I can’t really claim to have been particularly invested in either Avatar: The Way of Water or Top Gun Maverick. I watched Tom Cruise’s 1980s navy erotica as a teenager, off of a VHS copy, and I remember very little, other than snippets of Goose’s death. Meanwhile, I enjoyed watching the piece of Na’vi erotica that was the original Avatar when it came out, but it proved utterly forgettable, and when we recently rewatched it, I found its spectacle tacky and its white-saviour narrative too trite and bland even to be particularly offensive. When the reviews of the two decade(s)-late sequels started to come in, I was surprised to find almost universal praise for Maverick and some surprisingly positive takes on James Cameron’s return to Pandora, even if a lot of the reviews weren’t exactly enthusiastic – including some very complimentary reviews from critics who aren’t exactly fans of big CGI blockbusters.
Myself, I’ve now seen both of them: Avatar 2 at the cinema, on a big screen, complete with 3D and variable frame rate, Maverick at home on our reasonably big but not enormous TV. My expectations of both were modest, but I was hoping to enjoy them for the spectacle at least. Surprisingly, while I found one boring and unengaging, I ended up enjoying the other one quite a bit. Maverick was the positive surprise: while its characters aren’t deep or complex, they’re engaging, and the script both has fun with them and infuses them with a surprising degree of pathos. It also is one of the first films I’ve seen which acknowledges that even Tom Cruise gets older, and it mines this with sympathy and even wit. Meanwhile, Avatar 2 suggests that while James Cameron still knows how to stage big action set pieces, he’s forgotten how to write blockbuster characters that work: where films like his Terminator movies, Aliens or The Abyss had characters that worked for the purposes of the movies, I can’t help but find Avatar‘s characters flat, bland and unmemorable, which is amplified (at least for me) by the films’ visual design, especially that of the Na’vi characters, which I’d consider mediocre at best.
Since I’ve just finished watching all of Ingmar Bergman’s films, perhaps I have to note here that I don’t go into these films expecting characters of Bergmanesque depth. I didn’t look for Scenes from a Pandoran Marriage or Top Gun Persona. Blockbuster cinema has its own rules. That’s not to say that it is somehow lesser, and it is definitely not easier to write good characters for movies heavy on spectacle, but a good story for a big blockbuster doesn’t generally need the same kind of characterisation as an intimate drama. What they do need are characters that pop, that you want to spend time with, that you may root for or hate, but you need to enjoy either of these. I’m thinking of characters like the ones in the original Star Wars films, for instance, like Han and Leia and even whiny farmboy Luke, the kind of characters that were almost entirely absent from George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. Or indeed Indiana Jones and the characters that people his original adventures, in particular the first film. Characters composed of archetypes and charismatic performances, drawn in broad strokes.
Top Gun: Maverick has amazing aerial action. If you get any enjoyment out of daredevil piloting and dogfights, the ones in Tom Cruise’s second outing as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell can hardly be beaten. They’re dynamic, but they’re also clear: we get a good idea of where the planes are in relation to one another, we always understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. But none of this would matter if we didn’t care about the characters, and that’s where Maverick shines compared to a lot of blockbuster cinema: the writers Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie (whose filmographies include both enjoyable, smartly written films in various genres and, well, Transformers: Age of Extinction) have written characters that are the equivalent of those scenes of F/A-18s weaving in and out of formation. They have clear personalities and motivations, we know what they want and why they’re doing what they’re doing – or, if not, it’s because we’re supposed to guess at what drives a character, rather than because these characters are vague. The cast takes this material and infuses it with their charisma – and these performers are charismatic in their roles, whether they’re heroic, brooding, or outright dicks. This is superstar cinema, which requires actors and acting of a certain kind, and when a film brings together the right actors and the right material, they work as well as a perfectly choreographed setpiece. And then small pieces of unexpected, more subtle characterisation can elevate a well-crafted adrenaline fest into something that feels like it’s more, which happens especially with the film’s underlying theme of age and mortality. Certainly, Top Gun: Maverick isn’t On Golden Pond, but it zings, both when its protagonists are in the air and when they’re on the ground.
