Grand visuals and stunning spectacles that have wafer-thin plots and crater-sized plotholes are getting exhausting to watch. This year itself, we’ve seen history on steroids with SS Rajamouli’s RRR and Ayan Mukerji’s visually impressive but abysmal Brahmastra — just to name a few of the ‘blockbusters’ that have swept India, and in Rajamouli’s case, the world. The latest visual rage is the Hollywood blockbuster James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, a sequel to the 2009 sci-fi action film that despite its flaws, was actually fun to watch. The first film had some amount of character distinction and development, with special mention for Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri, a fierce N’avi (the alien brood of the fictional moon Pandora), and her relationship with the human hybrid Jake Sully. Together, they formed the core of the story, mixed with themes of environment and colonization. It was fine, and it should have ended there.
Sigh, as if that would ever happen in this bustling world of unnecessary sequels. James Cameron, the genius behind emotional romances like the Titanic as well as the sci-fi action Terminator franchise, returned with a half-cooked plot for the sequel to Avatar that has every clichéd trope possible. Dialogues are randomly thrown in, scenes are abruptly cut, and there are half-a-dozen plotlines that become a tangled mass of blue. It’s visually stunning and glamorous for sure — an experience if you will — but filled with cringe dialogues written by someone who not only has never hung out with teenagers in their life, also watched 90’s cartoons for inspiration to craft the villains for the story. I could have closed my eyes and imagined I was watching some confused rehash of Penelope Pitstop, Swat Kats, Speed Racer or even the Scooby Doo mysteries. I half expected someone to say, ‘Those meddling kids’.
Men will be men
Avatar: The Way of Water picks up years after the first film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri have a family of five now and seem to be residing in domestic bliss till the ‘return of the sky people’. In order to save the people from them, he and his family his live with the Metkayina tribe that live in an alien version of Maldives. They’re water people who are three shades more turquoise and that’s about it. They teach the ‘ways of water’ to the forest people in this loopy way that makes Hrithik Roshan’s underwater epiphany in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara seem incredibly profound and meaningful.
Stephen Lang’s tough evil marine Quadtritch has been resurrected as an Avatar with the memories of his former self, and is tougher and more evil than before — that’s the extent of his character development. His prime motivation his in the film is to just take revenge on Jake, be cruel and somehow we have to pay the price too as he keeps subjecting us to cartoonish swagger and trash talk while he engages in battles. So be prepared for stuff like ‘Come on cupcake’ and other forgettable dialogues to coax the N’avi into war. A small ounce of nuance is wedged in, as he encounters his son in the Pandora forests — a human, who is affectionately called ‘Spider’. There was potential for some storyline at least here, but we only get a teeny glimpse of it at the end of the film, till then Quadrich sounds like a stilted video game villain. Worse, he’s going to be there for Avatar 3 and 4. Even worse, there’s going to be an Avatar 3 and 4.
All the ‘bad guys’ have bad guy template talk with little or no variance in their dialogues—to the extent that at one point you can’t even tell them apart. Tough guys will be tough. That’s the rule of the film and it applies to Jake Sully, who is the stereotypical strict marine dad. The number of times he says ‘I’ve got this’ rivals Alia Bhatt’s Shiva mentions in Brahmastra.
He’s rough to them for their own good, of course, but has his favourites—the elder son Netayam is the paragon of virtue and as always, we must have a son who is a disappointment (see what I meant by packed by clichés). Nevertheless he’s affectionate (affection is shown by the number of times he calls her baby girl) to his sassy daughter Kiri whose character is reminiscent of a Disney-Pixar creation, except far more vague.
At the end of the film, the two tough men, Jake Sully and Quadrich, have this ‘man-to-man’ incredibly painful stretched battle that seems to go on for several hours—they punch, kick, hold each other in stranglehold underwater , and then are subsequently rescued by their sons.
The teenagers and their storylines
The family element of this tale feels like one of those stodgy American family drama films and sitcoms filled with trope-y teenagers, where you know that the underdog son will save the day. You have the good son, the wayward one, the feisty sister, one excessively cute kid, and the outcast—’Spider’. Quadrich and his evil men his kidnap Spider early on in the film and for some reason, no one seems to know what to do with him, so he just ‘rides along’occasionally being snarky and sometimes expressing horror at the atrocities that his father commits . He’s practically useless and vestigial and his little or no contribution to the plot, till the very end. He might have just been part of the audience, for what it was worth.
Nevertheless, Jake’s kids have to learn to adjust to the Metkayina tribe kids, who are old-school bullies and leave the younger son Loa’k outside the reef as a cruel prank. However, as Loak almost dies, his story gets into a Free Willy angle as he befriends a massive fish-like creature called Tulkun named Payakan who is an outcast. Later on in the story, we get a full exposition on these fish-like creatures—they’re deeply emotional and they love music. We get a bit of Payakan’s backstory too, which is supposed to enhance Loak’s character development and show his soft, sensitive and understanding side of him. This plotline is so jammed into an already crammed film that it almost becomes dizzying after a point, and worse, you know how this goes.
But the strangest treatment has to be for Kiri. Half the time, there’s no understanding what’s going on with her, what is this mystic spirituality that possesses her at times. In the middle of all this, there’s a handful of over-the-top mother and daughter moments between her and Sigourney Weaver that add nothing to the story. At the end of the film, Kiri suddenly masters her magical powers and turns into an Pandorian version of Tinkerbell and rescues Neytiri from the jaws of death. The storylines regarding the children are far too many and convoluted, with most of them having abrupt endings and completely lacking explanation.
Disservice to Zoe Saldana and Kate Winslet
Kate Winslet was in the film, believe it or not. She Could have fooled me twice. It’s important to reiterate that this is Kate Winslet—one of the most prolific Hollywood actors—and she is reduced to a handful of dialogues and gnashing of teeth to express her disgust and anger. She’s just there, beautiful and pregnant, the wife of the chief of the Metakyina tribe, with chances of a cat-fight with Neytiri. If the film wasn’t already stretched beyond three hours, we would have gotten a cat-fight between the two, because why not, that’s all that beautiful women do.
Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri, who was so wonderfully fierce and raging in the first film—is also reduced to being just Jake’s counterpart for this film and going into war when called. For her other screen-time she’s a mother and like every mother seen on screen for the last two decades, she tells her husband to be soft on the kids. She is a vengeful mother at the end of the film however, and she is ready to ‘trade a son for a son’—but this moment comes too late and is too little.
Avatar: The Way of Water feels like a mammoth disappointment and it feels more like a stinging betrayal as it comes from an acclaimed filmmaker like James Cameron. It’s beautiful to look at, but ridden with shoddy plotlines, half-baked dialogues, unidimensional characters and a barrage of agonizing clichés. He could have spent another 13 years to write a better story.