WASTE OF WATER: Reviewing James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2022)

A close-up shot of Neytiri's (played by Zoe Saldaña) face in James Cameron's "Avatar: The Way of Water".

[For our in-depth video discussion of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, click here.]

Ten years after people stopped caring, Avatar: The Way of Water has ejaculated into cinemas. Have you seen the original? Of course you have. Everyone has. It was a phenomenon. And then, all of sudden, like a bad dream, it seemed to evaporate with little traceable influence on the industry. This so called revolutionary’ film from  ‘visionary’ director James Cameron is mostly remembered today as a kind of high concept spaff. Smurfs in Space by way of Enya.

It’s a deeply conventional narrative plucked straight from nineteenth century literature. In essence, a soldier and double agent ends up going native and becoming the de facto leader of an army of colonial insurgents. But not before winning their respect, having wrangled and tamed the most untameable of alien stallions and falling in love with the alien chieftains daughter. The obvious comparisons have already been made by sundry critics about the propinquities between Avatar and Dances with Wolves. But most neglect to mention the most obvious comparison: John Carter of Mars, the original populist pulp science fantasy. But even just in terms of visual window dressing and ‘effects’, Avatar didn’t deliver much that felt authentically new. Much of the alien biology and futuristic hardware was plucked straight from the pages of Métal hurlant and any given number of prog rock record sleeves. It’s a particularly dated and dare I say passé approach to sci-fi aesthetics.

But Avatar’s marketing was irresistible. What sold tickets was an invitation to enter into a kind of immersive experience, a ‘trip’ so to speak to another world. Gossip regarding the film’s budget also helped to persuade of its scale, it’s ambition to spectacle. It was possible to image, from word of mouth that Avatar would be a kind of cinematic Odyssey. It might even be a new kind of film altogether. But in the end, what we got was an over-familiar yarn.

One has to ask- what was all this in aid of? What does James Cameron want from his audiences? He’s always been a populist, someone who’s happy to play to the crowd, but one can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line he has either failed to understand his public or lost respect for his audience. The Avatar films are a moral and political mess, mainly due to their anachronistic and paradoxical nature, but also due to Cameron’s being out of touch and disconnected from normal reality. Is it possible after all to make a macho action film with guns and babes and marines but still have it be a coherent feminist eco-parable? Either way the script is awfully conflicted while seeming desperate to appeal to the most general audience conceivable. The result is a cocktail of white liberal guilt, chauvinism and noxious ‘spirituality’.

Watching Avatar: The Way of Water was like an acid flashback. Or at least it’s how I imagine an acid flashback would be. Right from the first scene I had this wonderfully queasy sense of deja vu. It was brilliant. Oh my god, I thought. This is going to be three hours of exactly the same. It’s just the same coming back around again and again forever and there’s no escape. I had to put my iPad down for a moment.

As I watched the film, the film became a kind of blindness. At certain points the narrative devolved into a kind of Spielberg-esque teenage romp which caused me to become infuriated. God, I hate him, I said aloud to no-one in particular about an adolescent character whose name I don’t recall.

The Na’vi are simply beastly. All of them are blue aliens, CGI atrocities with hilarious accents. The various ‘indigenous’ affectations of the alien tribes are particularly vulnerable to parody. I had the impression at moments of the discomfort that comes from watching an actor perform in yellowface. The fact that the Na’vi are a metaphorical stand in for the racial ‘other’ – a fantasy version of an indigenous ethnic tribe – gives one pause when considering the deeper logical absurdities of the plot. There’s are numerous points when the film awkwardly glosses over some rather mindboggling transhumanist ideas about switching bodies and  identities. Because of the events of the first film the bland white saviour becomes a permanent Na’vi although still retains his Caucasoid features. The more one thinks about it, the uglier your thoughts become.

Weird trans-racialism aside, the Na’vi are a fairly superficial representation of a primitive civilisation. There’s lots of the aforementioned new age guff about ‘the way of water’ and being in harmony with nature, etc. The Na’vi can also literally connect to flora and fauna by way of their psychic alien tendrils. It’s very stupid and literal, and, again, pretty much a slightly altered version of what we got the first time around. Only this time, it happens on a beach instead of in a jungle. For some rather poorly explained reason the bland white saviour and his ragtag family have to leave their tribe and go into hiding among some neighbouring community of Watusi fisher-folk. Once  again we get a whole to-do about about the outsider going through the tribulations of earning social acceptance whilst trying to integrate into the adoptive local community’s customs and whatnot. It’s just about as tedious as you can imagine even without the coming-of-age malarkey.

