I have a theory as to why people kept going back to see the first Avatar in the theaters, and it has nothing to do with the beautiful CGI world or the powerful 3D effects. It has everything to do with simply trying to remember the thing you just spent a lot of money and time to see.
I mean, that’s the joke, right? The first movie was one of the biggest movies of all time, and yet left very little imprint on our pop culture consciousness. We don’t meme it. We don’t talk about it. We don’t think much about it. We can’t remember the character’s names. And so, I’m wondering now, did we return to the theater again and again just to try to recall it? To seek out some effect, some memory, some imprint upon us, because surely such a movie would offer that? Were we cuckoo bananapants? Did the movie even exist? Was it really just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing?
What I’m trying to say is, I saw Avatar 2: The Next One, and I don’t really have any feelings about it.
I spent three-plus hours in a theater.
I saw a movie.
A movie happened in front of my eyes.
Then I left the movie and now I have almost no feeling about it. Very little impression at all beyond the knowledge that I saw it and it exists. Probably.
Maybe this is just a pandemic effect. Hell, maybe I’m just depressed. But I got into the car with my son and wife and usually, we go see a movie (rarer now because, well, pandemic) and we talk about it on the drive home. That’s part of the great thing about seeing movies with other people: the conversation after.
But this talk? It umm, it wasn’t deep.
Son: “I liked it.”
Wife: “Yeah, it was good.”
Me: “It was certainly pretty in parts.”
A kind of collective sigh as we sought for more to say but there was no more to say, and so little more was said. We talked about other things.
Still, even now, I’m like, what the fuck. That movie was three fucking hours. More than that. And it cost, what, a hundred billion dollars to make. Surely, surely there’s more to say about it.
In trying to gather my thoughts, though, I’m less Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters certain that his sculpted pile of mashed potatoes means something and instead I’m increasingly aware this unsculpted pile of mashed potatoes means absolutely nothing at all and carries with it no cultural cachet or narrative meaning beyond the plop of pale starch it was, and is, and shall be.
That’s Avatar. A pale plop of narrative starch. Delicious, in its way. Satisfying in its moment. But beyond that, did I get anything more? I am full, but only temporarily. It was calories. I ate them. It is done now.
And yet! AND YET. And yet I try, again flailing for meaning, for memory, for something, for anything. So here are some impressions, some crumbs of thought brushed off the counter and into my cupped hand.
The frame rate change is super weird and doesn’t work.
For those who don’t know, it goes from (I think, I’m not going to look this up) 48 frames per second to 24 frames per second. We are used to 24 frames per second in films and it ostensibly clicks with our brain as it tricks our monkey minds into feeling more authentic, because it’s how our brains interpolate visual data. Or something. I dunno. So 48 is *does some quick math on cool calculator watch* twice the standard frame rate.
Put differently, you know how the very first thing you do when you get a new TV is find MOTION SMOOTHING and hit it with the heel of your shoe until it turns off and never can turn on again, and when you go over your elderly parents’ house and they have that shit still on you find yourself irrationally angry at them even though it’s not their fault, this is how the stupid TV showed up in their house? Yeah, James Cameron turns it back on for this movie. He undid all our hard collective work and said MOTION SMOOTHING IS THE WAY OF THE FUTURE.
Except, he then added as a caveat, I MEAN, SOMETIMES, I GUESS, because the movie never commits to this fully. I do not know how much of the movie is in this format, but I’d guess about… 50% of it. It switches back and forth, often multiple times in a single scene or sequence. Back and forth it flips and you never ever get settled into one frame rate. What that means is, you experience this jarring flip between:
“This looks like the slickest video game cutscene ever”
“Wait now this looks weird, like Claymation.”
Because it goes from eerily smooth to half that, which looks jerky, hitching, erratic. To clarify, this switch makes normal filmmaking at 24 frames-per-second look wrong somehow.
And the result is, neither looks “normal” for the movie because one minute it’s one thing, the next it’s another, and it keeps flip-flopping.
And for me this didn’t allow me to ever lose myself in the story. It constantly made my brain re-adjust to the visuals, so every few minutes I was forced to reacclimatize myself and willfully think about that acclimation.
There are times when it breaks through and that hyper-smooth filmmaking approaches actual beauty. But it doesn’t last for long and you ultimately realize none of this is real anyway and all of this is a big tech demo.
A thin, thin narrative gravy.
There’s the (approximated, paraphrased) saying of, “Trying to fit a 100-pound pig in a 10-pound bucket,” meaning a thing is overstuffed, crammed in, trying to do too much. Avatar 2 does not have this problem.
