James Cameron’s overwhelmingly blue sequel recently burst onto the big screen, but can it measure up to its predecessor, which continues to hold the record for the highest grossing film of all time? Flora Stokes isn’t so sure…
Being a student, it is a very rare thing for me to be awake before 9am. To ask you to imagine me sat in the squishy leather seats of the Edinburgh Cineworld IMAX cinema at 7am sharp is to ask you to imagine something just short of a miracle. As it happens, there I was bright and early, awaiting the cinema’s first screening of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. The original Avatar film has (I’m not ashamed to say) remained one of my favourite films of all time, despite having a general lack of appetite for anything that situates itself within the action genre.
To avoid embarrassing myself by revealing the extent to which my emotions were riding on this sequel, I will simply say that I was deeply disappointed. Note to self – if you have 250 million dollars and over 180 minutes of screentime at your disposal, don’t spend less than ten minutes establishing your plot via hasty voiceover. Perhaps, after thirteen years of waiting and over twenty rewatches of the original film, my disappointment was inevitable. 21st century Hollywood’s unhealthy addiction to sequels and spin-offs frequently leaves fans of various franchises disappointed – why should this attempt be any different?
The sequel has provoked deeply divided critical opinions. Empire’s Nick De Semlyen describes it as a ‘phantasmagorical, fully immersive waking dream of a movie’, whilst the somewhat less-taken Telegraph critic Robbie Collins felt he was being ‘waterboarded with turquoise cement’. My own response leaning strongly towards the latter, I want to interrogate what it is about the original Avatar that has had me fiercely defending it for over a decade, despite the risk such defence conjures towards any reputation I may hold as a film student. In remembering the film of my youth, I hope also to prove why the sequel is not merely a sub-average action film but a missed opportunity to continue to impart a meaningful and relevant message regarding the state of our planet.
Here’s the thing. As we know, Hollywood has, arguably, been seeking a golden formula for the “perfect” (i.e. highest grossing) film for some time now. Recall their commercialisation of the star system during the 1920s with the intention of drawing in female audiences, or the patriotic musicals that were prolific throughout the Second World War. Or, a favourite of mine, American International Pictures’ decision to target young male viewers in the 60s, on the peculiar assumption that girls will want to watch what boys watch, and younger boys will want to watch what older boys watch. Regardless of the method, Hollywood is, and always has been, out to make the big bucks. In many ways (and as evidenced by it being the highest grossing film of all time) Avatar is an example of Hollywood coming pretty darn close to cracking that golden formula.
Putting aside the film’s oft-discussed visuals, what impressed upon me most as a pre-teen, and what has stayed with me since, are the film’s complex characters. Opening with a monologue from protagonist Corporal Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the film lulls the viewer into what appears to be a typically phallogocentric Hollywood narrative. It is a pleasant surprise, therefore, when the likes of Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver proceed to command much of the screen time. Their characterisations vary greatly, but none can be read as passive. Sully’s survival and success is dependent on the actions of each of these women. It is a disappointment, therefore, to see the depressingly essentialist gender roles that Cameron chooses to present in his sequel. Saldana’s character Neytiri, once a fearsome and prickly hunter, is reduced to a passive, fearful mother alongside Kate Winslet’s equally passive and fearful mother-to-be. Neytiri’s inner turmoil towards the beginning of the film as she is faced with fleeing her people in order to protect her children, is quickly and decisively quashed by her husband, never to be mentioned again.
Sully and Neytiri’s daughters spend the majority of their time watching their brothers engage in painfully hypermasculine brawls (which would not feel out of place on the basketball courts of High School Musical), or being kidnapped and rescued, repeatedly. Cameron appears to have forgotten that the power of representation lies not merely in visibility but in conveying varied understandings of different groups. Put simply, in the former film, women are to be feared and admired; in the latter they are to be protected.
A further strength of the original film is its critique of American exceptionalism, a process by which, according to theorist Donald E. Pease, America comes to be seen ‘as the fulfilment of the national ideal to which other nations aspire’. Clear allusions to Earthly acts of colonisation, such as the violent attempts by American settlers to assimilate the Native American peoples, can be found in the brutality of the invasion of Pandora. The film’s invasion is led by the fearsome Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who acts as the epitome of militaristic aggression. This dichotomy between Evil Humans and Good Indigenous People is ham-fisted in a way that Hollywood action films often are, yet still evokes important questions regarding community and the relationship we have with our planet. Cameron attempts a similar evocation in the sequel, but such messages are muddied by an Americanisation of the Na’vi – the dialogue is littered with phrases like “dude” and “bro” – and weak rehashings of the first film’s plot points (spoiler alert – the baddie is the same guy, just without the ideological force of the human race’s greed behind him!)
The sequel’s assimilation of the Na’vi into American culture, as well as its dependency on normative ideals and archetypes of familial structures, is what results in the film’s inability to convey any real urgency in its message regarding climate change. The film’s exhausting “think of the children!” plea reminded me of queer theorist Lee Edelman’s condemnation of the use of the mythical and innocent “Child” in political agendas. Aligning itself with Edelman’s notion of “reproductive futurity”, The Way of Water dislocates the ever-pressing issue of climate change onto the supposed innocence of the future generation. Nowhere to be seen is the urgency conveyed in the original Avatar, a film which successfully replaces the tired call to “think of the children” with the more pressing plea to “think of ourselves”.Once the complexities of characterisation, motivation and difference are stripped from the world of Pandora, one is left with The Way of Water – a sequel so boring it had critic Mark Kermode coming up with alternative titles in order to entertain himself during the premier. My favourite? “Avasleep: The Way of Torture”.
By: Flora Stokes