When Avatar was released in 2009, I was convinced not just that the film was doing really smart things with stereoscopic (3D) filmmaking, but that it was a master class in the possibilities of cinematic intensity.
Intensity will strike many of you as an elusive and even fuzzy aesthetic and psychological term. Is the “too-muchness” which we sometimes feel in the movies something we can understand? Or is it a purely subjective state that’s impossible to describe, let alone account for? Is it based on shared assumptions and states of mind and body we all bring to movies? Or is the intensity we feel based principally on personal experience, with the extreme emotions and bodily responses we associate with it due to a wholly arbitrary connection between the film, its characters, its events or its style and our own private history–or own inscrutable collections of memories and distinct encounters with the world?
Recent studies in the psychology of intensity are beginning to show that there are indeed commonalities amongst us, that difficult experiences, whether positive or negative in valence, tend to be interpreted as “meaningful.”
Whatever intensity turns out to be, I think 2009’s Avatar achieves and sustains experiential intensity by striking a delicate narrational and audio-visual balance between an aesthetically pleasing world–presented through the illusion of three-dimensions–and a pervasive sense of jeopardy to that world. It also uses music–James Horner’s orotund score, with its low pitches and tragic choral tones–to add gravitas to events that transpire within it.
There is no better illustration of Avatar‘s intensities than the falling of Home Tree, a crucial pivot point in the film’s plot and a scene which is for me one of James Cameron’s best.
When I saw the film’s sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), a few weeks ago, I went in expecting–I now realize unfairly–the same types of narrational and audio-visual intensity. The film let me down. In a review I posted to Letterboxd, I tried to explain why Way of Water failed to elicit the levels of intensity of the first film, appealing mainly to problems I perceived in the film’s script.
But just yesterday, I had the occasion to watch Way of Water a second time, and it donned on me in the first ten or so minutes: in my first viewing, I had been looking for intensity in all the wrong places. Better yet, I hadn’t really been looking at all.
Before I get into this, a digression. Other critics, such as the Czech scholar Radomír D. Kokeš, have argued since Way of Water‘s release that the sequel is a different experience because, essentially, it relies on a different genre than the first film. In fact, Way of Water combines three genres, according to Kokeš. If the 2009 installment is an action-adventure/military film, the 2022 sequel is an ethnographic western (à la Dances with Wolves), a children’s film (it filters events through the understanding of children), and a Moby Dick-style narrative (but it reverses the perspective, focusing not on the hunter–Ahab–but on the whale being hunted).
What Kokeš suggests is that these genres are accompanied by their own psychological and narrative intensities–intensities distinct from the action-adventure film.
To this I’d like to add an additional layer of insight, one that brings us back to looking. Way of Water isn’t any less intense in its effect than the first film. In employing these genres–marrying them, I’d argue, to an action-adventure framing (the first and closing acts are virtually all action-oriented)–Way of Water shifts the intensities of the first film (from a sense of action-related jeopardy and scoring) to a different layer of experience: to the stereoscopic 3D experience itself.
As I’ve written on this blog, the first Avatar manages stereoscopy deftly. But its 3D effects, I now understand, are relatively controlled, even understated, compared to those in Way of Water. It’s as though Cameron were amping up the visual intensity of 3D as the series progresses (we’ll see if this continues when Avatar 3 is released in December 2024).
Way of Water establishes stereoscopic intensity in at least three ways, all relating to the use of the negative parallax (this is when visual elements appear to pop off the screen and enter the space of the movie theater).
Let’s call the first type of intensity the flurry effect. During action sequences, Way of Water intensifies things by overwhelming the viewer’s visual apparatus with extreme foreground stimuli that cover all or large portions of the field of view. A flurry of bite-sized shapes and forms–water droplets, embers, dust particles, shafts of light forming flares on the camera’s surface, and undersea sprites–give the viewer a lot of detail to assimilate, often in shots held for short durations (i.e., just a few seconds).
In some scenes, the flurry effect is used when a character-in-action is feeling taxed. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)’s family must adapt to the undersea life of the Metkayina clan, his second son, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), goes for a swim. But he runs out of air. Rushing to the surface, he gasps. Our eyes are initially cued to converge on the surface of the screen (at zero parallax, or ZP), on his emerging form (figure 1).
As he thrashes about water particles are flung toward us. They land on the camera lens, which the viewer perceives as “off” the screen (in the negative parallax, or NP) (figure 2).
Time and time again, in high- and even lower-intensity action sequences our eyes are invited to converge quickly on the space in front of the screen (negative parallax), then back onto the screen (zero parallax) where characters are situated and the action continues to unfold. Then, as the action progresses, we feel the tug once more: the eyes are pulled back in front of the screen, and back onto it, and so forth, resulting, ideally, in arousals of the mind and the whole body, via what the eyes perceive.
