I don’t enjoy talking about Avatar. It baffles me that the most popular movie of all time has become the cool ‘no one really watches these movies, right?’ fodder. I had decent memories of the first one, but after rewatching it back in September in 3D IMAX, I loved it. That’s why it was so disappointing to be in the theatre (3D IMAX again) for opening night of Avatar: The Way of Water and to find it wanting. But I think I know the issue. Avatar 2 acts like a video game.
Avatar has always been built on tropes. All blockbuster movies are to an extent, but Avatar is a little more obvious about it than most. It’s not the lazy ‘blue Pocahontas/FernGully/Dances With Wolves’ comparison I’m making here, but more generally, the characters are riffs on established archetypes. The everyman soldier. The warrior princess. The greedy executive. The heartless hunter. The peaceful chief. The furious fighter. The obsessive scientist… you get the picture. In the original movie, the story is able to carry these tropes because the action set-pieces are stellar. In the sequel, the narrative collapses under them.
At around the halfway point (maybe more, maybe less, I didn’t have a stopwatch out during the three-hour plus event), I thought the film was going to be mostly devoid of action, and I was glad for it. We know a third movie is coming, and I thought the marines hunting Jake would have been the backbone of the threequel. Since this movie saw the Sully family move out into the water tribe and a switch in focus to the children, I thought this movie might be slower and more character-driven, letting the action take a backseat as more intimate stories were told. Instead, the tropes were cranked up to 11 and used as a stand-in for narrative, all so we could get to the action faster. It’s a lot like a video game in that sense.
Though the prestige games of the past few years have been aping Hollywood movies, the conventions of typical gaming storytelling are well established. You bring in a character, use a cutscene to give them some motivation, then let them be violent for a few hours, at which point you check in with another cutscene, and then set them free again. Avatar 2 works in the same way.
There are lots of examples of this throughout. Though Lo’ak befriending the outcast Payakan is the heart of the movie, either side of it is propped by generic ‘bullied for being different/we both don’t get on with our fathers’ fodder with no real substance. Likewise, we see a few instances of Kiri controlling the sea in limited ways, only for her to suddenly summon the powers of Aquaman when needed most. Hey, maybe Aquaman’s her dad; it’s not like the movie gave us any answers after so obviously teasing it.
All of the action in Avatar: The Way of Water is set up like a video game too. There are big set pieces, stealth sections, one on one boss fights… whatever you need, it’s here. Characters drop in out of nowhere when needed too, just like the heroes magically assembling at the end of a JRPG. Quite how Spider makes it to the right rock, how Neytiri drops in at the right moment (twice), or why Tsireya fades away once her part in the plot is over is anyone’s guess.
This is a common issue in video games. Even prestige titles that try to be movies like God of War Ragnarok need to push players to constant gameplay. There always needs to be a thing to do, and Avatar never lets its characters think or feel for long enough. There always needs to be something to do. I’m not sure this is anything to do with inspiration from video games, and more a symptom of the original cut running way over time and Cameron needing to trim out character development in favour of action, but it’s a startling mirror nonetheless.
I’m used to video games acting like movies. I did not expect the biggest movie of the year to act like a video game. There’s more to Avatar’s world, and I’m endlessly impressed by the way it makes me care about fairly generic characters, but we don’t see it in The Way of Water. I’ll still be there for Avatar 3, because under the dull action and boring motivations, there are characters here that I want to know more about. But with the first cut running to nine hours long, I’m worried it will be a sequel to the second Avatar, not the first one.
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