Paddling to the Promised Land, PART I – Jim Cameron’s long awaited ‘Avatar’ sequel rises to new depths!

Image credits: RIDING TO VICTORY: Who needs to snorkel when the fish does all the hard work for you?

Just watched Avatar 2: The Way of Water, and in 3D, to boot. It’s actually really good. A bit predictable, a bit cheesy, and a bit too long, but with all that, it’s great. It’s certainly, more ‘epic’ than Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) will ever be.

By Emad Aysha

Decoding the movie wasn’t that difficult, although there were a few well-hidden surprises. That being said, there are problems in terms of acting and in terms of the story and plot. But I’ll get to those later. Need to fill you in first on the story, however unoriginal, with an ‘emphasis’ on the good things first. As much as is humanly possible.

The story begins with Jake (Sam Worthington) talking, with his unenigmatic tone of voice, about his life on Pandora from the point of closure from the previous story; it makes sense, but straight away, there’s a hurdle. He’s doing all the talking on the mold of the first movie, even though the first scene we have is of his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) singing the story of their people and their family, with some inexplicable sadness. That’s also the closing scene. That creates some narrative complexities that were uncalled for, especially since the story is more about their kids (dare I say, brats) than the two of them. I don’t know who’s to blame for this, the director Jim Cameron who insists on doing his own writing, or the actor Sam Worthington. I’d wager it’s the actor. Cameron likes female-told stories, witness T2: Judgment Day (1991). Anyway…!

DEMON TECH: Have to up the ante technologically for a sequel about man’s parasitic imitations of nature.

Memory reels are us
So again, you have Jake from the first movie living happily ever after on Pandora with his wife, and now he’s got a family and two extra sidekicks. The first is Kiri, aka Sigourney Weaver, the inexplicable daughter of the avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine from the first movie. (No complaints there, any movie without Sigourney Weaver in it isn’t worth it’s salt). And a human boy nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion), the infant son, apparently, of the bad guy from the previous movie Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Here’s where the cheesiness enters into it. The humans come back to Pandora to do more than rob the planet blind. The Earth is dying, so they want to settle there, and that means killing off the natives. And to hunt down the natives more effectively, since they’re fighting back under Jake’s leadership, they resurrect Quaritch in avatar form. They (conveniently) recorded all his memories and downloaded them into the gene-spliced Navi, along with many of his fellow grunts in the previous movie. Just darn typical that they couldn’t think up a new formidable foe. It left you feeling like you were watching Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021), bringing Gozer back. Even the scene where Quaritch finds his old dead human body and their weapons tech covered in jungle vegetation was reminiscent of the scene in Jurassic World (2015) where they stumble on the old jeep and night vision goggles from the original first movie. 

But leaving that aside the new infiltrators capture Spider and ‘interrogate’ him under the command of a female general (Edie Falco) who reminds you of Brigadier General Janis Karpinski from Abu Ghraib, the famous American torture house in Iraq. And so Jake decides their family isn’t safe since Spider will no doubt spill the beans. He convinces them to join a far-off tribe that lives on the coastline and is adapted to the water. (His wife believes they should stay to fight for the people, in line with her father’s legacy to her. She might have a point). That’s when the story begins to rev up, and the most vital aspect of the movie comes to shine – the world-building. As magical as the first movie was, with all of the animals and plants the Navi bond with through their neuro stems, you get ten times as much under the sea. You felt you were in a mermaid’s paradise. Fish, corals, seaweed, swimming lizards that sound like dolphins, anemones that help you breathe underwater and leave you looking like an angel, other unique and weird undersea animals that can fly and swim, and of course, whales. (Another clichéd element, save the whale, and Jonah’s whale, but forgivable in this case). The 3D glasses brought that world to life, and the musical score – while a bit stiff and repetitive – is best in the underwater shots.

The special effects were significant in the first movie, path-breaking, but it’s even better here. You have a whole new generation of robots and robotic exoskeletons. They’re sleeker and sexier and imitate living things more, such as the crab-like robots they use while hunting the whales for their precious brain juice. The robot construction workers also have a creepy insect-like quality, a deliberate choice to freak you out more and make the human presence feel parasitic. The facial features of the Navi and their shading and animation are better here. Things feel less cartoonish. The holograms are friendlier and more immersive. The human spaceships and their vapor trails and solar panels are snazzy and intimidating.