The scenery-chewing baddie from the first film is resurrected like a kind of onerous Doctor Who. He’s possibly the single best reason for enduring all this tedium, because if nothing he’s beyond pastiche. All he would need is a big, black evil cigar and his performance would be complete. That said, his characterisation has just about all the depth and fascination of a water stain. Just a big evil stuffed mattress. Inexplicably, he’s given a kind of Mowgli-looking  twink sidekick, which ends up weirdly echoing the relationship between The Terminator and John Connor, only now with unintended and hilarious homoerotic undertones.

Sigourney Weaver also is brought back from the dead as a Deepfake adolescent version of herself. Doubly trippy is the fact that this kid retains a sixty year old Sigourney’s voice. Rum stuff hearing the laryngeal regions of a husky middle aged woman echoing foam out the throat of a pixie faced anime girl.

Inevitably there’s a conflagration at the climax of the film. The white saviour leads a charge of space-zulus against the colonists (again) and even the kindly space-whales show up to assist in seeing off the baddies. There’s some implacable Cameronisms. The characters become stuck in the hull of a semi-submerged boat. The score swells. The screen is filled with a ricochet of broken glass, bullet shells and butterflying jets of flame. And all of a sudden the film is spent with a fanfare and a 20-foot high logo in glowing papyrus font and people are rolling in the aisles clawing their eyeballs.

Okay, so I’m joking about that, but still I was left wondering what this had all been for? Is this just another convoluted excuse for James Cameron to work out his fascist techno-fetishism? The best parts of the film were inevitably centred around the Metal Gear Solid antagonists with their cyberpunk megaplexes, military jargon, and Masamune Shirow mecha-suits. Cameron is in his element when it comes to this stuff. It’s when we get back to the tribal stuff and he starts laying on the schmaltz and new age hippy crap that I get turned off. In other words, he wants to indulge in all these things, but he wants to make a moral film as well. He has to compensate for all these fetishes with this patronising liberal delusion about something or some other. The military-industrial-complex, perhaps, or Blackwater or BlackRock or whatever they’re called. Maybe the bad guys are a stand-in for Nestle or Coca-Cola. That’s the thing with allegories. You can just switch around the labels sometimes.

There are a few subplots that are worth noting. At one point, one of bland white saviour kids becomes friends with—get this—a renegade space whale. It’s like Free Willy (in space). Also teenage Sigourney Weaver proves to be a kind of Marvel superhero capable of manipulating plants and animals with psychic powers. It just makes one want to sigh. Also the bland white savior bickers constantly with his nubile space-wife. Riveting stuff.

One was troubled also by Avatar’s insistent sexualisation of the female characters. There are multiple instances where the camera goes all Michael Bay and we’re suddenly in cheesecake city. After the umpteenth occasion of seeing deepfake teenaged Sigourney Weaver’s flat, practically nude elongated blue chest, I started having the most terrible doubts about what I was seeing. Perhaps this is all a wee bit too French. Or even not French enough. Maybe incest and or pedophilia would have spiced up the storyline, but it wouldn’t have made a great advert for the theme park. Didn’t I mention? You can now visit planet Pandora for yourself much in the way you can visit Disneyland and J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. Now that’s what I call a media spin-off. Of course, much of the criticism directed at Avatar is that it’s far too much like an amusement park ride or a rollercoaster. I understand the anxiety about a general shift away from the principles of a pure cinema (‘kino’) what with the market hegemony of Marvel and and all. But Avatar is, at least in a technical sense, a far more conservative and retrospective kind of Hollywood film than anything being made by Marvel at the moment. It makes one wish there was some kind of alternative to cinema—to the movies, with their bullshit characters and plots and phoney morals which get endlessly recycled again and again.

At least rollercoasters don’t try to pretend they’re turning me into a better person. Hell, I’d rather ride the pleasure beach ghost train than have to watch Way of the Water. There’s actually a lot to be said for gimmick cinema and the idea of a film as like a cool novelty amusement ride like a William Castle spook-show or a world expo thing. At least, it’s not without merit. If anything, Avatar is less like a rollercoaster and more like a bunch of poorly-edited-together narrative cutscenes in a videogame. Even the psychedelia of the sea creatures and bioluminescent fauna comes off as retro and pulpy. Some eye poking special effects and a bunch of very tall blue people with funny voices saying stuff like ‘Our hearts beat in the womb of the world,’ and other instant Rupi Kaur classics.

Now, I’m not against tall, weird people with funny voices. But I prefer the blue titans in Le Planet Sauvage. That film was left incomplete but it was an amazing gem of animated cinema. The plot is like something out of the pages of a symbolist nightmare by Bruno Schulz or Alfred Kubin and the surrealist art design of Roland Topor is beautiful and haunting. I can’t recommend it enough. It treats its audience as sensitive, sophisticated adults rather than dull morons.

By contrast, can anyone apply the word ‘art’ to Avatar in any serious way? Is James Cameron an artist or does that word mean nothing anymore?

In conclusion, if you consider yourself a clever person you probably won’t enjoy The Way of Water. You might however enjoy hating it.

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