The Way of Water

December 17, 2022

Last night I went to go to see the new billion-dollar box office spectacle, Avatar: The Way of Water. High frame rate, 3D, the whole shebang.

As the highest-grossing film of all time, the original obviously appeals to the general populace. Admittedly, I’m not an Avatar fan, but I’m not an Avatar hater either.

I watched the first film like everyone else when it came out in 2009. I think I watched it one other time since then. I’ve been to Disney’s Pandora area in Animal Kingdom. I’m familiar with the franchise.

At the time, what perhaps seemed like an anti-colonization story appears to actually be an uncritical white savior story:

White colonizers arrive on Pandora, harvest an overpowered natural resource (unironically named “unobtanium,” which supposedly makes interplanetary travel feasible), and white militaristic colonists (like Jake Sully) are transferred into bodies that resemble Na’vi to traverse the environment. Jake (a genetically-engineered Na’vi) becomes the leader of the clan, and convinces the blue-skinned forest Na’vi to fight the colonists.

Woof. Maybe a story about how a white Marine posing as a fake native to win over the trust of the real natives wasn’t such a strong anti-colonization message after all.

Thirteen years have gone by since the original film, and the world has grown up quite a bit, myself included. So when the sequel was finally released, I expected a fresh, new take.

The thing is, the sequel didn’t do much to change this formula. To be fair, most big film franchises have a formula, like Jurassic Park. However, in almost every measurable way, The Way of Water is exactly the same uncritical white savior story:

White colonizers again arrive on Pandora, harvest a different overpowered natural resource (a yellow liquid drained from whale brains that ostensibly stops human aging), and white militaristic colonists again are transferred into bodies that resemble Na’vi to traverse the environment. Jake (a genetically-engineered Na’vi) convinces the teal-skinned ocean Na’vi to fight the colonists.

Woof, again.

If only that’s where the problems stopped. One major character in the new film is a young white boy with dreads. There appear to be no gay people even though we are shown several heterosexual couples (with multiple pregnant women). Kate Winslet’s ocean Na’vi character performs haka. Racism seems to be alive and well on Pandora amongst the Na’vi subspecies, with children teasing each other about their differing physical features.

James had the opportunity (and plenty of time) to make smarter decisions about all of these fairly-important things for his sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time. He’s in a very unique, very powerful position. For a movie of this length, I hoped it would give actual critique about the issues it pretends to raise.

Instead, the Avatar franchise is just a fantasy about giving up being white without giving up the privilege it afforded. This isn’t a story about the Na’vi. It’s a story about a white man living amongst native peoples as a personal fantasy.

Avatar and James Cameron have a lot of growing up to do if there are three more films incoming. The racism from children amongst different Na’vi subspecies was wholly unnecessary and at no point was it ever critically addressed. The several instances of cultural appropriation could undergo greater scrutiny. But I think I know what will happen in the next film:

White colonizers once again arrive on Pandora, harvest another overpowered natural resource (molten rock deep in the interior of the planet that contains a mineral which cures cancer), and white militaristic colonists once again are transferred into bodies that resemble Na’vi to traverse the environment. Jake (a genetically-engineered Na’vi) convinces the violet-skinned underground Na’vi to fight the colonists.

And the world will eat it up.