Meanwhile, Avatar: The Way of Water definitely has the craftsmanship. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the CGI action of practically all the Marvel films and how exchangeable their action setpieces are. Whatever else I may think of the MCU, much of its action is pedestrian at best – and since the majority of MCU films has to end with an obligatory action sequence, I tend to find the third acts of these films their worst feature. (There are exceptions, but this is not the place for that particular discussion.) Cameron’s action in Avatar 2 is exciting and kinetic, and even though I’m not a huge fan of the visual design of the Avatar films, Cameron does things here that are amazingly well crafted. As a portfolio of the artists involved in making The Way of Water‘s action come to life (considering how much of it is entirely digital), the film absolutely succeeds.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that for me the film rarely succeeded as anything other than being an artistic portfolio of talented visual artists. Often, it felt like the kind of computer demos that showcase what a new graphics card can do: better lighting, better reflections, better particles, more bang for many more bucks. What these demos also have: dull, generic characters. Some space marine in whose helmet and armour the explosions around him are reflected – but hey, isn’t it neat how you can see every individual stubble and pore on his face? Or some Lara Croft wannabe displaying amazing acrobatic feats as she escapes from the traps in some Incan tomb, and we marvel at the glistening sweat on her arms and the way the light plays with the leaves. But these are little more than animated action figures, and knock-off action figures at that.
Avatar: The Way of Water undoubtedly has a cast composed of actors that can be charismatic: Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Stephen Lang and Cliff Curtis, to name just a few. Admittedly, some other cast members aren’t exactly known for their charisma. But, and this is the sad thing, it doesn’t much matter: whether they’re turned into CGI Na’vi or not, none of these are given characters that are particularly interesting. Cameron’s writing has always been on the pulpy side, and his space marines in Aliens are pretty much comic book characters – but they serve the plot, they’re engaging, and when they become so much xeno fodder, it matters. The Na’vi characters surrounding Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) have the story on their side, they’re the noble natives fighting for their world, against human characters that are vile and hateful, as the story makes clear again and again – but I found nothing about these protagonists memorable. If anything, they felt like the equivalent to those MCU action sequences: generic, vague, replaceable. In theory, the female characters should fare a bit better, but considering the actors that Cameron has cast in his film, it is almost infuriating how irrelevant the characters of Weaver, Winslet and Saldaña are to the plot and how little they’re given to do, and the non-CGI human character played by Edie Falco, doubtlessly a performer that can do strong characters, doesn’t fare any better.
I’ve seen posts and articles on social media praising Cameron for the earnestness of his film, compared especially to the quippy bathos and self-subverting irony of the Marvel movies – and certainly, Cameron’s film has a very different tone. But earnest doesn’t have to mean leaden (and certainly not dull), and earnestness doesn’t mean that humour should be forbidden. Watch Raiders of the Lost Ark – or indeed Jaws, which features the kind of protagonist that any blockbuster movie would die for. These films aren’t quipfests, but neither are they weighed down by monotonous solemnity. The MCU has been accused of making every character sound the same because everyone’s prone to ironic quips (which I don’t really agree with, though the franchise has fared better with some characters than with others at differentiating their tones), but in all its earnestness The Way of Water is at least as samey in its tone. There are a handful of characters that try to have at least some personality, but these – like the villain Quaritch (Stephen Lang) – feel like copies of copies of characters in earlier films by Cameron. (It is possible that this is in part done on purpose, as it fits certain of the film’s themes, but in practice it doesn’t work for me.)
I don’t doubt that the people I’ve seen praising Avatar: The Way of Water are earnest in their praise. But they see something in the film that I’ve failed to find, or perhaps they looked for something else altogether. Avatar 2 is an impressive technical achievement, but to me that achievement remained hollow, because for all its earnestness and its pro-environment/anti-colonial cred, I found the characters hollow. I know that actors like Saldaña, Weaver and Curtis can play characters that are engaging, as they’ve done so many times in the past, but whether it’s the generic nature of the script or the overemphasis on the filmmaking tech, I cared little to nothing about Jake Sully, family and friends. I didn’t even enjoy rooting against the baddies. It was only very rarely, and for very short times, that the spectacle itself overruled whatever issues I was having with the film and spoke for itself.
When the inevitable Avatar 3 (will it be Lava World or will it be the ice level?) arrives, I’m honestly not sure whether I’ll even want to check it out at the cinema, and I’m definitely not eager to see it on a small screen where the spectacle will seem small. To be honest, I’m also not really hoping for a third Top Gun film, even if I enjoyed Maverick much, much more than I expected, as another sequel would undermine some of what I liked best about the second film. But of these two films, it’s the recruitment film for the US Navy and for big, bad fighter planes that I found memorable, while the sci-fi epic left me looking at my watch to see how much longer until I could go home, and it’s because, of these films, only one knows how to do characters that complement and elevate big action setpieces. Sadly, while the other had talking whales, these didn’t make up for the lack of engaging characters. If the first two Avatar films showed the evil ‘sky people’ looking first for Unobtanium, then for Amrita taken from the brains of slaughtered space whales, the third one will have to look for that rarest of resources: characters that I care about. Otherwise I’ll hang out with Maverick and his posse instead.