AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER
Damn but James Cameron is good at his job.
Not all of his jobs, mind you. He's still helplessly self-referential, his dialogue rarely rises above what you'd expect from a moderately literate middle-school student, and he appears to be eternally stuck in a figurative dick-measuring contest with the prize going to whomever's movie can be the biggest and longest. Yet much to my shock, considering how little I cared for (or remembered) its 2009 predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water worked for me. Cameron's sequel is huge – in many ways, hugely silly – and its bizarrely effective blend of cornball sentiment and the most modern of modern technological advances results in an abjectly sincere technological marvel. After years of delayed opening dates, theoretically diminishing interest, and the ongoing onslaught of James Cameron's ego, I was expecting, and not-so-secretly hoping, to hate this movie. Over the film's 190-plus minutes, though, I never yawned once, and thought that Cameron had executed his greatest action sequences since Aliens, which makes them among the greatest action sequences of all time. Reportedly, The Way of Water needs to make $2 billion globally to break even. I don't know if that can happen, but I'm tempted to say it should.
Just to get the obvious out of the way: The visuals are amazing. Of course they are. They'd better be, given Cameron's track record (five of his eight previous features won visual-effects Oscars), a budget that was inching up on $500 million, and a decade-plus in which the writer/director was allowed to tinker. So I don't have much to add to the deserved praise for the still-astonishing lushness of Pandora's forests, and the aquatic marvels of its reef kingdom in which we spend most of our time, and the soaring military vessels purportedly employed for colonization purposes but really just around to blow things up. More interesting to consider are the performance-capture techniques that let cast members maintain some semblance of their human selves despite being pixelated blue (for the landlubbers of the Na'vi) and green (for the seafarers of the Matkayina) and, in most cases, sporting four fingers rather than five. This is genuinely state-of-the-art screen magic at work, even if the stunt is mildly creepy, and seriously creepy whenever you recognize Sigourney Weaver's expressions on a 14-year-old's face.
And what, you may ask, is Weaver even doing here, considering that her scientist Grace Augustine perished in the original film? She's playing Augustine's half-human/half-Na'vi daughter, natch, who has been adopted by Sam Worthington's Jake Sully and Zoe Saldaña's Neytiri, and blended into their clan that also boasts two other sons, another daughter, and a fully human hanger-on who has become part of the family. But Weaver isn't the only formerly killed-off character actor to return. Stephen Lang is back, too, his executed Colonel Quaritch now a Na'vi avatar – a “Recombinant” – programmed with the colonel's hateful memories and thirst for vengeance, yet weirdly allowed to keep his signature crew cut.
All told, I thought it was lovely of Cameron to not let a pesky issue like death get in the way of bringing Weaver and Lang back for the ride, and an even nicer gesture to grant a significant supporting role to Kate Winslet, though that lady's gotta be aching for a Cameron project in which she won't need a towel after every take. Anyone hoping, however, that they and the others will be given something wildly inventive to do will mostly be waiting in vain. Because in the end, in terms of narrative, The Way of Water is really just Avatar all over again: Mean Earthlings attack the peace-loving Pandorans for their natural resources (and also, this time, Because It's Personal), and the Pandorans fight back.
So why, beyond the distinct possibility of my standards getting lower, did I have a notably better time with the 2022 Cameron than the 2009? It's not like the man's dialogue has improved any, as I again spent a lot of time wincing whenever anyone spoke – particularly when characters insulted one another with witticisms such as “fish lips” and “penis face.” (This latter one is delivered from one Na'vi to another, and begs the question: Do these creatures have genitalia? With all those kids running around, I suppose they must, though their skimpy loincloths are doing an excellent job of keeping us guessing.) And while I won't agree with complaints that the film's middle third is tedious, the barrage of awe and wonder could definitely have been trimmed a tad; you see one wide-eyed gaze at a luminescent fish or a whale – so sorry … a tulkun – that comprehends sign language, you've pretty much seen 'em all. Yet through the course of this sequel's three-plus hours, we're repeatedly treated to an attribute that was altogether absent in its predecessor, and that Cameron consequently hasn't provided since Titanic a full quarter-century ago: charm. Despite the copious violence, numerous deaths, and mandatory dropping of this PG-13 release's lone “F” bomb, the movie's overall tone is sweet, even genteel, and a possible sign that Cameron is mellowing with age – at least when troops aren't getting their arms ripped off or a tulkun isn't crushing armies by going rogue, and not in the ocean.
Key to the movie's unexpected success in this regard is the sheer volume of youths, performance-captured or not, that populate Pandora. (You might be surprised by how relatively little comparative time spent with Worthington and, especially, Saldaña.) None of their storylines are terribly imaginative: Weaver's Kiri communes with nature and longs to better understand her birth mother and discover her father's identity (a mystery we won't have closure on until 2024, if then); eldest son Neteyam (James Flatters) finds himself unable to measure up to his dad; younger son Lo'ak (Britain Dalton) makes hotheaded, ill-considered choices based on teen goading; teen human charge Spider (Jake Champion) is abducted by the avatar of his birth dad; eight-year-old Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) weeps while longing to return to her forest home. (I half-expected Kiri, Meet Me in St. Louis-style, to serenade this tyke with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”) Close your eyes, and you might think you were experiencing a very long, Very Special Episode of a cuddly dramedy on the Disney Channel.
