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and the Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have started a family after pushing back the violent people and Jake’s body swap. And because “Avatar 2” thinks in cycles, the human conquerors now simply return, including the well-known villain (Stephen Lang) from part 1. His world of thoughts was digitally stored and planted in an avatar. Death, life, prosthesis and cyberspace blur in increasingly curious ways. Now he is plotting revenge and the Na’vi must once again fight to preserve their civilization and livelihoods.
The world of Pandora is growing
What is new at most is the confrontation with homeland, which “Avatar: The Way of Water” hints at. Jake Sully and his family are forced to leave their tribe. As refugees, they seek shelter with an ocean people, which is where the second half of the 192-minute film unfolds. James Cameron thus switches to the suggestion of an open-world game. Pandora bursts open, becomes explorable. You fly over seas, mountains and forests and yet everything is clearly focused. Geopolitical dimensions are narrowed to the migration experience of the sacred nuclear family.
Home encompasses a multitude of social practices, but also projections of one’s own biography. “Avatar 2” connects its characters to the memory of the world. In the earth spirit Eywa they create memory and fantasy spaces. The film knows about such entanglements and yet lags behind when it comes to depicting a different togetherness. Integration and inclusion mean here again only the adaptation of a minority to the way of life of the majority society. Avatar and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever shake hands in their skewed understanding of cultural entities. All that matters is that loved ones are there.
Ultimately, such approaches degenerate anyway only to marginal notes in exuberant technology theater. It is not interested in a differentiated discussion. The second “Avatar” was also designed on the drawing board, built around the spectacle of digitality. Indeed, Avatar: The Way of Water is phenomenally tricked. Cameron knows how to pull that spectacle together on screen, no one can fool him. The animations of elements, faces, textures, and landscapes advance to unprecedented levels of detail. Changing frame rates and the sophisticated 3D effect do the rest to draw the audience in. But what is all this for?
Magnificent landscapes, pretty animals
“Avatar 2” is not much more than a technical arms race, the muscle man of a studio giant. It stands out from the majority of other blockbusters because of its enormous production and show value, but also melts away in mere formulaicity. Three-dimensional image worlds suggest depth where in reality it is all about flat surfaces and digestible entertainment. “Oh” and “Ah” demand all the virtuoso animated impressions and yet at the end of this three-hour long one has trouble even remembering individual images. Each scene strives for the colossal and gigantic until the shots seem interchangeable, artificial and cold. What counts is only their graphics.
There are entire passages where Avatar: The Way of Water’s underwater trips resemble a nature documentary. Customs are learned there, animals and plants are observed. You know all this from the first part. It borders on audacity that Cameron would go through the same program again so patiently. Such documentaries, already on television and streaming, primarily satisfy longings for natural wonders that one has culturally exorcised or subjugated. The situation is similar with the pictures of “Avatar”. They want to please with phosphorescent, will-o’-the-wisp phenomena and exotic creatures. Digital sea creatures hop out of the sea and jump over heads – as beautiful as not since “Free Willy”.
The eco-message is lagging behind the times
While Cameron inflates simple rushes to metaphysical inspiration (“The way of water has no beginning and no end.”), one can only smile wearily at his renewed criticism of overexploitation. Landscapes are burned, animals are killed to recover a life-extending elixir. This subject area may be timeless and relevant and yet it lags impotently behind the present. His warning is so banal that even the biggest climate change denier can end up applauding enthusiastically without having to deal with their own behavior, corporate powers or current political grievances.
The fact that environmental destruction is already anchored in everyday, seemingly harmless realities of life, consumption practices, in the DNA of the capitalist economy itself – “Avatar” is turning a blind eye to that in 2022, too. In other words, where things get uncomfortable and difficult. All that is enough for him are affectionate extreme images, which he loads with a bit of spiritual mumbling and kitsch images of glowing fish and other organisms. One gazes wide-eyed at dazzling shapes and colors and is shocked by their brutal glowing. Afterwards you can drive back home and undeterred continue to rant about the “climate terrorists” of the last generation.
“Avatar 2” makes environmental crises consumable
“Avatar 2” tells of the ugly, but abhors this as an artistic process. In “Avatar 2” conquerors fall from the sky as beams of extraterrestrial light. When they land, their spaceships devour whole forests in towering, glowing cylinders of fire. Eco-collapse as a graceful spectacle of nature. There are excellent, intelligent and sensual films about environmental exploitation. One of them is “Leviathan” by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, which literally goes into the depths of fishing – thematically related to “Avatar”! In nets, garbage cans, animal remains and foaming waves he floats around and breathes the stench of decay and death. More immersive, more disturbing, more enigmatic, ultimately more visionary than “Avatar” could ever be in its kindness.
However, “The Way of Water” makes grievances in its form alone consumable. He doesn’t find a stimulating thought in the whole spectacle. While the earth is going to the dogs, at least the amazement at the place of longing Pandora and the weeping of the broken family idyll remain. Escaping the world does not automatically have to be a bad thing. It only becomes problematic when it tries to adorn and justify itself with an attached moral club. If one were to take “Avatar’s” flimsy assembled plea for resource conservation and nature cult at its word, one could start with the question of what resources were used just for the years of work on this franchise.
Avatar: The Way of Water hits theaters December 14th distributed by The Walt Disney Company.