Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

February 28, 2023

The Technology and Politics of ‘Avatar 2’

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As each year crept on from the release of the original Avatar and its box office redefining moment in cinema, anyone could feel the increasing mockery levied against James Cameron and his apparent dream to make a sequel long belated not just from the original, but also from its own production start date. Avatar: The Way of Water was a long time coming, and according to industry experts, it was perhaps too long. Yet, those who doubted Big Jim Cameron’s big return to the big screen had another thing coming, and neither delay nor a still-reeling post-pandemic box office environment could stop what turned out to be another two billion dollar film. James Cameron is the antithesis of box office poison: This is true and always has been. More complicated, it seems, is determining what to say of Cameron as a director and, frankly, what one can make of Cameron as a technician and an activist, the two roles he grapples with constantly in The Way of Water.

I saw Avatar: The Way of Water both times in 3D. After the first time, head aching and eyes straining, I might’ve been discouraged from a second three-hour chunk of pushing my pupils to their absolute limit. Yet, there’s something inarguable about the accomplishment there. The depth produced by 3D that was designed and overseen every step of the way as the primary viewing experience feels different from nearly all of the last ten years of terrible 3D imposed on studios trying to cash in on the original Avatar. And it’s probably not worth it, given that the success of this 3D is going to lead to those same studio heads making that same terrible 3D for the next ten years. But even if all that terrible nonsense is true, and this is going to give me a headache and fill half the screens at every multiplex with terrible-looking 3D for decades to come, I can at least enjoy something that looks astonishing for three hours. 

The same can be said about the overwhelming use of CGI in The Way of Water. It’s astonishing, but just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. Showcasing the limits of CGI in the hands of talented craftspeople only encourages the use of CGI in the fists of those who like it because it’s cheap, non-unionized labor. We’re a far cry away from the regular use of practical effects, which I still contend look better than anything CGI can produce. A film made almost exclusively on a computer provokes anxieties about where this could go when the ship isn’t being steered by James Cameron. It is legitimately impressive when Cameron produces entire characters and worlds which exist as computer images. Still, one should be skeptical whether these images can hold up on a smaller screen or stand the test of time. I won’t pretend that rewatches of the original Avatar — a film hailed as a holy grail of CGI accomplishment — still work visually in the way a practical effects accomplishment (say, Total Recall) persists even years later. Judging from watching The Way of Water’s trailers on a small screen, the visual majesty just simply doesn’t carry over — in producing a uniquely cinematic experience, Cameron has also produced an exclusively cinematic experience. 

A lot can be and has been said about James Cameron’s toxic assertions regarding Native groups, but the man certainly seems not to be an opportunist. He’s now staked his remaining career on a franchise that is unabashedly anti-human (at least in its conception of white imperialist humanity), and even his worst statements come in the form of constant attempts to express the evil of colonialism, albeit in often ham-fisted ways. Cameron’s film, by virtue of its creator and its need to grapple with representation questions (how should one feel about the decision to cast such a blatant stand-in for an indigenous group with non-indigenous actors?) falls victim to a recent scourge of well-meaning (or semi-well-meaning) action movies that, try as they might, can’t really escape the trappings of their genre. Whether it’s the brilliant RRR (fun enough to anti-colonial Americans, but apparently nationalistic on its own turf) or The Woman King (an excellent action film following in a long line of earlier Hollywood epics in its unfortunate historical inaccuracies), Avatar: The Way of Water finds itself among the good company of films one just can’t know what exactly to make of.

There’s a lot to be said for Avatar: The Way of Water. Its three-hour runtime is paced nearly perfectly, slowing itself down when necessary and accelerating with no reservation for a breakneck third act. It relishes in beautiful visual effects and creature designs that can be fascinating and colorful. Its plot, though simple, builds on a dull and simplistic Dances With Wolves riff that plagued the original. All told, it’s a really good movie, just one that doesn’t always land those big punches it’s throwing. As a political act, its anticolonialism is limited by the trappings of its creator and the realities of its genre, not to mention a willingness to traffic in stereotypes. As a technological feat, it impresses, but never quite justifies its own broader damage to the industry or surpasses the visual effects it’s apparently supplanting. The Way of Water looks astonishing, but I can’t help but feel melancholic about the dominance of digital photography and CGI that both films have left in their wake. At the end of the day, I suppose I’ll tip my cap to The Way of Water, a film I enjoyed just enough to see twice. I’ll be ready to write these same endorsements and misgivings again when the next Avatar film comes out in two years, and the next one two years after that, and again, stretching on for presumably decades.  

This is the fifth article in a series covering each of the Best Picture Oscar Nominees.

Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].