Avatar: The Way of Water reminds us that blockbusters don’t have to look absolutely terrible

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I hated the first Avatar movie — like, hated it. It came out in 2009, and I remember tearing off my 3D glasses at its conclusion, livid that I had paid around $18 to watch Dances With Wolves but with blue people. All blockbusters recycle a certain set of tropes, but for some reason Avatar felt trite and silly, as if its much-vaunted groundbreaking visuals were a smokescreen to the fact that nobody remembered to come up with a story that matched.

I overreacted. I know that now. I rewatched Avatar a few weeks ago (on my 3D TV, purchased in the brief period when you could get a 3D TV) and sure, it’s trite and worn. The images are naturally outdated, as to be expected; at this point, it resembles most video games. But what sticks out now is that it looks like something, the product of a fertile visual imagination — James Cameron’s — that thrives on going for broke.

Of course, blockbusters only have one actual purpose: to make money, a great deal of it, as quickly as possible. But audiences don’t care about the box office returns; we’re there to feel something. Some blockbusters generate a feeling of togetherness and belonging. Others inspire terror, or gut-busting laughter. But for my money, the best thing a blockbuster can achieve is an overwhelming sense of awe.

Avatar: The Way of Water, practically glowing.
Disney

Awe is what’s missing in most of today’s blockbusters. It’s hard to find a movie that truly leaves your jaw on the ground through sheer invention, rather than just giving you what you expect, because by now, we’ve seen everything. Soaring spaceships or pow-punching superheroes can still be cool, but they’re not new or surprising. We’ve had decades of gargantuan dinosaurs and monsters with dripping teeth, of massive blow-out fights and ferocious beasts. It’s still rad to watch Tom Cruise jump out of flying contraptions, but I’m not in awe of the image, just tickled by the spectacle of watching a famous actor perform increasingly deranged stunts. Add to that the muddy and confused look of many contemporary blockbusters, movies with little to no visual style to speak of — yes, I speak here of most movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and big-screen awe is vanishingly rare.

I think that explains why, despite its myriad deficiencies, I have to cheer at the arrival of Avatar: The Way of Water, 13 years after the first installment left me so mad in that multiplex. Its plot is hacky; it’s got some really clunky characters; the dialogue is, at times, unthinkably stupid. (“The way of water connects all things” is the kind of line that sounds profound until you really think about it.) But this new Avatar filled an awe-shaped void in my heart, and for that, I thank James Cameron.

Though not in the first hour. Avatar: The Way of Water stretches over three hours long, and for the first third or so, it’s just setting things up — briefly reminding us of what happened in that movie we saw 13 years ago (something nobody remembers) and generating some conflict. We re-enter Pandora, the verdant world on which the blue Na’vi live, and find out that our friends from the prior movie are doing just fine and dandy with only a few “sky people” (that is, humans) hanging around. But peace never lasts, and when the sky people return and start to wage war, Jake Sully and his family have to head for shelter with a tribe of Na’vi who live next to, and largely in, the ocean.

This is where things get good. While the final act of Avatar: The Way of Water slips back into fighting (with a few fun visual quotes of Cameron’s masterful Titanic), the center section is genuinely stunning. For the most part, it’s just the land-dwelling Na’vi learning how to free dive, swim long distances, identify what’s below the water (creatures! butterfly-like membranes that impart extra breath! spirit trees!), and generally absorb the fluid holistic philosophy of their new tribe. They meet the awesomest creatures of all: space whales. (They’re called tulkun, and they are worth the price of admission.)

Perhaps what’s most stunning, and revealing, about this middle section is that there isn’t really a plot. Activities are completed, and connections between creatures are made, all of which will become crucial to the plot. But mostly, for long, gorgeous passages, it’s just the clearest blue water and glowing lights and an overwhelming sense of … peace.

Disney

Wrapped in images so splendid you can barely look away — I definitely missed some minor plot points because I was fixated on the visuals — you start to enter a zone of attention that the typical blockbuster seems, on balance, to have lost, with its quick cuts and bright lights and quips and pows. You catch a glimpse of it sometimes, soaring into Wakanda or (as in the case of last year’s F9) floating in a car, in space. There’s a moment to breathe, something to arrest the attention, an invitation to forget everything around you and lose yourself in majestic contemplation.

That’s evidence of a vote of confidence in the audience, a belief that the viewer can be self-forgetful for a while and enter another world. I remember that same sense of awe when I first saw Jurassic Park on the big screen, with the dinosaurs first lumbering through the frame. Or watching the entirety of the experimental and proudly illogical 2001: A Space Odyssey (which, by the way, finished second only to Funny Girl in box office receipts in 1968).

This is not to say that the images in Avatar: The Way of Water are entirely pristine. What exactly you see will depend on which format you’re watching it in and the technical capabilities of your theater of choice. But in my screening (at a 3D multiplex theater), Cameron’s switching from high frame rate images — which look, to my eye, sort of like television, or maybe a TV stuck on motion smoothing — to more customary cinematic rates, even within scenes, took me out of the action over and over again. (If that’s gibberish to you, and who would blame you, here’s a great explainer.) In some scenes, the image even seemed jittery and jagged, like the image was stuttering.

Jake Sully in Avatar: The Way of Water.

This still looks amazing.
Disney

But not everyone will see that shift, or be bothered by it — and even if you are, the movie still has visual style in spades. Hollywood has been devaluing the beautiful, transcendent, and arresting visual nature of its medium for a long while now, favoring instead intricately plotted stories that rarely slow down for more than a minute or two. But film is primarily and fundamentally a visual medium; you can have a movie without a plot, without characters, without sound, but you can’t have a movie without images. And when those images are bigger than you, when they dwarf you and you have to relinquish control, you can have something akin to a religious experience, or at least an existential one. If you’re willing to, that is.

Will Avatar: The Way of Water reinvigorate the visual attention of the moviegoing public? Probably not. But I know when the first elegant sequence arrived on screen, I sat up straighter, leaned forward, and found myself in a world quite other than my own. I guess a blockbuster, even this one, mostly just exists to make a lot of money. But if a movie can make us transcend ourselves, even just for an hour, I hope we don’t squander that gift.

Avatar: The Way of Water is playing in theaters.

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