Around the holiday season thirteen years ago, I reviewed the first Avatar film. I still think it’s one of the shittiest films I’ve ever seen, and I have no intention of seeing the second one. I am 100% certain that my favorite critic Mark Kermode is 100% right about it, when he says to Simon Mayo:
“Avatar: The Way of Water is staggeringly boring. It’s so long, so ponderous, so utterly without wit or artistic merit. It’s a big thundering, lumbering, tech-driven, borothon. Two hours in, I was losing the will to live. It’s so dumb… I came out of the film, and the reviews were embargoed, though you were allowed to post reviews on social media. But I’ve come off Twitter because Elon Musk is an asshole. So all I did was text you some of my alternative titles for this film: Jurassic Water Park. Lord of the Water Wings. Rising Damp. Finding Emo. Ava-Sleep: The Way of Torture. Das Poop. Shite-anic.”
I’m sure that’s accurate, and the high critical approval on RT (78%) — and even higher audience approval (93%) — shows that all it takes to awe people these days are special effects. But special effects aren’t special or impressive in and of themselves. They’re simply to be expected as a bare minimum in a well financed action film. What matters is the story, and as I mentioned in my review of Avatar, the story was boring drivel, and so it only stands to reason that the sequel is as bad as Kermode says it is.
Then there’s the elephant — not mentioned by Kermode but by other critics — which I wrote about at length in my review of the first Avatar: the white savior trope. The first Avatar basically recycled the plots of films like Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai. A moon was being mined for a priceless mineral, while the indigenous humanoids (the blue-skinned Na’vi) resisted the colonial expansion threatening their ecosystem, and one of the colonials came to see the error of his imperialistic ways, joined the natives and went bad-ass on his former friends. The idea that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives has been overworked to death in Hollywood, and it’s really just a hollow guilt fantasy about giving up one’s whiteness without really doing so. In the year 1990, granted, Dances With Wolves was a refreshing antidote to the conservative trash of the ’80s, and old racist movies like White Buffalo (1977), but it hasn’t aged well. It’s an unrealistic, patronizing, romantic depiction of the Sioux that practically glorifies them as saints, and it does so out of liberal white guilt. I hate to give wokes any credit — and I have no patience with those who see racism everywhere — but you don’t have to be woke or a flaming lefty to recognize the problems with white-savior narratives.
What about the sequel film? Cameron seems to have gone out of his way to pander to the wokes. He describes Avatar: The Way of Water as an environmental allegory about the perils of colonialism. While promoting the film he decried the “evils of testosterone”, and indeed (wait for it), that “testosterone is a poison that should be purged from your system”. He boasted that his film sets a new standard for feminine empowerment, because it features a six-month pregnant female warrior. (How this is empowering is unclear; a six-month pregnant woman should be taking care of herself for Christ’s sake, not throwing herself in the thick of battle.) This alone is enough to make an anti-woke like me avoid the film.
But shockingly, many wokes hated the film. Some have demanded a boycott for cultural appropriation. Of all the woke stupidities, the supposed sin of “cultural appropriation” is one of the silliest. But what about the white savior trope? Keeping in mind that I haven’t seen the sequel (and never will), the reviews suggest that Cameron side-stepped the white-savior trope this time (for the most part), but went even deeper into the pitfall of romanticizing the Na’vi as “ecological natives”. But the original-environmentalist fable is as problematic as the white-savior, reinforcing an image of native Americans that’s unhistorical and condescending. Like the white savior narrative, that can become a form of racism, however well intended.
Thus the tragedy: Cameron wants so desperately to be woke, but he (a) will never please the wokes whose purity standards rival those of religious fundies, and (b) blows it in ways that even anti-wokes like myself end up half-agreeing with the wokes (when it comes to white-savior and ecological native tropes). When you add to this that he is utterly incapable of telling a good story and can only serve up tech-driven spectacles, I say, please James, retire, and leave film making to your betters.
I don’t really mind James Cameron. He’s a crowd pleaser, the cinematic equivalent to a band like Journey or Toto. I can enjoy them as long as I don’t go into them with the expectation of experiencing an artistic masterpiece. The first Terminator film was legitimately great at least.
As for Avatar, I’m also in the camp that it’s overrated, although I don’t write it off completely and give it a “1 star.” I thought it was enjoyable at times, and have to give credit for the groundbreaking visual effects at least. It was a beautiful film, even if the story was cliched and predictable. (I haven’t seen the 2nd film yet, and don’t know if I will, considering the 1st one didn’t impress me enough for me to justify watching a sequel.)
I’m not sure if Cameron was trying to be anti-white or “woke” with his films. With the 1st Avatar at least, I got the sense that Cameron was simply recycling the same plot structure and tropes of successful movies like Fern Gully, Dances with Wolves, and Pocahontas. My impression was never that he was trying to make some grand artistic statement or moral message, but rather to capitalize on tropes which make a lot of money. That’s what Cameron’s good at – making money through simple movies with mass appeal.
I agree with you about the first Terminator film, that one holds up well (and on a surprisingly low budget of 6 million). I’m afraid all the other Cameron films I used to like (Aliens, Abyss, Terminator 2) haven’t aged well for me.
You’re surely right that Cameron isn’t genuinely woke, but he has been trying to ingratiate himself with the woke crowd in promoting the second Avatar film, especially with comments like “testosterone should be purged from the bloodstream”. Alas, he courts disaster on all sides.
What annoyed me the most about the first film was its black and white morality, where the humans – with few exceptions – are evil and rotten, and the Na’vi are flawless, Mary Sue space-elves who are perfect in every way, despite the fact that they are violent xenophobes who couldn’t be bothered to at least try and help save another sentient species from extinction (Maybe humanity could dig under the tree and reinforce it as they remove the… urg… unobtanium?). Now, all these years later, I’m not interested in being lectured for three hours that humans still suck and always will. No thanks.