Movie Review: Avatar: The Way of Water

Do you remember that TV episode of Ozzie and Harriet guest-starring on Lloyd Bridge’s Sea Hunt? Of course, you don’t. No one would be crazy enough to film it. When James Cameron came out with an instant classic, the Terminator, he followed it up with an even better film: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. However, the Terminator series has yet to be able to continue to catch the magic, just as the new Matrix IV was redundant beyond redundant. With a budget of $350–400 million – adding in the promotion and other necessities – nearly half a billion dollars, possibly – one would expect more than a re-hashing of the previous, groundbreaking film. But, alas, we have the Na’v version of the Swiss Family Robinson – Jake Sully’s tribe, Lost in Space meets Waterworld, two big screen pictures that lost a lot of money (1995’s Waterworld produced by and starring Kevin Kostner, cost nearly 175 million – a massive sum almost 30 years ago, bringing in 264.2 million; 1998’s Lost in Space brought in 136.24 mill, on a budget of 80 million) Let’s do the math: 255 million for both films a quarter of a century ago, return on investment 398 million is tough for a film company to take.

But we are talking Disney and James Cameron here with deep pockets, aren’t we? Kate Winslet from Titanic is “Ronal, a free diver of the Metkayina and Tonowari’s wife” (finding that info on Wikipedia, as the financials above,) and to this critic, Winslet’s presence is an indicator that Cameron decided to fuse his two big motion pictures, Titanic and Avatar, into one. Not a bad idea, perhaps, but the lingering problem is the biggest flaw in the first movie – the exile from Conan the Barbarian, Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch. Perhaps the most unlikeable character from Avatar 1, he is the Bane to the Batman series. This villain isn’t up to the standards of Heath Ledger’s Joker or Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original malicious Terminator. Without a Dr. Doom or Green Goblin who can terrify simply by their presence, Colonel Miles Quaritch falls far short of what is needed. That Lang is signed up for about four Avatar films is regrettable to this appreciator of James Cameron’s talents.

Edie Falco as General Frances Ardmore looks horrible. You’ve got the menacing Tony Soprano’s gangster wife, my God, and she’s as unrecognizable in human form as Winslet is in Na’v form. Just let her be what the audience loves, the sweetly malicious ruthless gun moll like Ma Barker. These people are raping the resources of the planet and killing with impunity. But they are caricatures of true villainy, a grotesque imitation of Heath Ledger’s joker or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, and therein, along with a sideways storyline, is the problem.

In the first film, the audience loved seeing the woeful Colonel Quaritch get sliced and diced by Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri. Cameron’s penchant for bringing back his previous players, Susan Alexandra “Sigourney” Weaver from Cameron’s Aliens (2nd Alien flick, 1986,) handsome Sam Worthington from 2009’s Terminator Salvation (Directed by McG, but spawned from Cameron’s series; 2009 being the same year as the original Avatar, Worthington doing double duty,) and I intentionally use the word “handsome” as these actors in blue Na’v suits aren’t very sexy to the human viewers. So take away the sexual attraction most movies lean on to draw audience and a decent storyline, and you are left with gratuitous violence underwater.

The film itself is equally gratuitous (unnecessary or unwarranted) for several reasons. When Christopher Lee returned from the dead in Hammer Films’ Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, it was welcome for the addiction-feeding of horror movie fans. Lang’s pedestrian army-boy, Col Quaritch, is your garden variety over-macho psycho with a gun in his hand.

Avatar 2: The Way of the Water would be spectacular if it arrived as the first in the series. But we’ve waited thirteen years for a “been there, done that.” The problem with sequels, which Cameron avoided with Terminator 2, Judgment Day, improving on the menace of the original, is what Universal films faced after the first horror talkie, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931) and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein (1931) …yes, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) matched the brilliance of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but does anyone remember 1936’s sequel, Dracula’s Daughter, even though allegedly taken from a deleted chapter of Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel? When the sequel pile of monster movies initially concluded with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, and as hokey as it sounds, a classic and somewhat revered film,) well, you get my point. The resurrected Col Quaritch …memories from the thug implanted into a Na’v avatar, is the punchline, the sick black comedy relief, to the film’s detriment.

Are those three and a half hours of filmmaking worth it? Wearing 3D glasses for that length of time is a bother. Still, the whale-type creatures with high intelligence (a little borrow from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, no doubt) as a highlight and the beautifully crafted fishies in the underwater scenes as the wonderment we expect from this series, it’s not a disaster. Avatar 2 is more like a disappointment. I expected so much more. And hearing Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri repeating “My Jake” over and over is not going to get Zoe an Academy Award. I wanted a squirt gun, honest to God, to shut her up. The Sully Family Robinson would be an excellent film for children if not for all the blood and gore; watching an arm flying off of a bad guy is extreme violence in both setup and execution. It was a cringe moment and not exactly what this filmgoer would call entertainment.

As stated in the opening, this is James Cameron channeling his Titanic through its own film “Avatar,” The thirteen years and perhaps close to half a billion could have been better utilized on the script.