It has the opposite problem. There is a little baby piglet inside a cauldron. It is bleating. Its bleats echo in the hollow iron. The piglet is sad.
Cameron has crafted a huge storytelling container — a three-hour tour, so to speak — of Pandora. And he brings very little story to fit in it. The story is… fine. It’s there. Things happen, but when you chart the broad strokes, you can count them on the fingers of one hand. And the narrow strokes, the smaller character arcs, there aren’t many. They’re usually two-beat arcs. “This character is THIS, and now they’re THIS, the end.” Some have one only one beat. A narrative arc that is less an arc and more a single blip on a radar screen: ping.
When you chart out the story, it doesn’t even make sense in its entirety. In revisiting the story with my wife, I was like, “Wait, why did they do that again? Why did they go there?” And the response is mostly a shrug. “Because the movie wanted them to?” Which is probably a pretty accurate answer.
A lack of stickiness?
Some books, shows, movies — they’re sticky. Meaning, they stick to us. Good or bad or whatever, they live with us and it’s the thing that makes us care about them. We remember certain parts, certain characters, the way it made us feel. And I think the first film suffers in a way from a lack of that stickiness. Nothing really gets under your skin or buries itself in your mind — for good or ill, it just doesn’t resonate deeply. That’s okay, I guess, sometimes things are that way.
I think the sequel is even less sticky than the first one. When later my family talked about the movie more, we tried to discuss it — as one does — by using character names. And we had almost none of them. We remembered Jake Sully and Neytiri. We remembered the tiniest child. And the rest… no idea. I just looked them up now and without the CGI blue goat cat fish people faces to go with them, I couldn’t tell you who they were. I mean this with all seriousness: I have no memory of their names. Or the names of locations. Or any of it. It just slid off me, a fried egg from a non-stick pan. And I try to think, maybe this is just me, maybe this is the pandemic, certainly my brain has felt weird since all of this began — but I think back to movies this year I did like and I find them to have had a pretty sticky factor. I remember scenes and names and lines of movies for the most part. But this one I’m like, “The older brother. Wait, was he the younger brother? And the girl. The one who is Sigourney Weaver Junior for some reason. And the village elder. Him. That guy. No no the other one. And the bad guy, you know, the guy from Don’t Breathe, yeah, Commander Cumsack or whatever they call him. Colonel Quiddich? No. QUARICH. Right right right.”
It’s made all the worse that this movie is clearly a setup for the next 47 of these. Stuff happens but leaves little impact. And this movie undoes the larger Pandora-global effects of the first film without exploring what that even means. I dunno. It’s a movie. It happened. It was fine? It was fine.
This does not sound like a winning endorsement, Wendig.
Well, see, here’s the thing. I really like James Cameron and even when I don’t like a movie of his, I still appreciate the work that went into it. And some of his movies are some of my favorite movies.
This movie was made with an impeccable attention to detail and craft. I don’t know that it adds up to much, but it has some moments of genuine beauty and emotion. Maybe not as many as the movie intends, but they’re there. (The space whale storyline is proabably the one that stays with me. I remember the space whales, I remember the one’s name, even. Payakan! I might be spelling that wrong! But that’s the name!)
So, people ask, should I see it? Should I not see it?
My answer is —
If you’re intending to see it ever, then seeing it in the theater with the full 3D frame-rate big sound big screen IMAX or RPX thing — that’s the way to see it. Probably the only way. Maybe it’s better without all that dressing, but this is, I believe, Cameron’s intended way for you to see it, so if you’re going to see this movie one way or another, then you might as well skip out on a mortgage payment or two and take your family to check it out.
If you genuinely do not care, and I don’t blame you if you don’t?
It’s fine? It’s fine. It’s perfectly fine. It’s a movie that exists and you will not be harmed by it (insert some conversation here about the problematic nature of this movie and how it even more than the first one appears to be co-opting specific indigenous cultures and though it’s certainly not my place to make assertions please note there is a boycott of the movie which is worth reading about here). It’s even quite pretty. It’s fine. It exists. It’s fine.
Anyway. I have a number of plot holes and spoilers I could talk about, but I honestly don’t know that I can muster the interest in understanding them, or even asking them in the first place? Suffice to say a number of things didn’t really make sense for me, but that’s probably not the point of the movie anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. If you’re one of those people who goes onto YouTube and enjoys watching like, video game graphic engine tech demos for Unreal Engine 9, then this is your movie. Enjoy the goat cat fish people movie.
Also buy my book Wayward or I die in the abyss. I hope it’s good. You might like it. I hope it’s quite sticky, narratively speaking, and even if it’s not, I covered it in strawberry jam so it is definitely actually sticky. Okay thank you goodbye.