Friday, April 12, 2024

Where Can the Avatar Sequels Really Go from Here?

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At face value, the world of Pandora should be too big to fail. Director James Cameron has crafted a true blockbuster setting, the result of astounding visual effects that render 10-foot cerulean aliens as humanistic as our wrinkles and pores in the mirror. The newest entry in this cinematic universe, Avatar: The Way of Water, is as visually splendid as its 2009 predecessor, which introduced viewers to a place so dream-like that some fell into an actual depression when forced to wrest their eyes away. And Cameron’s sequel re-captures this awe, in part, by carving out new territory, peeling the cast and cameras away from the forested peaks and neon-lit grasses of his fictional moon to its coasts and ocean floors, where new pastel-colored species thrive in harmonic phosphorescence. Mind-boggling technology and a sped-up frame rate render underwater acting as engaging as conversation with the audience member seated beside you. The Way of Water is gorgeous, in a way few CGI-heavy films have been in quite some time. But the artistry of Pandora alone cannot a series sustain.

The franchise-ification of Avatar has long been Cameron’s goal, even if it takes most of his late career to complete. He has multiple sequels beyond The Way of Water planned, including one currently in production and scheduled for release in 2024. But the problem with this grand plan is not its ambition, nor its cost. (With 21st-century technology and Cameron’s obsessive attention to detail, I have few doubts the director can realize his goal, budget be damned.) The issue is that, as The Way of Water lets its lengthy credits roll, the story already feels cramped—if not outright exhausted.

The long-awaited sequel picks back up a few years after the first Avatar, with former U.S. Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) now comfortably reborn into the body of one of Pandora’s indigenous humanoids, known as the Na’vi. (He’s even got the dreadlocks to prove it.) He and his mate, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), are now the proud parents of an unorthodox brood of three “half-breed” Na’vi children and an adopted daughter, whose confusing origins are sure to be fleshed out further in future installments. Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the eldest son, is his father’s carbon copy; Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is the misunderstood middle child with something to prove; Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) is a misfit with an unusual connection to the Na’vi deity, Eywa; and precious eight-year-old Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) would just like her life to not be in danger, if that’s not too much to ask. Together, they’re a charming nuclear family growing up amongst the twisted vines of Pandora, until Worthington’s aggressively on-the-nose voiceover reminds us that happiness can always end.

sam worthington in 20th century studios' avatar the way of water

20th Century Studios

That’s because the first film’s main villain, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is back with a vengeance. Killed by Jake in the original Avatar for trying to destroy the Na’vi home in pursuit of the mineral unobtanium, Quaritch returns in The Way of Water as a Recombinant, a Na’vi avatar “embedded” with the personality and memories of Quaritch’s now-deceased human body. These memories were apparently extracted from Quaritch preemptively, in the event of his death, and sealed into a Na’vi body that now operates with Quaritch’s voice and face. This Na’vi version of Quaritch somehow doesn’t remember extracting these memories, nor does he supposedly have any affinity for his son, a child named Spider (Jack Champion), who was forced to stay on Pandora after the humans initially abandoned the moon. (Babies can’t survive cryostasis.)

Despite not sharing his human body’s affections, this Quaritch does share the former’s vendettas, and he’s built up a mighty grudge against Jake for betraying his fellow soldiers and offing his boss. Top that off with the fact that humans have returned to Pandora—this time with the goal of colonizing the moon, not just scooping up its unobtanium—and the chess board is once again reset.

Therein lies the rot at the core of the film. The Way of Water, whether intentionally or not, feels more often like a repeat of its predecessor than a natural continuation. The two films feature the same heroes, the same exact villains. Their storylines follow the same beats: The protagonist(s) discover a new family in a previously foreign place. They forge a bond with the land and its people, abandoning their biases and embracing the area’s inherent worth. Those people are then threatened by humans, who recklessly pursue capital and glory that is not theirs to take. Losses ensue. In the end, the fight is won, the colonizers retreat, the family is reunited, and the sanctity of the land remains intact.

This story is not unique to Avatar, nor to The Way of Water, as dozens of fans and critics have already pointed out. (Hats off to Ferngully.) Nor is this story one that cannot or should not be repeated. The problem is that The Way of Water’s lack of narrative innovation is so obvious as to be distracting. Examples abound: Jake, a former soldier, runs his household like Captain Von Trapp. The children, while a refreshing addition to the cast, are given painful dialogue that dumps them with Disney-friendly clichés. The new clan of Na’vi who inhabit the coasts—the Metkayina, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet)—are pivotal to the film’s thematic backbone, but are, of course, sidelined in the final action sequence in favor of Jake’s personal squabble with Quaritch. The villainous humans have foregone unobtanium in favor of harvesting the Metkayina’s beloved whale-like tulkun for their brain juice, which “stops aging. Like, just stops it.” (And one vial alone is worth $80 million!) Even the hardened Quaritch has his all-but-promised “Luke, I am your father” moment when forced to confront the potential death of Spider.

kate winslet and cliff curtis in 20th century studios' avatar the way of water

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

These half-baked rehashings of old archetypes could be forgiven if The Way of Water’s environmentalism felt as if it spoke to a new era or introduced new nuance. Avatar accomplished this by the skin of its teeth, in large part thanks to its timing: It made for a natural commentary for the war in Iraq. Today, The Way of Water’s message is no less heartfelt and sincere—nor is it less important, as climate change ravages the real Earth’s oceans. But the film’s echoed beats feel too familiar to penetrate the audience’s deeper conscience. The Way of Water might expand the Avatar’s terrain, but it does not deepen its guts. Pandora’s inherent contradictions—a fully CGI world meant to inspire us to love our real one better—are never addressed with enough conviction, no matter how lovely they are to ogle at.

Still, I have enough faith in Cameron and his cast to believe there’s reason to hope. But that’s only if the sequels give Cameron the space to break with narrative, not just visual, convention.

What additional Avatar sequels are planned?

Cameron has announced plans for at least three additional Avatar sequels beyond The Way of Water. Their names are tentatively Avatar: The Seed Bearer, Avatar: The Tulkun Rider, and Avatar: The Quest for Eywa.

When do the rest of the Avatar sequels come out?

We know that “about 80, 90 percent” of Avatar 3 has been shot, as well as “a few scenes” from Avatar 4, according to Worthington. As of now, release dates for these films are as follows: The Seed Bearer on December 20, 2024; The Tulkun Rider on December 18, 2026; and The Quest for Eywa on December 22, 2028. But remember that The Way of Water took more than a decade to reach the big screen, so there’s always the potential for further delays and scrapped schedules.

How might these stories improve the Avatar universe?

It’s already clear that Cameron wants to make Jake and Neytiri’s children the central figures of the remaining Avatar franchise. My hope is that The Way of Water was a sort of launching pad: a missed opportunity for better characterization, sure, but not the standard by which the future movies will follow. As the children grow, they will likely overtake Jake and Neytiri as the lead protagonists, which could help the Avatar franchise shed its controversial “white savior” roots and dig deeper into more interesting questions, ones that feel less beholden to tired tales: What happens when humans are not the only threat? What if threats come from within? How do creatures connected via a neurological-meets-ecological network reconcile their differences? Is there a place for humans within that framework? What is the purpose of Pandora, when it is not being used as a measuring stick against Earth? What if, instead, it’s a truer, more honest mirror? Might it finally feel like the expansive world Cameron so desperately wants it to be?

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