There are a lot of reasons you might be tempted to not see this movie. You may have already heard some of the loathsome things James Cameron said about the Lakota. You may have heard it's just another chapter in the Avatar franchise's "white savior" narrative. You may have heard that a white man is exploiting the stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, hired an almost all white cast, and only white people are going to profit from it.
All of this is true.
And yet for all of these things, Avatar: The Way Of Water is worth your time and money, and it's worth talking about.
This article is going to hit some highlights of the film, its really great points, while trying to maintain a spoiler-free policy. Expect one more article in the coming weeks that goes into greater detail about the cycle of life and post-colonialism, highlighting what's really wrong with this film and why we keep making films like this--and the problem with that.
Avatar: The Way Of Water is a fun and inspirational sci-fi adventure that you can very much feel comfortable taking your kids to. And so much is recapped that you don't really need to see the first one again (and quite honestly, this one is the superior film). But for all that this film is the sequel many have been waiting for, it's also a firm reminder that we are the comfortable victors of the war waged against our Indigenous brethren, and we are not learning from our mistakes.
The Quickest Synopsis For Avatar: The Way Of Water
Get outta here with your spoilers! Here's a quick synopsis of what you can expect from the latest installation of the Avatar franchise.
We rejoin our hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in the world of Pandora, living with his young family amongst his new people, the Na'vi. Jake is becoming a father, and experiencing the trials and joys of raising two boys, a foster daughter, and a baby girl. Just when Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) don't know what they're going to do with so much happiness, and we're pretty sure there's no further point to this three-hour long movie, the Sky People return to reclaim their prize, and they've brought a familiar face with them. With the return of the Sky People, Jake and his family are forced to flee to the Sea clans. It is among those islands and their people that Jake and the Sullys come face to face with their grimmest destiny, one they thought they'd never have to revisit.
First impressions of the film--i.e. all the feels you have before you stop to think about it:
From love, honor, and friendship to brutality and internalized racism, Avatar: The Way Of Water is doing a lot with characters, plot, and subplot. At almost the length of a short audiobook, this film is packed with character driven action that is a staple in long-running sci-fi fiction. However, given the length of the film, I don't recommend ordering a lot of soda or coffee before your viewing time. There aren't a lot of lulls in the action, so going to the bathroom isn't really ideal.
If you thought the first one broke you in half, you're in for an emotional treat. Are you having a good day? Well, maybe it'll be a good day after this film, and maybe it won't. As beautiful as the second Avatar film is, it's also laden with heavy thematic content: parenting in a war-torn hellscape, the adjustment to life as a refugee, animal cruelty, exploitation of the natural world, and the unbreakable (maybe also inescapable?) bonds of family.
James Cameron knows how to bring superior drama to breath-taking back drops. The technology of computer-generated animation has finally come around to the point where such visionaries are comfortable bringing their dreams to life, even if it's the story you didn't know you needed and didn't ask for.
Theme is the key word here. So what are some of those themes?
The Way Of Water: Life, Death, And Rebirth
"The Way Of Water" is not just a clever tag line in this film. As the Sully family begins their new life among the Sea clans, water becomes the beginning, middle, and end of their existence and also their spiritual connection to the planet. And this is not simply a literal understanding that the ocean upon which they find themselves provides life-sustaining food, or that it could possibly be a source of danger and mystery. For the Sea clans, water represents the birthing fluid from which we come, the water that sustains, and the place we return to when we die, an endless cycle of abundance that can take as well as give.
The film also extends this poetic conceit (a poem-length metaphor) to the return of said familiar face. We'll go into that in a different piece. Let's just say for now that everything your teacher told you about water and symbolism in fiction is literally true for this movie.
Sullys Stick Together: Friendship and Family In The Avatar Franchise
Prevalent throughout Avatar: The Way Of Water is the safety, comfort, and protection offered by the pack, giving the film--again--another very Dances With Wolves feel. For you kids that have never seen it (it was even a little before my time, if I'm honest) go watch Dances With Wolves and tell me the first Avatar was not exactly the same film. The primary tension of the film is built with the unforeseeable frequency with which the characters--and by extension, the viewer (because sci-fi fiction is fundamentally and exploration of the human condition)--can unwillingly let our friends and family down, even when we are doing what we know in our hearts to be the right thing.
Jake says repeatedly, "Sullys stick together," but at many times throughout the film, those words fall flat as Jake's younger boy, Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), finds himself at odds with his father, his family, and his new clan. Lo'ak, and a number of other characters--including some unlikely ones--fall into the "black sheep" trope, in which it doesn't appear the character can do anything right no matter how hard they try.
I'll explore family bonds a little more in my next article.
Post Colonialism In Avatar: The Way Of Water
And they said I'd never use my English degree for anything constructive.