The flurry effect–the illusion of clusters of mobile local stimuli emerging into the viewer’s space–is a flexible one. Way of Water employs it in calmer dramatic moments where the image emphasizes shimmering surfaces, either liquid or solid. These surfaces tend to be covered with dancing highlights, at times from a bird’s eye view above the water, at others from canted angles below it.
When Sully has a quiet heart-to-heart with his cognitively diverse daughter Kiri (Signourney Weaver) about her ability to sense the heartbeat of Pandora’s deity Eywa (figure 3), the flurry effect reverses the sequence’s spatial depth logic. Sully and Kiri, framed from above and positioned on the right, visually recede–they remain at zero parallax–even though they are physically closer to the camera than the water on the left. Yet it is the left side of the frame which “pops” outward toward the viewer–the undulating highlights of the water’s surface lift themselves off the surface of the screen (negative parallax). We are invite to feel–again through visual perception–the intense way Kiri encounters the world as it emerges and flutters around her, as it were “illogically.”
Negative parallax flurries are often tucked to one side of the frame, even in canted-angle underwater shots (figure 4).
In the beautiful sequence where Lo’ak dives with his lonesome companion, the tulkun Payakan, Lo’ak occupies frame center, at zero parallax, while the camera–swiveled on the “x” axis to show the water’s surface below the figure–reveals a flickering series of sharply defined negative parallax highlights on frame right.
The second type of intensity might be called the alienation/subverted telephoto effect. A telephoto or long lens will typically compress the “z”-axis distance between figures. An illusion is created whereby figures in the mid- or background are pulled visually closer to figures situated in the foreground, squashing the space that separates them.
In numerous scenes during the middle acts of Way of Water, where Sully and his family must leave their tree-dwelling life and learn the seafaring ways of the Metkayina, tension rises within the family. These sequences are less action-based, but Cameron heightens the felt intensity by visually expressing the alienation experienced by individual Sully family members.
Dialogue scenes showing characters at odds within another during these acts will tend to have a push-pull visual feel, in other words. On one hand, the telephoto lens draws figures together. But the squashed-space effect of the telephoto will–oddly and even uncomfortably–be subverted by having a foreground figure emerge into the negative parallax, simultaneously putting them at a great distance from a mid-ground figure.
As Jake Sully and his wife Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña) quarrel over whether they must abandon their jungle home, a shot-reverse shot setup, captured with a telephoto, holds the two embattled characters in tight framings. While the moment is intimate, with each kept in the foreground (and out of focus) of the other’s closeup, the film separates the tightly arranged figures onto separate parallaxes. The figure facing the camera will appear on the screen surface. The other will leap outward into the negative parallax. The space at once seems flattened and deep, a tension of depth cues that is repeated when Lo’ak is at odds with the Metkayina girl Tsireya (Bailey Bass). She fails to appreciate the limitations of having five-fingered (human) hands instead of three-figured (Na’vi) ones (figure 7).
Lastly, Way of Water depends on an intensity I will refer to as a recessional/augmented wide-angle effect. Periodically, the film doubles-down, rather than subverts or complicates, its depth effects by giving wide-angle lens shots an even more pronounced feeling of depth within the space of the shot. This is especially the case during scenes of wonder, where the viewer is being invited to identify with Sully and his family as they encounter the fluid movement of life under the sea.
Bodies in these shots are stretching unnaturally along the diagonal axis of the frame, with an extreme foreground element–a head, an outstretched arm–pulled to the upper corner of the frame, or to the far left or right, into the negative parallax. The rest of the body, for its part, recedes into space behind them, elongated along the zero and even positive parallaxes (i.e, into the depth “behind” the screen).
During the film’s middle section, as we begin to learn that Sully’s adopted daughter Kiri has a special connection to the natural world (and through it, to Eywa), she joins with an ilu (figure 8). While her entire body remains on the zero parallax, her head, closer to the camera, is artificially enlarged by the wide-angle lens. This effect is amplified visually by the even more elongated ilu, whose head, in sharper view, is permitted to enter the negative parallax. Speed of movement is the intense feeling here, but so is the notion that under water, bodies seem to extend and bow, defying our perception of their limits on land.
These various types of visual intensity can be combined, of course. When Jake Sully himself first joins with a seafaring creature–a skimwing or tsurak–the flurry effect which depicts his son Lo’ak’s difficulty catching his breath (where drops splash onto the lens in the negative parallax) expresses Sully’s initial struggles with water, too, even as the recessional/wide-angle effect articulates his speedy diagonal movement and outstretched body, his foreground hand and a saddle mounted on his skimwing reaching into the theater space (figure 9).
If Avatar: Way of Water didn’t do it for you the first time, perhaps like me your expectations were a little off. This really is a story you need to feel through your eyes.