One of the main criticisms of James Cameron’s Avatar was that the story of a native soldier had been told many times before: A Dance with Wolves in Space or Pocahontas with the Cirque du Soleil-trained Smurfs. As the complaints go, this was odd – the plots get classic status for a reason. But it certainly doesn’t balance out in this ten-year-in-the-making sequel, which, original or not, has almost no plot to talk about.
“The Waterway has no beginning and no end,” the two characters say solemnly on separate points. They’re absolutely right, but then there’s no middle ground – or at least the traditional kind, where danger rises and tension and excitement rise. Instead, to borrow the favorite Gen-Z phrase, Cameron and Disney spent $350-400 million on Hollywood’s first blockbuster “no thoughts, just vibrations”; Viewers must let the computer-generated Avatar universe flow over them as our heroes walk past corals, jump with plesiosaurs, and gossip with six-finned whales. The problem is that the universe in question is invariably flamboyant, which makes watching the movie feel like a waterboard with turquoise cement.
Is it purely technologically impressive? Yes. New, enhanced 3D makes characters feel vividly present with the help of dynamic switches at the frame rate (images projected per second) that make action scenes look as slick as a 23rd century video game. But who wants to spend three hours watching a video game? It’s hard to remember a movie that felt less connected to the real world, even though the script waving heavy themes such as anti-colonialism and environmentalism. You know what evokes the wonders of nature more than a $400 million computer-generated fish? real fish.
While we don’t want to sound like an Avatar racist, it doesn’t help that the Na’vi all look so alike, meaning the distinctive on-screen personalities of the cast are lost in the pixelated wash. There’s no big loss when it comes to Sam Worthington, whose quest for onscreen character is about to enter its 23rd year. But Stephen Lang, with the nefarious Colonel Quaritch returning by having his consciousness properly transplanted into a Na’vi body, loses all the facial features and brutally glowing muscles that make the Homo sapiens version of the character so fun to watch. As for Kate Winslet, I have no idea who she’s playing even after watching the movie – it was credited with Ronal, but that didn’t help much.
The story, crafted by Cameron and a four-person writing team, is a classic franchise extension piece with nothing major or major changes, and all pieces returned to their original locations ready for the next installment. And now that the juicier sci-fi hubris of the first movie is superfluous – no one jumps between bodies anymore – all that remains is the ongoing feud between humans and the Na’vi.