All my life, I’ve seen films ranging from mildly entertaining to barely satisfying described as ‘one-time watch’. Apart from ‘masala’, no other term is used as frequently or with less discretion by Indian viewers. The general idea used to be: any film that isn’t great but doesn’t make you want to claw your eyes out. Then, in 2009, Avatar introduced a new kind of one-timer.
Whatever you think of its artistic value, it seems pointless to argue—as many have done—that Avatar had no cultural footprint. In transforming 3D from a gimmick to a mainstay of commercial cinema, it altered the landscape beyond recognition. And it wasn’t just that. Avatar gave us the sort of film that would not—could not—be properly effective on any screen but the largest one. The worth of these films was intrinsically aligned to spectacle; what soared in a theatre viewing was, on a TV screen, diminished, silly. People started using ‘theatre watch’ to describe films you should watch once, and only on the big screen.
Avatar: The Way of Water is the most beautiful theatre watch you could imagine. When its predecessor released, it was a seismic jump in effects technology; all anyone could do for years was play catch-up. Once they did, films went louder, bigger. Perhaps sensing that there was only so much branch left unsawed in that direction, Cameron sets his sights on a different frontier in Avatar 2. Instead of scale, he opts for richness. There is an extraordinary tactility to the film. Everything feels supple and life-like, from a shimmery polyp to a fish struggling on a hook. The images breathe, something I wouldn’t say about even the strikingly imaginative Denis Villeneuve, let alone a Marvel film.
In the time since the Na'vi uprising that marked the end of first film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have been living a life of familial bliss. They have four children: sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and daughters Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and Kiri, whose birth mother, Grace Augustine, is in an inert state (both roles are played by Sigourney Weaver). Jake is fully Na'vi now, chief of the Omaticaya clan. But his old life intrudes in the brash form of military man Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed in battle by Neytiri but back as a super-Avatar—a T-800 to Jake’s pre-conversion Terminator from the first film. To save the clan from Quaritch and his forces, Jake decides to go into hiding with his family. They’re taken in by the Metkayina reef tribe, who live off the ocean, communing with aquatic life.
Any animator will tell you water is devilishly difficult to create on screen. There are issues of movement, transparency, shade, reflectivity. Avatar 2 is three hours long; two of those are spent in or around water. Cameron would have known that the success of film would hinge on water looking real, figures moving through it realistically, coherent and visible action being staged in it. That he manages this so convincingly is the film’s towering achievement. I saw an actual ocean yesterday, but I prefer Cameron’s.
Yet, all this will hardly matter once the film leaves theatres weeks or months later. Just as the rainforests of Avatar were neutered by the laptop and TV screens they were seen on, so will Avatar 2’s play of water. What viewers will be left with is flat, boring dialogue—a feature of the first film as well—and storytelling that’s simple and unlayered. No one has anything interesting to say; all that isn’t strictly functional is hippie eco-utopian babble. The cast is hard-working rather than exciting. The only soul-searching character is Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy who's friends with the Na’vi. All the texture is in the visuals.
The film’s politics are much the same as the first time: respectful of indigenous cultures, critical of colonization and ecological terrorism. A lot of big Hollywood films are similarly positioned now; Avatar 2 has the same bland virtuousness. There is a nice extended sequence that shows the hunting of tulkun, a whale-like creature sacred to the Metkayina, by humans. But the only detail with some bite is when Quaritch says he’ll bring back Sully family scalps, a reversal of filmic tradition where the scalping antagonists were indigenous people.
You can see why Cameron took all these years to come up with a sequel: he probably spent months just figuring out how someone might roll their eyes underwater (he does and it’s brilliant). He has hinted at plans for other Pandora ecosystems and worlds, to be explored in three further films. If this comes to fruition, it could well mean we’ll never see another Cameron film outside the Avatar universe. As gorgeous as Avatar 2 is, as unrivalled as Cameron is in doing this exact thing, I count that as a loss.