This article appeared in the January 5, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Avatar: The Way of Water (James Cameron, 2022)
Earlier this year, the clever lads at Chapo Trap House offered up a modest proposal for James Cameron: notwithstanding his having been born in Canada (a country whose rugged natural splendor and community-minded healthcare policies rival, to my mind, those of Pandora itself), the director should consider running for President of the United States. “I would trust him with the absolute power of a temporary, Cincinnatus-style dictatorship,” co-host Matt Christman declared. “We know what his values are. He’s told us in the films, and they’re good.”
“He is the one man with the temperament, the character, the administrative abilities…” Felix Biederman added. “He’s basically run a country for the last 10 years. The production of the Avatar movies is hopefully a staging ground for him running an entire nation of hundreds of millions of people.”
Scare-quoted idealism aside, the image of Cameron as some kind of cinematic Great Emancipator—reaching across the theater aisle to liberate exhibitors from post-COVID-19 penury and audience members from their workaday anxieties—is right on time. He’s been campaigning for multiplex supremacy for decades now, and the only thing he could do to shore up his potential 2024 candidacy is enlist fellow authenticity-fetishist Tom Cruise as his V.P.-slash-wingman.
Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, Cameron’s new Avatar: The Way of Water will join (and likely surpass) Top Gun: Maverick at the peak of the yearly grosses chart. Its release comes couched in an even more messianic rhetoric that subsumes any number of film-cultural issues: the necessity of big-screen viewing; the futility of trying to deliver coherent ideology through crowd-pleasing tropes; the pleasures and pitfalls of franchise recidivism. Both movies are expertly made entertainment machines with the meticulous infrastructural engineering and gleaming surfaces that leave paying customers satisfied and critics feeling churlish for calling bullshit (or else emboldened to toss potshots at the biggest targets possible). The difference, per Christman’s observation, is one of values: Avatar Part Deux’s embedded military-industrial critique and broad eco-horror overtones serve as an ostensible corrective to Maverick’s hotshot, victory-lapping jingoism; the tree-hugger stuff represents the largest plank in Cameron’s platform to Make Nature Great Again.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. After spending the better part of 40 years treacherously negotiating the contradictions between technofetishism and technophobia, Cameron casts his lot with the Luddites in The Way of Water, a semi-solar-powered production whose carbon footprint was reportedly smaller than most movies of its scale. Having fully, biologically transformed into the blue-skinned Na’vi body to which he was previously neurologically tethered, series hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) swiftly narrates his conversion during a catch-up prologue; he sees the change as an evolution rather than a compromise (although he still gets to speak English-language dialogue, for our benefit). This shift allows Cameron to divert his sequel’s point of view away from the human experience so that mankind becomes abstracted into a faceless, marauding Other—a cabal of “Sky People” defined solely by a covetous, expedient imperialism. The extra twist is that Jake’s former—and, at last check, deceased—C.O., Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), has been resurrected and avatar-ized for the same deep-cover insurgency duties Jake was tasked with in part one. Cameron scores a couple of knockout effects via this subplot, like when the Na’vi Quaritch, who’s been uploaded with his genetic predecessor’s pre-death memories, comes upon his own decomposing human skull during the first act and contemptuously crushes it—a pop-Shakespearean moment to rival Arnold Schwarzenegger thumbs-upping his suicidal, “not to be” verdict at the end of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
When Cameron is on his game, he has an eye for simple, vivid images with staying power. He also has probably the finest internal metronome of any contemporary action director; he knows how much he can pummel an audience before they need a breather, and how long to wait before they’re bored to hit them again. The big question with The Way of Water is whether the film’s middle 90 minutes, which find Jake and his new family (including several children of various ages and biological/adoptive provenance) hiding out from Quaritch with a community of semi-amphibious “reef people” called the Metkayina, emblematize this knack or demonstrate its waning. There is, simply put, a lot of hanging out and learning the ropes here, in the service of the sort of world-building endemic to any serialized narrative. Much of it is spectacular: the underwater diving and exploration sequences convey a weightless sense of excitement even before the introduction of myriad deep-sea behemoths, while glittering jellyfish and anemones supply the requisite lyricism.
Swimming lessons, inter-species telepathy, alien teenagers shyly scoping out each other’s nubile blue beach bodies—the vibes, as they say, are good. By the time they’re not—i.e., once more humans arrive in the form of rapacious whalers working in tandem with Quaritch’s elite, sadistic faux-Na’vi commandos—we’re primed for an epic confrontation, fought not just on behalf of the noble, fugitive Sully clan, but the natural order itself. (Cue the cavalry in the form of an RMS Titanic–sized space whale who speaks in intermittent Papyrus subtitles and is likely to go down as this installment’s enduring fan favorite—a spiritual descendant of Arnie’s sweetly domesticated killing machine in T2). As far as style and staging go, it’s hard to imagine anybody improving on these closing set pieces, which demonstrate the filmmaker’s uncanny gift for parallel montage (and his shameless trafficking in child endangerment to raise the stakes). But if there’s a drawback to Cameron’s approach, it’s that you can feel the gears grinding at all times; the ratio of poetry to project management is perilously narrow. As good as he is at pacing his movies—and planting clues that’ll sprout answers going forward (installment three is subtitled The Seed Bearer)—he doesn’t leave you with much to hold on to, or to dream upon. Taken on its own grandiose, overbearing terms, The Way of Water works, and that’s not nothing. But that’s all it does.
Adam Nayman is a critic, lecturer, and author based in Toronto. His latest book, David Fincher: Mind Games, is available from Abrams Books.