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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Avatar: The Way of Water // Film Review

My name is James and I have Post-Avatar Depression.

Post-Avatar Depression Syndrome, or PADS, is a phenomenon occurring in people who, upon viewing James Cameron’s 2009 mega-blockbuster Avatar, came to dream of living on the film’s alien planet of Pandora; to swing from its trees, tame its flying beasts and poke at clusters of tiny, floating jellyfish. It’s not the first of its kind, being a successor to the very real Truman Syndrome of 1998, but it was the first of the digital age and the plague that is Tumblr. As a result, thousands of people flocked to the site to express their burning desire to live among the native Na’vi, and millions more laughed at them for it, myself included.

I’d like to formally apologise to the PADS community for any past transgressions, because Avatar: The Way of Water has done nothing if not convince me that Pandora is Heaven, and that the Na’vi are just lanky, blue angels with braids for wings, guiding us from this life into the next. On an unrelated note, I recently fired my therapist.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a seminal piece of immersive theatre, inviting us into an idealised version of our own world, untouched by industry and pollution. Trees grow thick into the clouds, sea creatures move at peace through clear blue waters, and the native people are in utter harmony with the planet and its natural eco-system. This is all rendered through motion capture necessitating a decade of preparation, and the result is an entirely simulated world which feels truer than most films set here on Earth.

Although this is pitched as a world without humanity, it is made accessible to us through its protagonist, marine turned Na’vi father Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). In this sequel, Worthington is bound to his Na’vi Avatar, and spends the entire production in a motion capture suit alongside his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and four children Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver).

In terms of motion capture, there is no more fascinating starting point than Weaver, a 73 year old actor cast here as a 14-year old teenage girl. Sparing a few vocal wobbles, the performance is an immaculate illusion, effectively dialling the clock back nearly 60 years in a role demanding both great physicality and childish rage. Looking beyond the obvious meaning of the title Avatar as a vessel for our journey to Pandora, the most curious of Cameron’s uses of this technology in The Way of Water is this proposed solution to the very idea of ageing, and the fact that he appears to find it terrifying.

The film’s secondary antagonists are a team of whalers harvesting Tulkun for a unique chemical in their brains called Amrita which can stop body clocks entirely, preserving humankind in their current forms. Where Avatar presented us with a perfect planet untouched by time, a miracle only possible through CGI, Avatar 2 uses the same toolset to give us ever-lasting humans, both in-universe and in an acting capacity.

While Weaver is the most impressive case of CGI de-ageing, even Pandora’s boogeyman Miles Quaritch is played by 70-year old Stephen Lang, who is in this film required to engage in multiple fist-fights, gun battles and Olympian feats of leaping in his one-man war against Jake Sully. In the first film, Lang (then 57) played the character as a human, but in The Way of Water, we see the human Quaritch only through fuzzy camera footage, masking Lang’s age before he slips into a motion capture Na’vi suit for the remainder of the film. In the wake of Mark Hamill’s lambasted resurrection as an uncannily stiff young Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian, Cameron appears to have broken new ground by imbuing the de-ageing process with youthful virility. In return, we must also bare witness to the violation of a natural Tulkun mind, said to be more sophisticated than that of any human. This is immortality at the expense of natural art.

That is the ultimate fear when it comes to productions like Avatar, which above all else prove the potential to create without physical limitation. Pandora is a wondrous place, but with technology like The Volume becoming increasingly prolific, it is difficult to shake the feeling that Cameron has lit the match for a world where films can be made independent of any human elements by an only-slightly more advanced version of ChatGPT. Once opened, Pandora’s Box cannot be closed but hey, at least we got to swim with the whales first.


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