Wednesday 21 December 2022

The great blue hope: "Avatar: The Way of Water"

So this is it. 2022 was supposed to be multiplex Year Zero, the first uninterrupted year of cinemagoing in three years, an opportunity to regain the trust and custom of all those who'd kept their distance after Covid came to town. What did the year bring us?
Top Gun: Maverick, primarily, during which you could persuade yourself that the studio system was still functioning as it was set up to function, and that someone in Hollywood - be that Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie or Jerry Bruckheimer - hadn't entirely forgotten how to make big, crowdpleasing movies. It spent 17 weeks on the UK Top 10, the whole summer plus a spot of autumnal change, a fact that said as much about the accomplishments of Top Gun: Maverick as it did about the failure of its immediate box-office rivals: put simply, folks decided they'd rather see Top Gun: Maverick two, three or five times than anything else once. After the longest time, James Cameron - no less tech-savvy than Cruise, no less of a perfectionist - has finally finished tinkering on The Way of Water, his sequel to 2009's billion-grossing hit-of-all-hits Avatar, and so this really is it: Hollywood's final throw of the dice for 2022, the movies betting the house on state-of-the-art spectacle to make up for the shortfalls incurred elsewhere this year. Clear the screens; release nothing that might give Cameron a run for his money; reintroduce the 3D ticket surcharge; sit back, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Good luck everyone, we're going all-in.

First things first: if history teaches us anything, it's that the broadly mixed reviews The Way of Water received this past weekend count for very little, beyond logging a collective critical sigh at the direction Cameron - like him or not, as much a figurehead of the contemporary American scene as Spielberg or Scorsese - has elected to travel in. I was mixed on Avatar in 2009, before relaxing into its better spectacle upon the release of its coffer-topping Special Edition a year later. My late-blossoming fondness was fortified by the Season 2 episode of TV's How To With John Wilson where a small community of real-life Na'vi nuts spoke touchingly to how Cameron's movie elevated them from the pits of suicidal despair. If Avatar meant so much to those sweet kids, why trouble to snark about it? At the very least, the first film was the work of a singular penhand and will, unlike all those anonymous comic-book blockbusters-by-committee popping up like zits in its wake. Equally, though, I well understood those who struggled to overcome the Dances with Smurfs-ness of it; indeed, I remain amazed I let down my own guard long enough to relax, gawp and marvel as I did. From the off, the sequel offers even more for these naysayers to have to get past; where Avatar dipped a mere toe in the light blue fantastical, The Way of Water wades in up to its neck. This may be why so much of the pre-publicity focused on the amount of time the performers spent underwater during the film's years-long shoot. These tales are both proof of cast and crew's total, immersive commitment to the bit, and a veiled warning to potential ticketbuyers. We, too, will have to dive in unreservedly - and hold our breath to the point where we go lightheaded and helpfully giddy.

Unlike Cruise's endurance stunts - which are, as his viral Tweet from earlier this week illustrated, always finally shown to have been performed at some risk by the star himself - all this celeb synchro swimming proves rather moot in the context of the finished movie, because it's not Kate Winslet and Sigourney Weaver we watch doggy-paddling, but their digitised Smurfling avatars. It could be anyone, or no-one at all; we are almost exclusively in the digital realm now. Of the humanoid Sam Worthington, we see nothing (which the snarkmongers will doubtless frame as an improvement), because his Jake Sully has gone full Na'vi, bedding down on Pandora with blue-babe wife Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña) and their many children; key supporting players - Winslet, Weaver, Stephen Lang - have themselves submitted to full-body motion capture, giving family man Sully a whole legion of Smurfs with which to dance. If the first film was an escape from Earth, the second plants its big blue feet squarely on Pandora, and starts putting down roots with an eye to further sequels. The human isn't the base or norm here, but the enemy. Rearmed and redefined as "fire people", they seem to have forgotten about the much-mocked unobtainium, and now present as a source of interruption, disruption and all-round trouble. Like billionaire George Lucas turning the Star Wars prequels into a series of deadly tedious tax disputes, this is Cameron writing what he knows: presumably some poor soul had to drag him from his shed, and his beloved Pandora, whenever his tea was ready. Nevertheless, as the franchise veers ever further away from reality, it may be surprising to recall that Cameron once signed his name as screenwriter to a great, tough, underrated movie (1995's Strange Days) which saw the dangers of leaning too hard and far into virtual fantasy.

It would only be more surprising if the spectacle The Way of Water generates wasn't so seductive: if you let it, it does pull you in. The spectacle isn't that of the spectacle, say, Emmanuel Lubezki captures for Terrence Malick, reaching towards the divine. (Avatar gets laughable and resistible when it does, cf. its Tree of Life business.) But it functions, still, as a demonstration of high-end industrial light and magic, reaching out - via the power of 3D - for the end of your nose, like some hacky but effective grandpa-conjuror. This world looks and feels far too lived-in to be the wholly cartoonish endeavour some have dismissed it as, and you keep catching grace notes on the fly: the twang of an arrow lodged rigidly in a fallen warrior's chest, the play-area bounce of the canvas walkways extended across the film's Blue Lotus coastal resort. Such touches speak to considered virtual craft, if not fully-fledged art. And the spatial architecture has been puzzled over and worked through, unlike the gabbled action in the average Marvel or DC dust-'em-up. You can reject the whole thing, as you could turn your nose up at a Lego set for being, you know, for kids, but you cannot say that it's shoddy workmanship, that it doesn't fit together. (Neither does it succumb to the gravitational problems the recent Black Panther sequel faced with its winged bodybuilders: here, everything leaps, hovers and lands precisely as it should.) The deeper one sank into The Way of Water, the more aware I became of a pronounced split in my own responses: how little I got from thinking seriously about it, i.e. putting up any sort of resistance, and how much I was enjoying just being there, i.e. simply wallowing in it. As my left brain kept telling me: this does look like a project someone's spent 13 years on. As my right brain retorted: yes, but why would anyone spend 13 years on this?

Rewatching the first movie on its reissue in October, I was struck by how light it was, at least compared with the try-hard self-seriousness of the MCU/DCU. The sequel is lighter still. In The Way of Water, when one character literally enters the belly of the beast, his path is illuminated by bio-luminescent freckles; the most persuasive, awe-inspiring stretch, which takes up practically the entire second hour, has no greater goal than to show these characters having fun beneath the waves. (It allows Cameron to affirm the growing connection the Sullys have to waters that in time will become disputed.) It's floatation-tank cinema, right down to the New Agey words and noises on the soundtrack; it distinguishes itself by mollifying, where so much event cinema is geared towards agitation. Such lightness is easily (and has been readily) mocked: I can't claim The Way of Water holds much in the way of dramatic weight, even after it sends on the gunboats. But it's the reason the film moves as fluidly as it does for the better part of three hours 20; my feeling as I emerged and towelled down was that Cameron had made the best film he possibly could with fundamentally plasticine characters. As to whether it'll sink, swim or merely wash its face, it's too soon to say. If you're anything like me, you may emerge with a sense of having had your money's worth. But The Way of Water's ultimate fate, and the fate of those planned sequels, may hinge on a matter of practicality, and the one calculation Cameron cannot make. In the real, non-blue world, getting everyone in situ for three hours - even during the holidays, especially during the holidays - is a big ask; to ask us to then return two or three times, as Cameron requires to cover his initial outlay, is monumental. This brave new digital world will stand or fall on something as important to Mark Zuckerberg as it is to Jake Sully: it needs legs. But The Way of Water may have swallowed an enfeebled marketplace at a moment when non-Pandorans have plenty on their hands already.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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