Avatar: The Way of Cliché
The 2009 film’s innovative Fusion Camera System 3D was enchanting in a notably ‘psychedelic’ way, but does the sequel build on this trend…?
In December 2022 a long-awaited moment finally arrived: the cinema release of the first of four projected sequels to the ground-breaking 3D blockbuster Avatar, after a thirteen-year gestation period. Within the psychedelic community Avatar was noted for a having a distinct trippy quality, albeit an ambient one, which made it comparable to movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, which caried the tropes but didn’t feature the actual drugs. As Erik Davis said in his 2010 article ‘Aya Avatar’:
Eco-futuristic dreams are now indistinguishable from the visionary potential of media technology itself. Indeed, whether you are talking form (ground-breaking 3D animation) or content (cyber-hippie wetdream decor), Cameron’s visual and technological rhetoric is impossible to disentangle from hallucinogenic experience.(1)
Indeed Avatar, together with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland — released three months later — seemed to portend a new dawn in ambient psychedelic movies where 3D and state-of-the-art VFX enabled a quasi-altered state within the cinema viewing experience itself.
Firstly, there’s the strangeness, the strikingly unusual quality of 3-D vision, where everything is heightened, surfaces and textures are more alive and resonant, and the commonplace becomes transfigured and imbued with specialness. The nature of how things are rendered in 3-D is important too, and the anticipation of the next 3-D thrill, plus the sense of immersion in another realm, take the audience beyond mere cinema into theme-park-ride and virtual-reality territory — other parallels for chemically enhanced consciousness.
Secondly, the stories these two movies tell conform to the notion of Jungian psychedelic myth. Alice’s adventures have been a favourite paradigm for trippiness ever since Grace Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ marshalled up the references: substances to make you grow or shrink, a hookah-smoking Caterpillar and the talking Rabbit himself — a film favourite from Harvey to Donnie Darko to Inland Empire.
Burton’s Wonderland, with its dreamy, florid feel, vivid colours and scores of other pointers — from the Red Queen’s expanded head to the Mad Hatter’s intoxicated smile and spaced-out eyes — speaks to the pharmo-initiated in their own language.
Using a medley of techniques — green screen, motion capture, live action and full animation — he pieced together a new Wonderland for the 2010s, and with a combination of his already well-developed Gothic-weird sensibilities and the astute use of 3-D, he rendered the material into a totally bone fide trippy adventure. In 3-D the z-axis layering of the various elements — themselves set at different points in the spectrum of reality to unreality — creates a synergy that gives rise to an entirely new whole: an alloy of the real and imaginary that lives independently on its own terms…how psychedelic is that?
Similarly, Avatar contains striking psychedelic elements, the whole story functioning as a metaphor for consciousness expansion. Unable to walk, paraplegic Jake Sully becomes ‘reborn’ in his avatar body and has to learn how to function within it from first principles, becoming carried away by his overexuberance. Then he enters an alien world, filled with myriad delights and dangers, gradually transforming his identity as he faces up to difficult challenges and finds his feet within his new peer group, the shamanically orientated Na’vi community.
Jake become rebased, discovers the true secrets of life and then uses that knowledge subversively in order to thwart the unenlightened, imperialistic designs of his fellow Earth folk and save Pandora — the psychedelic underground’s whole quest in a nutshell.
Also, the accompanying iconography, with its vivid cartoonish colour scheme and taste for dreamlike spectacle and phantasmagoria, evokes the psychedelic art of posters and albums covers from the golden age of the ’60s and ’70s, most particularly the work of Roger Dean; and sequences such as the journey to the floating islands and the dynamic scenes of aerial manoeuvring and combat are like such art sprung pyrotechnically into 3-D tripped-out life.
But — and it’s a big ‘but’ — the promise of those two films was not successfully built upon. The new wave of 3D proved to have a short shelf life, and though many such films have appeared the novel sensory buzz has retreated…much like the effect of overuse of the substances themselves.
In 2016 Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, came out. Having put most of the best material in the first film, the second concocted an overly sentimental storyline and didn’t have Tim Burton directing, all of which produced an inevitable sense of deflation after the trippy aplomb of before. It contained plenty of delirious 3D effects sequences, with swirling cosmic space and oceanic backgrounds, plus the flotsam and jetsam of Alice’s memories floating past, but it didn’t quite hit the spot, psychedelia speaking.
Now Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas, and again the deflation effect is most pronounced. Critics have been divided, but the ones with disparaging things to say have conjured up amusing quotable lines. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called the film ‘a trillion-dollar screensaver’,(2) whilst Robbie Collin of The Telegraph described the viewing experience as ‘like being waterboarded with turquoise cement’.(3)
The thirteen-year gap from the original movie was due to developing a story that would extend to four putative sequels, and also perfecting the VFX technology to make the action in the film’s aquatic settings as memorable as the land and aerial spectacles of the 2009 film.
Plot-wise The Way of Water is as derivative as its predecessor, with Jake and Neytiri, now the parents of teenage kids, facing the threat of a new wave of colonialism from earth folk and fleeing to the Metkayina reef people tribe on Pandora’s eastern seaboard, learning the ways of marine life under their tutelage.
There is far less of the quasi-shamanism of the first film — very little of the mind-linking with Eywa, which created the ‘ayahuasca’ dimension — and once the language issue and subtitles are out of the way, homespun American family values take over, articulated in broad American accents. Some of the situations and dialogue come across as oddly dated and frankly clichéd.
On the effects front, the 3D rendering is impressively smooth and seamless, using variable frame rate to create a sculptural quality. But unlike the original Avatar, the 3D is less of an in-your-face feature and doesn’t create anything resembling an ‘altered state’. Sometimes you barely notice it unless a bow and arrow are pointed forward or debris or splashes land close by.
Also, the trippy saturated colours are toned down and no longer pop out in that florid, zingy otherworldly way. The underwater scenes and fantastical bestiary are well achieved, but to me they fall short, not leaving anything really special in the memory, no real awe and sense of wonder. In short, Pandora is ‘normalised’ and the 3D element not much removed from that in any large-scale movie.
In the updating of both story and effects, anything even remotely ‘druggy’ has been relegated and the nudge-winking to the pharmo-initiated lost to history. What remains is the invitation to be enthralled by the wondrous movie experience in its own terms, at face value, and that is not quite enough, as many reviewers have discerned even if they don’t pinpoint exactly why — ‘screensaver’ is right.
What does work in the film are the action and combat sequences which build towards the climax, and here James Cameron, the director of superlative sci-fi action movies such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is on surer ground. With things aquatic top of the agenda, he draws on Titanic and The Abyss, and also Waterworld and Moby Dick, to create some intense and gripping duels on water, and inside upturned floundering vessels, which are highly complex, well-choreographed and great entertainment without doubt.
So where exactly does this leave the somewhat stalled movement of 3D psychedelic cinema? When it comes to the forthcoming sequels to Avatar, 3, 4 and 5, the writers and producers are suitably vague, promising more of the magic. Amanda Silver says:
You have this kind of deeply relatable series of dynamics, inter-family, interpersonal, inter-clan, played out on these incredibly inflated scales of different worlds. The clans that you’re going to meet and the worlds that you’re going to find on Pandora — you can’t even imagine what they are.(4)
Well, we shall see.
And when it comes to other avenues for hi-tech screen psychedelia, perhaps this is the time to return to actual depictions of substance-induced mind expansion — movies resembling The Trip, Easy Rider, Altered States and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas done with today’s 3D and visual effects. Imagine some great tale of Operation Julie acid tripping or shamanic ayahuasca journeying given the Avatar treatment… Sounds brilliant, but I for one am not holding my breath…