Avatar, the writer-director James Cameron’s 2009 techno-epic giant tirade against environmental decimation and the American military, existed, blew up, and then receded so far back into one’s memory that we even forgot it took place. On most days it felt like the film never existed. Should not something so momentous, so audacious, so pivoting, so tent-poled, so technologically formative and egregious have dyed time and memory? The film felt so large but was so feeble.
Curious cultural creature
A curious cultural creature, a film; the hours spent in the theatre locked into our seats, eyes curtained by colour-dimming, motion-limning 3D glasses, cheering as the worst and best human instincts battle each other in grand Talmudic ferocity—all of it fades from our bodies and mind, an osmotic leaching the moment we leave the theatre.
As for Avatar 2, by the time I left the morning show, took the train, changed lines, hailed an auto, unlocked my door, slipped off my sandals and clothes, the film had already left me. I had to strain to remember scenes, moments. “Like a theme park ride?” someone on Twitter asked. Yes, exactly like a theme park ride.
This immediate and stark leaking of awe poses two questions central to film criticism. One is why films remain in our minds. And second the relationship between memorability and cinematic excellence: does memorability trump the joy felt in the theatre only because we speak of films in the past tense and thus privilege what remains over what was?
The release of Avatar: The Way Of Water, made on a budget of $350-400 million, is a significant event in cinematic history, much like Avatar was, each being the most expensive film of its time. In India, the best writers and directors were roped in to translate the dialogues, and theatres were renovated in time for the release, with Dolby Atmos sound systems and dual laser 4K projection fitted in, much like how theatres with 3D screens tripled in the US in anticipation of Avatar. The world revved up to receive the film, and it crossed the billion-dollar mark at the box office within 14 days of its release.
The thing about both Avatars is that the films feel impossible. That they were made possible itself is striking because they move something in the discourse. Cameron took what many considered “B-material” and made it into a commercially successful spectacle. In the same way, he took a technological pulse considered gimmicky, 3D, and elevated it to the mainstream, to high art.
What is more striking, more bold is Cameron’s rejection of memory as integral to his cinematic vision. His films are so simple, his conflicts, his characters so archetypical that they have never narratively challenged the way we see the world, because that is not what Cameron is after. Inherent in his films is the clearly defined dichotomy between good and bad, so clear that we can almost feel Cameron’s hand emerge from behind us, hold our hands, and slap our palms against each other in loud applause every time the villain is bruised.
Unmoved by beauty
He is a director unmoved by beauty. What he is after is awe: That vertiginous depth, that dizzying height, that waterfall over rocks suspended mid-air, with the gush of water petering into sprays and vapour as it descends. Having learned cinema as a conceptual artist and special effects designer for Roger Corman—from whose cinematic stables galloped forth filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jonathan Demme—Cameron is one of those directors for whom technological stupor is intrinsic to the story he is telling. Without it, the story is laid bare for what it is: a collection of tropes that have been successfully but repeatedly evoked in the cinemas.
This sculpting of worlds through technology to induce awe also challenges how we think of acting as a craft. I remember the actor Vikram saying when I was released, the Tamil film from Shankar’s factory of technological upending, how under the prosthetics he had to move his face in odd directions to produce an emotion; for example, to look sad on screen, he had to do muscular pyrotechnics behind the prosthetics, ones that did not remotely resemble sadness. Emotions are not expressed but pedantically and technically manufactured as flat evocations. Acting, an art, is reduced to something mechanical and processed, replicable, and too reliant on technology to exist.
In Avatar, too, the technology has flattened human interiority into singular feelings. It pairs perfectly with Cameron’s writing, interested in tackling characters as ideals and not beings of wracking complexity. I have to clarify that all this is not a criticism of his work as much as a characterisation of it. The cut and thrust of this conundrum is this. For art to move us, it needs to ring something visceral within us: a pungent colour, a yanking emotional resonance, a twisting moral confusion. To be moved by art and to be entertained by art are two distinct emotions, often different, sometimes irreconcilable. That we slot them in a hierarchy is our limitation as viewers, and mine as a critic.
“For art to move us, it needs to ring something visceral within us: a pungent colour, a yanking emotional resonance, a twisting moral confusion.”
Although, perhaps, I am being unfair here. When I think of Avatar: The Way Of Water, I really squint my eyes at the memory of the hours spent in glee, I am reminded of a scene: an avatar who once used to fly but has since been banished to the ocean sits with her head under water, near the coast, seeing the lapping waves, refracted by the sun, cast dancing lines over the sand. It flung me back to many childhood hours spent in the pool trying to understand how light is choreographed by water, how something so viscous can exert such a shape-shifting force on something so airy and immaterial as light. All those magnesium flashes of violence, those ingenious displays of technology, and all that remains is this brief gaze.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.
- James Cameron’s 200 film 9 Avatar felt momentous but was quickly forgotten, and the sequel, which was released in December 2022, is equally forgettable once one leaves the theatre.
- This poses two questions central to film criticism: why do films remain in our minds, and does memorability trump the joy felt in the theatre only because one speaks of films in the past tense and thus privileges what remains over what was?
- Both films are significant events in cinematic history because each is the most expensive film of its time.
- But they are so simple and the conflicts and characters so archetypical that they have never narratively challenged the way one sees the world. The director is after awe and uses technology to induce it. Acting, an art, is reduced to something mechanical and processed, replicable, and too reliant on technology to exist. .