Post colonial criticism is a literary paradigm that often uses fiction and poetry to deconstruct the dominant colonial narrative--that is the narrative of the class of people who have come to dominate a region that they did not previously inhabit. The colonial narrative might include grandiose feats or detail the actions of heroic figures of the colonizing class in order justify the colonization. We now lovingly refer to this as propaganda. This propaganda is used to maintain the colonizers' control over a region and further subjugate any who are not willing to fully assimilate while simultaneously using the legal, judicial, educational, and health care systems of the dominate class to reduce the life chances of those that do assimilate.
Still feeling patriotic?
Deconstruction in post colonial literature is exemplified in the works of Haitian author and arguably literal writing goddess Jamaica Kincaid, in the works of Latina poet and author Sandra Cisneros, and more recently, in the works of R. F. Kuang (author of The Poppy War). Post colonial fictions depict a reclamation of identity and physical property from the colonizing force, restoring land and identity to their rightful owners. Post colonial criticism through literature throws into stark relief the damage to land and people caused by colonization, which often includes parallels to sexual--or even "special"-- dominance and industrialization. Post colonial criticism is often best paired with a feminist examination of traditional masculine archetypes--and I'll go into how hard this film fails at this and so much more in another piece.
Without giving too much away, Avatar: The Way Of Water asks the viewer to take a serious look at the impact industrialization (particularly that of white colonizers) has on the natural world, scrutinizing the choices made by industrialists and asking hard questions about the price colonizers are willing to pay to satisfy the supply and demand of natural resources. This examination is mostly through the deconstructionist lens in the character of Spider, arguably the film's most controversial--and one of my favorite--characters.
Without revealing too much of the plot, I can safely write that Spider is a human whose upbringing has been almost solely among the Na'vi with the Sullys or with the scientists who remained on Pandora. Unable to return to his home planet after the "death" of his "father", Spider's education and family connections have been among the Na'vi, and he is extremely close on a brother/sister level with the Sully children. Neytiri tolerates him as she might a pet she didn't want the responsibility for that the children insisted on having anyway. For Neytiri, having a human child among the Na'vi invites trouble, and her suspicions are confirmed later in the film.
Spider straddles the line of two worlds. Obliged to remain among humans for breathable air and a "home" of sorts, he prefers to spend his time with the Na'vi. He speaks both English and Na'vi flawlessly. He possesses strengths most fourteen or fifteen-year-olds don't have. He is closely tied to the land and is as in tune with the planet as he can be. But Spider also keenly feels his differences. He can never be one with the flora or take a spirit brother or sister (he lacks the anatomy to do so). He feels trapped in his own body and resents his human parentage (not the least because of the identity of his sire). Spider views his humanness as fundamentally in opposition to everything he holds dear. As you can see in the picture above, he even goes so far as to paint himself with the blue "tiger" stripes of the Na'vi.
Despite his closeness to the Sullys, Spider serves as a reminder that culturally, and even physically, full assimilation isn't possible without the loss of some part of the self, nor should full assimilation be necessary or required in order to respect and admire the culture we love but perhaps were not born into. Spider demonstrates that the two cultures can live in harmony with one another without the need for colonizer dominance or full indigenous assimilation.
Once the film has been out for a bit longer, I'll go into detail about why Spider does what he does in this movie, and what makes him and his sire so controversial. Suffice it to say, whatever target Cameron and his writers were hoping to hit with the reverse noble savage trope, they missed rather widely.
See It, But For the Right Reasons
While there are definitely some really great arguments to be made against seeing Avatar: The Way Of Water, I think it's important to remember that we need to keep channels of communication open among white viewers to ensure that when we give our attention to these films, we're also giving attention to the people these films might be harming. If you go see this film for the cinematic beauty, for James Cameron's visionary story, the amazing character arcs, and throw backs to Titanic (Cameron couldn't resist), then that's great.
But when you do go see it, keep in mind that there are voices out there that are being silenced. If your argument is that those voices should just tell their own stories, you are right. But they've been trying to tell them for years. We the white voices wouldn't let them speak, but we were happy to take their stories from them and tell them to make a profit. Were we perhaps trying to shed light on the horrors perpetrated at white colonizers' hands? Maybe, but did we need a white savior narrative to do it? No, because that undermines everything we were hoping to achieve. Remember to lift the appropriate voices when they ask us to do so, and then I think we can enjoy the film for what it is while holding it clear within our minds that any story of POC, LGBTQIA+, Indigenous, or any other marginalized group deserves the dignity and respect of being told by its own members, not by white millionaires.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but if you're not comfortable giving this film and its creator money, I think that's perfectly valid. I enjoy a lot of literature that has been cancelled by now for various reasons, but I try to continue my personal edification and education by revisiting the moments we're not so proud of and looking at what we got from it rather than venerating what it was.
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