Following in the footsteps of a generation of ageing film-makers who’re turning their cameras inward, a 68-year-old James Cameron too seems to have made a strangely personal film in Avatar: The Way of Water.
Last Updated: 08.52 PM, Dec 17, 2022
This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news.
As absurd as it sounds, Avatar: The Way of Water — the hyper-expensive sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time — is the ultimate underdog. This is no longer the 2009 landscape, where James Cameron’s cutting-edge and corny ecological epic made box-office history in a blockbuster-craving world just about waking up to the sorcery of movie technology. Things have changed. It is now the still-standing hero, the last bastion of true-blue imagination and child-like wonder.
Not unlike Top Gun: Maverick, it’s the vintage boxer wading through a ring of synthetic entertaining machines. In an age of derivative comic-book franchises, Avatar is wholly original: a world created from scratch, based on no pre-existing literature or IP. Every grain of celluloid is built, not translated or adapted. It is also current, by existing in a future where the villains are space-age colonisers dispatched by mad billionaires like Elon Musk. Cameron, otherwise known as the most successful director in the history of cinema, might as well be the brave, blue-skinned leader of an indigenous moon tribe. By merely staying, he is winning.
But is winning enough? While watching Avatar: The Way of Water in all its three-dimensional splendour, I found myself in constant anticipation of greatness. I found myself determined to be immersed in — and moved by — the journey and the legacy at once. The wait, though, quickly morphs into a weight, a burden that’s hard to shake off. That’s the cost of the all-consuming Cameron narrative — it forces the audience to project their decade-long expectations onto the screen, making them confront their own flawed reading of spectacle. The problem with this film is that it’s eerily aware of what it means in terms of the new-age medium. It’s conscious of its distinct status, of its presence in an era that seems to take the art of timelessness — and the timelessness of art — for granted. As a result, the innocence feels privatised. It’s the equivalent of someone who knows exactly how attractive they look, and therefore decides to act accordingly. It speaks in a cute drawl, flaunts its better sides, laughs in dolphin speak, and weeps only if it knows we’re looking.
The score is a giveaway — operatic and orchestral in a painfully generic way, evoking Avatar’s mad-hatter approach towards performance-capture pioneering rather than Pandora’s fragile ecosystem. It often sounds like we’re watching James Cameron’s noble quest to save the language of blockbuster Hollywood, not so much Na’vi Jake Sully’s noble quest to save Pandora from the plundering of the Earth’s greedy humans. It’s why the claim about Avatar not having much of a cultural imprint rings true. It is rooted in a sense of creative narcissism: Every moment is so confident of being memorable that no moment actually ends up being memorable. When everything is moving, a scene often feels inert.
Part of it might be due to our collective desensitisation towards fantasy cinema and visual effects over the last decade. But a large part is also due to the film’s preoccupation with itself, and its inability to produce a genuinely soulful sequence of images. There is so much scale and detail, but not a single shot on the level of, say, a metallic thumbs-up while melting in a vat of molten steel. Or the sight of a quivering glass of water on an island of dinosaurs. Or an extraterrestrial bicycle ride through the night sky. Or a handprint on a misty glass of a car aboard a sinking ship. The fabled method strips this movie of the madness that shapes our memory of popular film.
Ironically, Avatar: The Way of Water is Cameron’s version of confessional cinema. Following in the footsteps of a generation of ageing film-makers who’re turning their cameras inward, a 68-year-old Cameron, too, seems to have made a strangely personal film. His recent interviews suggest that the premise — of the Na’vi family relocating from the forests to the reefs of Pandora, learning the ways of water and eventually battling to protect each other — echoes the famously difficult director’s own move to New Zealand, as well as his formal relationship with his children owing to his globe-trotting ‘job’. The blue-skinned Na’vi chief, who is now a warrior hero, has two sons (who address him as “sir”), one daughter and one adopted daughter with the fierce Neytiri. When the humans return to colonise Pandora under the Na’vi avatar of the dead Colonel Quaritch, Sully exiles himself and his family. They find shelter with the Metkayina reef people, who rightly fear that Sully’s presence will lead Quaritch to attack their peaceful home. All hell breaks loose across water, sky and land — but mostly water — in the final hour of this sprawling 190-minute saga.
So I wasn’t kidding when I said that James Cameron essentially re-imagines himself as leader and father-in-redemption Jake Sully. Sully spends most of his time berating his sons in a new setting, until he’s humbled by their courage in the end. The kids get more screen time than him as well. Which means that this is (nearly) a 500 million dollar memoir. The environmental war at its centre is incidental, and also an excuse to spotlight his skills as a tech-forward puppeteer. I suspect that it’s his ambition that elicits our awe more than the Disney-level anatomy of that ambition.
The main reason behind the Snapchat storytelling of Avatar: The Way of Water — one that often disappears from mind after ten seconds of cosmetic sparkle — is simple. The problem with a formula artist like James Cameron telling a personal story is that it is rarely in the position to reveal a real personality. As someone who thinks of the biggest possible way to convey the smallest possible emotions, even his brand of vulnerability arrives from a space of expansive formula. Unlike a Martin Scorsese (The Irishman) or a Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Cameron’s idea of late-life reflections isn’t geared towards existentialism or nuance; it’s shaped by performative myth-making rather than disarming desire. A lot of the love is lost in translation between person and film-maker. A lot of the truth is lost in transition between image and expression.
Take the several sub-threads of the film. Lo’ak, the younger of Jake’s two sons, is the black sheep of the family — and promptly befriends an outcast sea creature (tulkun) off the coast. The adopted daughter, Kiri, is in an extended identity crisis; she has epileptic fits, thinks differently, looks human-er, but also enjoys a special bond with the underwater world. Their human teen friend, Spider, is on his own fractured journey with dad-but-not-dad Colonel Quaritch. Neytiri traverses an arc of motherhood, displacement and grief. There’s a whaling vessel, run by (Australian, of course) humans who hunt tulkuns to mine a priceless anti-aging serum called “Amrita” from their brains. And there are oceans, lung-bursting swims, humourless training montages and magical creatures that appear whenever the film forgets how to switch between its several elements. At one point, it gets so invested in the family’s tough induction into the new water community that the Colonel and his army all but vanish from the film. This lack of rhythm is scattered across the war sequences too, with the story struggling to toggle between the battles within the battles.
The one nice moment features a climactic role-reversal of the children and the parents. The flow of caregiving and rescuing changes; the baton passes hands. It’s the only time the film realises the intimacy of Cameron’s broad vision. Gone is the feral commitment to scale. The circularity of life comes to the fore. Not even a primary character’s death does that. But seconds later, the bubble bursts, and the parent takes back the reins. A sequel is promised. The spell is broken. The message self-destructs. Avatar: The Way of Water then goes back to being the handsome underdog that considers winning — by virtue of being a handsome underdog — enough. Given that I’m a Titanic loyalist and a prime victim of comic-book-movie fatigue, I would have to be a blue-skinned sceptic — or a thick-skinned film critic — to be a Cameron denier in 2022. But here we are. By merely not losing, we can’t be winning. Such is the way of slaughter.