Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 17, 2022 3:45 pm 
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Cameron plays around in his watery sandbox

Perhaps it's true as has been said that James Cameron doesn't try to tell original stories. But nobody has made movies filled with tall, thin blue men with pointed ears and long tails but him. The Na'vi, as they're called, who live on a remote planet in a far-off galaxy, are part of a sand box for the well-funded director to play in - except that metaphor's a bit off, since much of the playing this time is very, very wet. The passages that take place under water are the best of this Avatar sequel and they are beautiful. No one has captured a sense of crystalline liquid and of floating or of big sea creatures diving and dancing on water's surface better than this.

It's not exactly clear where Cameron gets this peculiar distortion of the human form. If you like the idea of tall thin blue men (speaking American-accented English) with long heads, big noses, pointy ears and bare butts, this film's for you. By the way, do you notice how little variety in body type there is among the "bros," as they often call each other here? Do you also notice the non-humanoid animals are all used as servants of the humanoid ones - and that they are used but never cared for? This was true also recently in Jordan Peele's Nope, which is set at a horse farm where no time is ever devoted to the horses being fed or groomed. And these people, they're fantasy indeed, the way they combine the high tech and the primitive, with translucent-screened computers and other sophistications, but going about in necklaces and long slinky braided hair and loin cloths - more pleasing and provocative indeed than the drab outfits worn in Silicon Valley. Yes, I know: it's science fiction.

Cameron-watchers tell us that he considers testosterone a toxin that needs to be sucked out. That doesn't quite come through. The focus of The Way of Water is on two macho men, Jake (Sam Worthington) and Quarich (Stephen Lang) who, after a lot of footage devoted to aggression, eventually strive to become peaceful dudes. This was hard to see. There seemed to me to be a celebration of testosterone here. Cameron plainly is ambivalent, as he veers between the touchy-feely and the bombastic, much the way he did in Titanic.

I have a confession to make: so far, at least, I have made it through only the first two hours of the three hours and twelve minutes of this movie (and that in standard format, not 48 frames per second 3D or IMAX). There was a great deal of repetitiousness, interrupted with the periodic explosions and battles that are routine for action blockbusters. True, there's great variety, great detail, many characters. But the pattern was to have passages of youthful characters, or family units, exploration of the new environment, only to be followed by a return to Quarich and his men, often using or abusing the white human kid with the dreadlocks called Spider (Jack Champion). This happens because Quarich is really a reconstruction in Na'vi form, the better to combat the Na'vi, except that his Na'vi language is rudimentary, so Spider becomes their interpreter.

Dismiss standard human white-boy Spider as a mere novelty amid the blue people at your peril because he is our representative in the story. There are other human types such as the inexplicable General Ardmore (Edie Falco) and one of the several incarnations of Sigourney Weaver (the other is young and blue). But they aren't young, fit, and naked, and it's Spider who's forced into the misfit's role of go-between. Of course we may also identify more emotionally with Jake's little family as they try to adjust to the new aqueous environment. Both ways, this works as a kids' picture, and kids were much in evidence when I watched.

And while I've found fault with the treatment of animals, there is the large "outcast" sea monster that the teenage boy bonds with during one of the first two hours' longest passages, when he too is being treated as an outcast. There is evidence that if Cameron isn't wholly mindful of inter-species care, he's mindful of the huge current earthling problem of refugees and statelessness.

Admittedly, though Cameron's Avatar II world takes some getting used to, to put it mildly, and there is far too much going on that's not rallied into a logical whole, there is much that can touch you emotionally as well as much that is entrancing to look at. Even the blue people are cooler and sexier than they were in the original Avatar. Much progress has made in the last thirteen years. But then the movie wastes much of this by being so long and so ultimately uninvolving. It contains too much. Cammeron's sandbox is vast, and he seems to want to play with so many of his themes. Brian Tallerico, the "" critic, says this new avatar of Avatar, while not (fortunately) a "retread" of Avatar, contains "thematic and even visual elements" of Titanic, Aliens, The Abyss and the Terminator films.

Ultimately Avatar: The Way of Water winds up being a drawn-out tease, a narrative that never reaches a climax, that undulates rather than progresses. This is a blousy, meandering, and overlong piece of kitsch nobody should waste three-plus hours on. Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post film critic summed it up pretty accurately: "Long, loud, eye-popping and forgettable." Forbes sums up: "A major disappointment, bro." How sad that it should be so! There are charms and hints of beauty and greatness here. But in the realm of story, which ultimately trumps all technology, it falls short.

Avatar: The Way of Water, 192 mins., premiered in London Dec. 6 and Los Angeles Dec. 12, 2022. It opened in US theaters Dec. 16. Screened for this review at Century Hilltop 16, Richmond, California Dec. 16. Metacritic rating: 67%. In France as Avatar 2: la voie de l'eau it opened Dec. 14 and received an AlloCiné press rating of 4.2/5+84% (spectator rating 4.4=88%).

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