I’m so high.
I heard this while walking through the concessions area of the AMC movie theater at Universal CityWalk Hollywood, surprised I wasn’t the one who said it. Which could only mean I was high, too, and the handful of psilocybin mushrooms I’d lined up about 30 minutes earlier in a bathroom in the nearby town of Margaritaville had taken effect. I was now part of a crowd streaming into the IMAX theater for the afternoon screening. Avatar: The way of water. My seat was in the fourth row.
The absurdity of taking powerful hallucinogens for this movie, of course, is that you don’t really need them; God knows what. But dosing myself served several purposes. The fact is, I’ve never seen the original Avatar:, being “too cool” for it at the time and thinking that stumbling would help me present a story I had no reference for. If I collapsed and screamed out of the theater to regroup at Taco Bell, it would be a fitting atonement for turning down this blockbuster franchise 13 years ago. But most of all, I wanted to see if my inner journey would match the vision before me, just like the Na’vi use their braids to get into other beings, or whatever happens there.
Don’t explain it to me. I don’t care how anything works on Pandora, and I never will. Resource gathering, Mother Earth, the concept of an “avatar” itself…isn’t important. The same goes for the plot, which I refuse to attempt to summarize. I could use less plot, to be honest. While I’m probably in the minority of those who could happily sit through three or more hours of a $350 million screen saver, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was worried about where. The way of water was the leader. The funniest part of the movie, I have to say, was when I noticed the guy next to me looking at his phone.
And yet. “Imagine betting against James Cameron.” This is how the current set of MovieTwitter moves, where distaste for popcorn scene clichés is only attributed if the scene is over. correct. While tasters might dismiss Marvel fare as sloppy, algorithmic schlock, Cameron is the master craftsman who builds a world you can’t put down. Perhaps an hour had passed before I made the double mistake of underestimating both him and the shoes. I ate some more.
As any seasoned drug user knows, “this thing isn’t crazy” inevitably leads to “what have I done?” I sealed my fate during the relatively chilly part of the story, when Jake Sully’s forest-dwelling family escapes from the bad guys and tries to adapt to the ways of the reef-dwelling Na’vi clan, who have taken them in as refugees; Jake’s disgruntled teenage son befriends a lonely tulkoon, a whale-like creature that looks more like a giant sea slug. The vibe is very 90’s Trapper Keeper, or blacklight poster. Nothing could hurt me.
That illusion is shattered as the villains, the ship’s bodies imbued with the memories of dead US Marines, team up with a crew of whalers from New Zealand to hunt down the tulkoon in such a barbaric fashion that they lure Sally out of hiding. Once stuck in the Pacific Ocean Biosphere, I saw it invaded by stealth vehicles, every type of soup boat and submersible Cameron has designed since 2009. The two sides began to clash in a monumental battle, with flying creatures that mechanized humans. suits, the sea is stained with blood and oil, and I, my body now shaking with true fear, melt into my seat. It was too late to escape now, and I surrendered to a scale of events that dwarfed reality.
Only much later, somewhat recovered, I was able to analyze the state of that fugue. When my saintly friend Mads picked me up at the mall, all I could say to her was, “James Cameron is not human.” What does that mean, he asked? I guess I was having a hard time saying that after a certain point the information on the screen had no personality left. It was all specs, physics, math, ten million simultaneous flourishes to make a car rollover or a gruesome death legible. Technology crossed another threshold that was now as numbing as it was mind-blowing. I had this adrenal pulsing feeling and no idea what to do with it, the inside of my skull was clear.
Although faintly aware of my slightly open mouth and slow blinking, I ceased to consider myself alive or present in that theater. Among the film’s great ironies is its meditative theme. Marines need to slow their heartbeats and breathe deeply to find symbiosis in their aquatic environment, but we ourselves have little opportunity to take advantage of that relaxation. By the same token, I was alarmed by the actors who appeared as their recognizable selves and saw them as if they were in real danger. How did Jemaine Clement and Edie Falco get into this mess? Why does Cameron make Kate Winslet hold her breath underwater for seven minutes? Get them out of there. My anxieties may have been indicative of the product’s intrinsic quality, but all the same, this helplessness reinforced my lack of belief.
Yes, I had reached the stage of ego death, loss of identity at the peak of the psychotherapeutic experience. That it coincided with the craziest action sequence of the century underscored just how irrelevant I had become. And just then, my gaze drifted to the rows of seats in front, specifically the one front and center, which was empty. I booked this show in part because I noticed on the theater map that a seat was already claimed on one side. single movie goer. Whoever it was, they never showed, dashing my hopes of a brief interview.
I won’t lie. that missing viewer haunted me as only a stunning metaphor can. The unused ticket seemed to represent the emptiness I’d been carrying all along The way of water’s roaring finale, and my suspicion that apart from profit, this film needs no audience. It may exist only for itself, or to satisfy Cameron’s demonic energies, or to test the limits of artificial kinetics. To some, that will make me sound like a hater, but that’s not quite accurate. I stay impressed, however terrified I was at times. I stood on jelly legs as the credits rolled and made my way to the bathroom where the men blasted the deafening showers that had been on guard for far too long. I wandered around CityWalk in the evening air, amused and annoyed that there was no convenient place to quickly buy a bottle of water.
That night, Mads and I went to a rooftop party, the smallness and intimacy of which was a real relief to you. Friends asked if I liked the movie or not, a question that was impossible to answer; it was far enough away that I could have my own opinion. Suddenly I was filled with gratitude for the mundaneness of life, saying things like: “James Cameron could never have made a creature like my cat.” I smiled and laughed and remembered how soon I would be spending Christmas with my family. What did I think about? Avatar: the sequel didn’t matter. What was important was the comfort you always want at the end of a trip; I was back home.