But even though, for a number of reasons, it's easy to poke fun at Cameron, here's the thing: He isn't cynical. He clearly relates to these kids and their kid problems, just as he shares in her pop-eyed enthusiasm when Kiri takes in the miraculous sea life. To an astounding degree, Cameron empathizes with his young protagonists. He loves them. And if you'll forgive the water-based pun, he dives so deeply into their youthful torment, and into their parents' desire to protect them at any cost, that you can't help but get sucked into their familial plights right along with him. (Not for nothing, but Cameron's juvenile dialogue also sounds far less awkward coming from the mouths of actual juveniles.) Beyond the extraordinarily rendered action choreography that features direct callbacks to Aliens, Titanic, and The Abyss and manages to top nearly all of them, what makes The Way of Water's final hour work as sublimely as it does are the simplicity of the stakes – Protect the Family – and the way Cameron cleverly turns the tables on the parental messaging of the film's first two hours. After all of Jake Sully's and Neytiri's talk of doing what's in their children's best interests, they have to accept that it's the two of them, ultimately, who need to be saved, and by the very children they hoped to forever shield from danger.
I'm no big fan of Titanic, but like everyone else in 1997 and 1998, I sobbed when Jack and Rose were stuck on that stupid little piece of driftwood at the end and one of them was forced to say goodbye. While Avatar: The Way of Water doesn't quite possess that film's reflexive emotional pull, it, too, is a heartbreaker, and for all of his shortcomings, Cameron is to be applauded for crafting an emotionally gripping tale of tragedy and eventual uplift that doesn't skimp on the sublime visual panache. Does this material have enough in it to sustain what we're promised/threatened are three additional followups waiting in the wings? I have no idea. But against all expectation, I'm now kind of eager to find out.
EMPIRE OF LIGHT
In writer/director Sam Mendes' Empire of Light, the “Empire” of the title is a once-glorious, now-middling movie house in England during the film's 1980-81 setting. As the Empire's marquee and accompanying posters indicate, the films shown during our 130-minute acquaintance with this fading palace include The Blues Brothers, All That Jazz, Nine to Five, Private Benjamin, Stir Crazy, and Being There, as well as – in an imagined regional premiere with Sirs Laurence Olivier and Paul McCartney as invitees – eventual Best Picture champ Chariots of Fire. Sadly, I would rather watch any of those entertainments an umpteenth time than sit through Mendes' 1917 followup even twice, given how much it squanders a movie lover's rooting interest through lip service rather than genuine feeling, and how confused it seems about what tale(s) it's attempting to tell. At varying points, Empire of Light is a drama about mental disorder, an interracial May-December romance, studies in sexual exploitation and bigotry, a rebuke to Thatcher-ism, and an ode to the joys of watching celluloid images projected onto a massive screen. But considering that, nowadays, only those interested in the latter subject might conceivably purchase a ticket to this thing, would it have killed Mendes to make the vanishing art of cinema his chief – maybe his singular – focus? Couldn't he at least have revealed whether Olivier and McCartney actually showed up for that Chariots of Fire debut?
While Mendes' latest – his first in which the Academy Award and Tony winner is credited as sole screenwriter – boasts a lot of business, it doesn't really have much plot. What little narrative there is concerns the middle-aged, recently hospitalized Hilary (Olivia Colman), the Empire's duty manager, and the college-aged Stephen (Micheal Ward), who, for the time being, has put his higher-learning aspirations on hold in order to tear tickets and sell popcorn. Even though Hilary is at the sexual beck-and-call of her boss (an unpleasant, uninteresting Colin Firth), she and Stephen engage in an affair – and a wholly unconvincing one, given Stephen's weird inability to acknowledge Hilary's bipolar warning signs before and after the pair share their first kiss. Other stuff happens: Stephen, who is Black, becomes targeted by racist louts; Hilary goes off her meds; the Empire's friendly, phlegmatic projectionist (Toby Jones) delivers a soliloquy on the magic of images that move at 24 frames per second. None of it, however, winds up meaning much of anything.
Despite the reliably incandescent Colman coming through in a couple of obvious Oscar-bait sequences, and with the star somehow managing to save a couple of awkward moments solely through her beautiful gummy smile, we leave the film barely knowing Hilary. We end up knowing Stephen even less. Mendes' racial-injustice and class-warfare angles barely land, except in aggressively pushy fashion, as when a cadre of white protestors lay havoc to the Empire lobby – and kick the crap out of Stephen – because they're generically pissed. Even Mendes' recollection of movie history feels off. Was there really such a clamor for the premiere of Chariots of Fire when its director Hugh Hudson had only made shorts and one feature-length doc before unveiling his Olympian saga? (The film feels practically omniscient regarding Chariots' eventual, then-shocking 1982 Oscar win.)
It's easy to see the historical and emotional pastiche Mendes is aiming for, and no one could argue that peerless cinematographer Roger Deakins and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross aren't doing their damnedest to make this a movie for the ages. But the film's overabundance of talking points prevents you from ever finding a theme or character worth caring about, and my heart quietly broke when, near the finale, Colman recited Philip Larkin's gorgeous “The Trees” – a moment that would've been far more affecting had the exact same poetry not been so recently read by Isabella Rosellini's Grandma Connie in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Poor Empire of Light. Zillions of poems in the world, and this flick, for its climactic coup de grâce, picks the one made unforgettable by a traditionally inanimate object with an Italian accent.