There are clear nods to the technical and world-building achievements of the previous movie but lots of breaking of new ground. It’s the lack of originality that is the main crinkle here. Spider is almost tempted to side with the humans, meeting his so-called dad, who always leads by example, then gets his bearings right and helps Jake with the layout of the giant seagoing ship during the final battle. This is an imitation of what happened in the first movie, with Quaritch also developing a pretend father-and-son relationship with Jake and Jake ratting out the layout of the Navi home tree. Thank heavens Sigourney Weaver was there to counterbalance things were her maternal persona.

BABY FACE: Sigourney Weaver reborn as everybody’s fan favourite heroine, with her pulse on the director’s ego!

The catch is the lack of this balancing effect resulting from too many faces and voices. There are also too many predictable character arches with Jake’s annoying kids at play, and you guessed that the (responsible) elder brother would get killed; frankly, you felt more moved and downright heartbroken when they killed the mother whale. (Boy, did you enjoy it when the whaler got killed, losing his arm first).

Roadmaps to somewhere

The story could be more consistent in places. You have the former Quaritch telling his avatar self about the betrayal of Jake, which is impossible because the memory upload was a precautionary measure before they even got to the planet. There’s also an inconsistency over why human beings are there again. We’re told it’s to colonize a new world as a replacement to the old one; then we’re told it’s actually because of the brain juice which stops aging and guarantees immortality – the most precious substance in the universe in effect. They could have hinted at that from the beginning, and that would have made quite a nice reveal when you caught up with the younger rebellious brother Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and his pet whale, the outcast Payakan. And I still don’t get the deal with Kiri, her mysterious ancestry, and her connection with Eywa, the mother goddess of Pandora. It doesn’t get resolved, and her character arch is left incomplete, which is a real shame and confusing given that she saves the day on her way in the big battle sequence at the end.

The witch doctor scene when Kiri is excellent too. The human medical science keeps shedding doubt on her religious experience and doesn’t help her snap out of her coma. But still, you’d think the witch doctor stuff would resolve her unanswered questions through a dream vision or something. The pacing is off because of the too easily solved or unresolved character arches. The first movie was long, too, but it focused on one central character and his story of redemption. And so the 2009 movie didn’t feel unnecessary long.

NOSTALGIABERG: Quaritch (Stephen Lang) on how Marines don’t die but just get uglier with screen time. Is James Cameron going rerun, reboot himself?

There are problems with the acting too. Sam Worthington feels out of character as if his heart isn’t in it, and his accent is heavier than it should be. (I’ve heard bad things about him, but he is a very intense actor, much like Christian Bale, so something was seriously off here). Zoe Saldana is in better shape, still the fiery warrior woman she was before, but her emotional reactions here feel blunted. She’s good but not as good as in the first movie. The kids are okay, and the Metkayina reef people do an excellent job for their part, introducing us to a new and sincere way of life with its seductive philosophy. The new human protagonists, if you can call them that, such as the whaler Scoresby (Brendan Cowell) and the troubled scientist Dr. Garvin (Jemaine Clement), are cardboard cutouts. Spider as a kind of mini-Tarzan wasn’t impressive. Not wrong, but not good either. I guess the sheer scale of the production distracted the director, Jim Cameron, from focusing on the minutia of the movie – the human details. Ironically, the whale Payakan performed much better than most of the actors. He looked angry and frustrated when he saw his Navi friends being held captive onboard the massive amphibious whaling vessel.

The real star of the show, however, was Sigourney Weaver. She’s wonderful as Kiri and sexy too. I always felt she wasn’t given enough to do in the first movie, as important as her character was thematically. Here she shines. You can see it in the way she moves gracefully like a ballerina, almost as if she’s making love to the world around her – the sky, the sea, and the earth beneath her feet. Kiri delights in everything as if she’s seeing it for the first time, lying in the fields without a care in the world, absorbed in heart and soul.

Ah, what an image. What a gal.

[[To be continued!!]]


Emad Aysha

Academic researcher, journalist, translator and sci-fi author. The man with the mission to bring Arab and Muslim literature to an international audience, respectably.
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