Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water (3-D HFR version), 2022, 2 ¾ stars

Evaluating Avatar

How profitable (and good) is The Way of Water?

Exclusive to MeierMovies, January 28, 2023

Taylor Swift, Drake, BTS, Eminem, Adele. Everyone knows those are the top-selling recording artists of all time, right?

Wrong. It’s actually the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. But if the music industry measured success in money instead of units sold, those aforementioned five – thanks to their recent dominance – would be at or near the top.

Sound ridiculous? It is – unless, of course, you’re the movie industry. Because that’s exactly how Hollywood measures success. Never mind that prices for a 3-D movie are now in the $20+ range, guaranteeing that popular recent releases always end up near the top of the “all-time” lists. (How can films from the 1930s and 1940s, with their prices measured in dimes, compete with that?)

The odd thing is that the media don’t seem to mind. They have jumped on the bandwagon, happy to declare that the newest Star Wars flick, or the latest Marvel movie, or fill-in-the-blank with the newest CGI spectacle is a “record breaker” or “one of the biggest ever.” Of course, it’s garbage, but it sure does help the films’ marketing.

That brings us to Avatar: The Way of Water, which is quickly climbing the list of top-grossing films of all time. Or is it? Let’s take a closer look.

As of January 28, 2023, the film sits at about $600 million in domestic earnings, which places it at #13. But when adjusted for inflation, the movie still hasn’t cracked the top 50, according to BoxOfficeMojo. Atop that list is Gone with the Wind at $1.895 billion. Yes, you read that right. The original 1977 Star Wars is the only film that comes close, with $1.668 billion. The new Avatar would have to gross more than $1 billion in today’s money to make the top 10 adjusted-for-inflation list, and no one is predicting that.

It will do better on the straight-money domestic list, probably settling in around $700 or $800 million, which would put it in the top five, close to the straight-money gross of the original Avatar, which is number four. But, remember, that film came out in 2009, when ticket prices were lower, so its gross is more impressive than its sequel’s take, at least so far.

The global list is a bit different, as the original Avatar tops the straight-money list and sits second on the adjusted list, at $3.5 billion. Only Gone with the Wind is higher, at $3.9 billion, according to Wikipedia. (Titanic and the original Star Wars are still sitting pretty on these adjusted lists, by the way.)

On the unadjusted global list, as of January 28, the new Avatar is already up to number five, at more than $2 billion. It should easily pass Titanic, which sits at $2.194 billion, and end up close to the top two, the original Avatar ($2.923 billion) and Avengers: Endgame ($2.799 billion). But, again, the real targets are GWTW’s adjusted gross of $3.9 billion and the original Avatar’s adjusted total of $3.5 billion. And The Way of Water simply has no way of reaching those figures.

Some say comparing older films with modern films is unfair, and it is – for both films. While today’s films have smaller theatrical windows and must compete against DVDs, Blu-rays, 4k discs, television and streaming, they do enjoy a much larger potential audience. The population of the United States, for instance, is more than twice what it was in 1939, and the global moviegoing audience has exploded in recent decades. And to those who rightfully point out that older films accumulated their money through multiple releases, one could counter that Titanic, the Star Wars films and even the original Avatar have had multiple reissues, the latter as recently as last year. And Titanic is getting another soon – in 3-D. (Groan.)

Complicating matters are the potential inaccuracies of the adjusted-for-inflation numbers. These adjusted numbers must factor in not just the average ticket prices at the time of a film’s initial release but also the prices at the time of the film’s reissues. They must also consider whether that film’s tickets were sold at the average price, or perhaps more, as was common with roadshow releases.

The only solution to this madness seems to be to ditch the gross (both meanings apply here) method of measuring movie success and instead gauge success by the number of tickets sold. Of course, the industry won’t change, but maybe some media will. And it can start with us: When you see social-media posts bragging about how much money a movie has made, don’t share that post. And don’t be influenced by marketing articles talking about how the latest film is the “biggest ever.” Be smart. And may the (original) force be with you.

With the money discussion out of the way, let’s look at the film that inspired this discussion: Avatar: The Way of Water. Financial success aside, how good is the movie? Well, it’s about what you would expect from writer-director James Cameron, a.k.a. Cecil B. DeMotionCapture. Like DeMille’s later films (not his early, edgier fare) and the original Avatar, the sequel is big, spectacular and dumb. If you see it projected the way it was meant (big screen, the best 3-D and at a high frame rate), it can be quite beautiful, even jaw-dropping, especially the underwater scenes. But the high frame rate can also be off-putting, even cheap in its glassy hyper-reality, like watching a hockey game on an 8K television. It will dazzle some audiences but leave others, like this critic, a bit cold. Frankly, I’d prefer a 1940s nitrate experience. (At least the 3-D, HFR look is smooth. So you can leave your Bonine and Dramamine at home.)

Nevertheless, Cameron’s technical achievement is remarkable and has just enough dazzle to counter the mediocre acting and dialogue that could have been written by a middle-schooler. Cameron even brought back his perennial favorite line: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” And if you get bored during the three-plus hours of runtime, see if you can count the times a character says “bro.”

If you liked the original Avatar, you’ll like this one, mostly because it’s essentially the same, just with water instead of woods. And the effects are even more realistic, creating some genuine moments of “how did they do that?” wonderment. And any film that creates a sense of wonder these days deserves some credit. But, Mr. Cameron, please hire better writers for your sequels.

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For more information on this movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia