13 years ago, James Cameron released his magnum opus ‘Avatar’, and it shocked the world with how much CGI an egotistical director could shove into a single feature-length film and get away with. People came from far and wide to watch the video game unfold before their eyes in all its mediocrely acted splendor, and became the highest grossing film of all time (but technically not actually since, adjusted for inflation, ‘Gone with the Wind’ is the highest grossing film of all time). So the question inevitably arises; do we want another one, 13 years after the fact?
Far be it from me to determine what the “world” wants, or to use myself as a stand-in for “we” the theater audiences, or even if this movie has to satisfy the world, but one has to ask the obvious questions for a film which is getting a sequel so long after the first, and with a 250 million dollar budget on the line, banking all of Cameron’s prestige behind it. ‘The Matrix Resurrections’, ‘Son of the Mask’, ‘Zoolander 2’, ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’, ‘Men in Black International’, there tends to be a trend with hit movies getting sequels years later, and it tends to not be a positive trend. Can ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ deflect it?
I went to go see the original when it first came out in theaters expecting something mind-blowing and revolutionary. What I got was essentially ‘Dances with Wolves’ on another planet. I was less than impressed. The story was pretty derivative, the acting left a lot to be desired, and the characters were laughably obvious in their villainy, such as the military commander who sipped his coffee while watching his choppers obliterate a tree filled with native alien creatures. The one unique aspect about it was that it was entrenched entirely in a completely CGI-created world. Everything from the blades of grass to the clouds in the sky were graphical effects. The CGI was also not particularly mind-blowingly realistic, it was merely the gimmick of the time; a film that was completely CGI? Only Pixar did movies like that, with very unrealistic renderings, but James Cameron aimed to bring that style of film-making “to life”, and did so as best he could.
People also pointed to the 3D in it and stated how amazing it was, which I guess was okay, but 13 years later I do not remember it being special or groundbreaking at all. You know what 3D I still remember, almost 2 decades later? The Universal Studios Terminator film, ‘T2-3D: Battle Across Time’, which I hold as the benchmark for greatest 3D film, because of how impressive it was. Multiple times during the showing I had to take off the 3D glasses to compare, because it really looked like it was jumping off the screen.
That screenshot looks pretty good, right? Yea, it comes from the video game that released alongside the movie, and I guarantee at least a few people were fooled into thinking it was actually from the film. I have used it multiple times on forums, and multiple times I had people thinking it was from the film. The CGI, while ground-breaking in its saturation of the film, left a lot to be desired. Be that as it may, if you enjoy the film, good for you. This article is not about whether you enjoyed it. In fact, I am happy you enjoyed it. I happen to enjoy films as well, even films that are not particularly impressive, compelling, or unique, but I enjoy them. This article is specifically about examining the effects (literally and figuratively, from its “wowing” special effects to its hype) of the original film, and whether or not that translates into creating legs that the franchise can now stand on.
Now do not get me wrong, I can appreciate CGI. I am not some “practical effects purist” who only sees the value in real materials being crafted and used on-screen; CGI can offer a variety of benefits to a film, the least of which is “creating a brand new alien world”. ‘Lord of the Rings’ created a fantasy world unlike our own using lots of CGI, but also lots of practical sets, painted backdrops, and miniatures. ‘Star Wars’ showed us endless deserts, frozen wastes, murky swamps, and entire asteroid belts without a single pixel of computer generated imagery. Even the tesseract scene from ‘Interstellar’ was filmed on a physical set. There are a surprising amount of things you can do with practical effects, all of which is on-display in Avatar, only instead of practical effects, they used CGI.
You might say, “Well it’s a special-effects extravaganza, you go in to see the wondrous images and effects, you know, like all those practical effects-based movies before CGI was made!” And to that I say, that is a completely different standard. Special-effects heavy films before the advent and popularity of CGI were filled with physical creations that were meant to impress you with their complexity and their ability to literally translate imagination into actual reality, on top of interacting with the actors, and often times involving stunt-work that is impressive in its own right. CGI is solely imagination. It is neither happening to the actors, nor is actually being filmed. If you cannot have real people reacting to it, if you cannot actually film it happening, then the very least you can do is make the visuals either bizarre enough, grand enough, or surprising enough to make it worth computer-generating.
Let us compare ‘Avatar’ more fairly to something akin to an earlier “special effects extravaganza” before CGI, using an early equivalent; animation. One of the reasons ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ is so impressive is because of how all the hand-drawn animations in the film interact with real objects. Every single physical object moved or manipulated by an animated character in that film had to be rigged, and it makes the film truly feel like the animated characters came to life, watching how they change the scenery around them with the actors reacting to what is happening on set. Imagine that, a film where hand-drawn cartoons are more believable and filled with more life than a 200 million dollar, 2-and-a-half-hour, CGI “epic”.
Going back to view ‘Avatar’ nowadays has about half the effect it had on me when I first saw it, and being that I was not very impressed with it when I first saw it, that leaves it at a pretty low bar now. It turned out to be another science fiction film for me. And in an era where half the films that release every year have the equivalent amount of CGI that ‘Avatar’ originally had, with more believable CGI, better acting, more compelling stories, more compelling and interesting visuals, with even more bizarre and other-worldly settings, does its sequel even stand a chance?
Watching the trailer, it looks like they may have learned from some of their past mistakes and are developing their story into something that may be more interesting to watch unfold. In terms of the visuals, it looks to be using a lot more interesting, eye-catching, and shimmering settings, with an added layer of fidelity, more advanced subsurface scattering of light, more advanced water simulation, and improved HDR. The acting, from what few clips I saw of Sam Worthington, looks to be about the same as the originals, so not very compelling. But overall it looks like a step above the original. That step above the original however, does not seem to be enough to carry the weight of its predecessor; the over-hyped CGI behemoth that it was.
After 5 months, the trailer to ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ managed to garner 12 million views. That is awful for what is now one of the highest grossing franchises on the planet, and for what is a 250 million dollar budgeted blockbuster. ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ managed to garner over 350 million views within the first 24 hours of its release. ‘It’ managed to garner over 190 million. The stand-out gimmick it relied upon to gather hype for itself is no longer something that draws a crowd, and the only thing it has to rely on is the hope that it can expand beyond the scope of the original. Based on where it currently stands, ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ may have doomed itself trying to live up to something whose success might be attributable solely to the era it came out in, and those of which who loved it having lost interest.