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How I’d Fix ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’
WARNING, Major Spoilers Ahead.
I understand why some people don’t like the first Avatar movie. Whenever you shove real world politics into a story, and try to tell people what to think, it sucks. Avatar has a very obvious environmental message, and thus falls into predictable good vs bad tropes that in parts make for clumsy storytelling.
In fact, the thing I liked best in the movie was the shades of grey, the good humans trying to help the Na’avi but still working for the corporation, and Neytiri knowing the humans well enough to know that they weren’t all evil, just some. Those moral conflicts were dramatic, while cliched bad capitalists were not, precisely because they were so obvious. Obvious cliches have no dramatic inner monologues.
However, I still like the movie, because at the end of the day it’s a tightly written escapist adventure that delivers everything it sets out to. You might not like aspects of the subject matter, but structurally it’s an excellent movie.
The sequel? Not so much. It’s still pretty good, it does a lot of the same things well that the first one does. But structurally it’s a mess, mostly because James Cameron, who’s usually excellent at this sort of thing, appears so determined to make certain things happen that he forced them onto the script whether the script was willing or not.
So, thinking about it, how would we fix it?
The obvious thing that’s wrong with Way of the Water is that, as the title suggests, it’s determined to make its way into the ocean. Cameron is an ocean guy, he spends much of his life on boats, is a passionate environmentalist, and that’s cool. But what it means for the movie is that it was always heading into the water. What Cameron needed was a good excuse to go there.
What happens in the movie is an exposition trap. I know, because it’s one of the things I’ve wrestled hardest with in my own writing. How to drop large volumes of information onto the readers without it feeling like a long, boring infodump?
In the movie, Jake Sully takes his family across the ocean, because the bad humans are back and trying to kill them. He seeks sanctuary on the shores of an ocean continent, and establishes a new life there. The world Cameron creates is very beautiful, with the amazing design and cinematography we’d expect from an Avatar film. But by God it’s long!
The action just stops for a full hour, as the film turns from Sci Fi adventure into teen family drama, as Mum and Dad move the kids to a new neighbourhood where they have to make new friends at a new school, face up to bullies, and learn that their strange new neighbourhood is actually pretty cool.
Cameron not only needs to set up his new environment, but also the new characters — the Sully kids. Obviously there’s a lot to set up, and it needs to be done, but it happens at the expense of pacing, action and, I think, much more interesting opportunities to do exactly these things at a higher tempo. Maybe Cameron’s environmentalist impulses got the better of him — obviously he loves the ocean, and wanted to share that love with the audience in a peaceful, tranquil setting. But the first movie had plenty of peaceful, tranquil moments without once slowing the exhilarating pace, and the relentless drive of its main character, Jake Sully, DOING things.
So how could this have been done in The Way of Water?
Well, imagine that it’s not the human kid, Spider, who’s taken prisoner. Imagine it’s several of the blue kids instead. They’re put onto ships and fired toward orbit, to be studied in a lab there, or taken back to Earth. But something happens, the ship to orbit crashes (or is shot down, there’s any number of sub-plot rebellions and sabotages that might make it happen, it’s not hard to do) you guessed it, amongst the ocean peoples across the sea.
The kids survive, obviously, and are found by the ocean people. Immediately they’re being chased by bad humans, seeking revenge for their lost ship and wanting Sully’s kids back for leverage over him. The ocean people have to take the kids to a place of sanctuary — I think their world is an archipeligo, and if it’s not, it should be. So they have to island-hop, from one watery place to the next, guided by the ocean tribes, and sentient whales, and riding flying fishes, all the stuff that Cameron created. But they’ll be chased, have close shaves, get rescued by new heroes, and plunge unsuspecting into amazing new environments.
In the meantime, Jake and Neytiri, and let’s say Spider, get word of where their kids are, and tear off in pursuit, catching up with them at some point and no doubt saving the day.
This structure does several things.
A) It allows all the world building that Cameron did in his version, but with higher stakes and far higher tempo. In fact, it allows a lot more world building, because in my version they wouldn’t be stuck for two thirds of the film on the same damn beach. The place of sanctuary would be somewhere amazing, and reaching it would be a great trek, like Lord of the Rings, through an alien and changing land and seascape.
B) It separates the kids from their parents. Want your kid characters to grow up and develop personalities? Give them responsibilities. The only way you can really do this is to take their parents away, at least for a while, so they can sink or swim on their own. In Way of the Water, the helicopter parents were always hovering, and it was restrictive. Imagine Jake having his adventures in the first movie if his Mum was always in the background, ready to scold him for taking risks.
C) It puts Spider amongst Na’avi, where he’s most interesting. I know Cameron wanted the whole father-son thing with the new version of Colonel Whats-his-name, but seriously, I want a new movie, not a clone of the old one. One of the things I liked most about the first film was the interaction between two very alien peoples, especially when that interaction was NOT violent. The most moving scene in the whole film, for me, was the first time Neytiri sees Jake in the flesh — this pale, helpless, tiny human that she looms over like some giant blue preying mantis, and looks at him not with revulsion, but with love.
Yes, I know Spider does spend time amongst giant blue people in the film, but they’re human avatar clones and it’s not the same. Humans and na’avi interacting was the core of the first film, and in the second it’s nearly missing entirely.
I would have ditched Colonel Whats-his-name entirely. He was okay in the first film, I guess, but in the structure I’ve just outlined, he’d just get in the way — we’d be too busy with the kids on their adventure, with Jake, Neytiri and Spider in pursuit… and Spider trying to deal with Neytiri’s cool hostility, which I did like.
And D) lastly, it would have removed the most glaring moral hole in the plot — that obviously Jake was going to bring the humans down on the heads of his hosts, and be responsible for getting a lot of them killed. His choice to go there was always very suspect for such a moral, upstanding guy, and the film had no choice but to gloss it over, mostly by reducing the eventual body count in a very unbelievable manner, by having most of the ocean na’avi just disappear in the final act. Did they have a train to catch? Was their favourite TV show on? Where’d they go?
But in my version, it’s just an accident, and Jake can later tell any of the ocean people who complain that at least he’s fighting for Pandora, what have YOU been doing? He’d remain warrior Jake, not the formerly-important guy who ran away and dropped his troubles onto unprepared innocents.
Maybe some parts of the third movie’s plot will unfold like this, and Cameron was just saving it — I don’t know. But I hope for that one, he remembers to put the script’s needs first.