In the monthslong PR campaign leading up to Avatar: The Way of Water, much of the media hype has been about the money. With nearly $3 billion in global box office earnings, the original Avatar, released in 2009, remains the highest-grossing movie of all time. But by now, audiences have spent 13 years mainlining Marvel movies, migrating to streaming, and otherwise forgetting everything about the original movie. When it comes to the sequel, critics want to know: Can James Cameron still rake it in?
But however much Avatar 2 makes, it will be enough to pay Cameron’s bills for the rest of his life, so good for him. What’s more interesting is Avatar’s underlying politics, and its relationship to Indigenous history.
Quick refresher: The first movie took place sometime in the 22nd century, in a future where humans have colonized a distant moon called Pandora, inhabited by a humanoid alien species called the Na’vi. The humans’ mission is to mine unobtanium, a highly valuable resource that happens to be the bedrock of the Na’vi’s home. The corporate and military branches of the settler colony want to force the Na’vi out; the scientific branch wants to negotiate, using an “avatar” program where humans inhabit Na’vi bodies to fraternize with the locals. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine who is paralyzed from the waist down, arrives on Pandora to take the place of his deceased twin brother, one of the avatar program’s founding scientists. When Sully — in his Na’vi body — gets separated from the other avatars and taken in by a local tribe, he learns their ways, falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the chieftain’s daughter, and eventually leads them in a revolution against the human colonizers.
The Way of Water picks up roughly 13 years after the last one ends. It is, in its basic premise, a straightforward escalation of the original film: The humans are back, and this time they want nothing less than total takeover. They want to turn Pandora into the next Earth, because by now humans have turned Earth into a barren wasteland.
Here, an astute viewer might ask: Which humans, exactly, were responsible for destroying their home planet? Was it, perchance, the affluent ones from the imperialist, industrialist nations? But the movie has no time for this distinction. Instead, it gets busy setting up the narrower conflict that comes to dominate the film: Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the antagonist of the original Avatar, has been resurrected by a hastily explained secret program in which his memories were saved to a hard drive and uploaded to a Na’vi avatar of his own. He and his cruelest military cronies, also in their new Na’vi bodies, set out to hunt down Sully, Neytiri, and their four children. Hearing this, the Sullys take refuge among the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan, led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), and try to assimilate into island life. Their children flirt, fight, and get up to mischief. Meanwhile, Quaritch ramps up his game of cat and mouse.
The primary problem with The Way of Water is that it homogenizes each of its opposing factions — the human colonizers and the Indigenous Na’vi — to the detriment of both its world-building and its social critique. The politics of the first Avatar were already lazy. Critics called it “unacceptably paternalistic” and condemned its depiction of the indigenous Na’vi as “both romantic and ahistorical.” At the New York Times, David Brooks summed up the shallowness of Avatar: “It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades.” But these criticisms were mostly overshadowed by adulation for Avatar’s visual splendor: the bioluminescent forest, the exhilarating scenes in flight. Whatever the real-life implications of the film, it was exciting to be invited into the lush, enthralling world of the Na’vi.
The Way of Water sidesteps a political plot, instead honing in on Quaritch’s individual quest for revenge. But its persistent disinterest in the realities of Indigenous life, in historical context or cultural specificity, undermines the entire project, so that The Way of Water doesn’t even function effectively as escapist fantasy.
Cameron’s disinterest in the complex interrelationships of marginalized groups is apparent immediately in the patchwork stylization of the Na’vi. They have tribal garments, Black hairstyles, and accents cribbed indiscriminately from elsewhere: West Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia. But, more damningly, he doesn’t meaningfully distinguish between the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan and the forest-dwelling Omaticaya.
For a movie premised on the Sullys’ need to learn the way of a different culture, The Way of Water presents only superficial distinctions: The reef-dwellers have greener skin, for camouflage, and thicker tails and arms, for swimming. But Cameron misses his opportunity to expand the Metkayina’s behaviors into a collective culture. Their practice of breath control, necessary for freediving, might be deepened into a spiritual practice of meditation, or a psychosocial aversion to anger. But in Cameron's hands, it is no more than a skill the Sullys must acquire. It’s an excuse for the Metkayina leader’s daughter Reya (Bailey Bass) to flirt with Jake and Neytiri’s son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), putting her hands on his stomach to teach him how to breathe.
The Way of Water hinges most of its cultural exchange on interactions between these two groups of kids: Reya and her siblings versus Lo’ak and his. But the differences these kids encounter in each other are, again, superficial. Reya’s brother Aonung (Filip Geljo) makes fun of Lo’ak’s sister Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) for sitting by herself. The Metkayina kids harp endlessly on the Sullys’ four-fingered hands, evidence of their human ancestry. The clash of tribes boils down to kids being kids, squabbling over aesthetic markers they find unfamiliar, so that Cameron’s portrayal of intertribal conflict bears all the subtlety of middle schoolers. Then, abruptly, the clash dissipates, so that the Na’vi can unite against the real enemy: the colonizer.
As for the colonizers, even the first Avatar divided its humans according to corporate, military, and scientific allegiances. The Way of Water treats them all as rapacious, bloodthirsty imperialists. The one group of humans not in the military are tulkun hunters, and they too are violent and greedy, intent on harpooning gentle sea creatures to extract minuscule quantities of coveted oil. On their ship is a single marine biologist with a different perspective, who respects the animals’ intelligence and is only present because the hunting venture funds his research. He gets two lines and an unceremonious death.
The homogenization of humans erases the complexity of racism on earth. The Way of Water takes no interest in how humans might have enacted the same colonial violence on each other as they subsequently do on the Na’vi. It doesn’t recognize the human–Na’vi dynamic as an escalation of a centuries-old pattern, in which colonists eradicate Indigenous people’s homes, livelihoods, and family trees out of racism and imperialist greed. Instead, the colonizer–Native power struggle is depicted as entirely allegorical, because that kind of violence that doesn't seem to exist in the movie's version of Earth. Presented with an opportunity to bind the stakes of the movie to those of real life, to acknowledge Indigenous people as real people, rather than as symbols of primitive purity in alien bodies, Cameron moves swiftly along.
Ultimately, this simplification makes The Way of Water boring. Cameron glosses over intragroup conflict to make way for the heavy-hitting, 20-minute showdowns between colonizers and Natives. He depicts interpersonal conflict unmoored from comprehensible value sets. Instead of an immersive society, featuring characters with overlapping, interlocking motivations, we get senseless overstimulation.
The Way of Water is a blunt tool, expanding the world of Avatar via copy and paste.
As a counterpoint, take the Black Panther movies. The people and tribes of Wakanda have internal political disagreements that are no less significant than Wakanda’s fight against external forces trying to steal its vibranium, the source of all its secret wealth and technological advances. The heterogeneity of Wakanda enriches the fictional world. Or take a show like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which crafts distinct subcultures within groups of people who control the same element. The Water Tribes of The Last Airbender are divided by whether they live in swampy or icy places; the tribes living near the north pole wage civil war against the tribes of the south pole. By contrast, the many reef-dwelling Metkayina villages live in isolation and know nothing of each other, as evidenced by scenes where Quaritch tortures clueless Na’vi in an attempt to root out the Sullys’ hiding place.
Fantasy is most powerful when creators engage thoughtfully with their chosen allegory, checking all the minute components of their fictional world’s machine. But The Way of Water is a blunt tool, expanding the world of Avatar via copy and paste. Cameron could have constructed a Metkayina world that ruptured our preconceptions of the Na’vi, giving them leaders who weren’t another warrior chieftain and his priestess wife, or religious rules that conflicted with the Sullys’.
Instead he gave us direct parallels to the last movie: the Omaticaya ride horses, but the Metkayina ride dolphins. The Omaticaya worship at a sacred tree, but the Metkayina worship at…an underwater tree. He tries to make up for his lack of narrative imagination with a new visual language, but it doesn’t cover up the holes in his sloppily woven saga. He seems bored by the intricacies of an Indigenous society, and bored by the nesting power dynamics of colonial history. He shows no interest in fleshing out how the humans have put themselves back in the same position, brandishing military-industrial might against the natural world and the creatures who care for it. In the end, he seems to have succumbed to 13 years of pressure to make The Way of Water bigger and bolder, so that it might be worth the wait. But that doesn’t make it good. ●
Correction: Avatar: The Way of Water takes place 13 years after the previous film. An earlier version of this post misstated the timeline.