Generations are measured in blocks of 20 years, which means it’s been over half a generation since James Cameron’s Avatar came out in 2009. I was a sophomore in high school with no money. Now I’m a 6th-year grad student with no money. But I’m given to understand that other people’s lives have changed entirely—marriages, careers, entire lives have expired and been created, all of us hurtling down the Rainbow Road of existence in karts with stats too high for us to manage. So it’s fascinating that James Cameron’s assumption is that for the past 13 years anyone’s thoughts about Avatar, a movie that was dated the day it came out, amounted to anything more than “Oh…yeah, that one about the blue aliens. It was okay I guess.”
I went into Avatar: The Way of Water fully expecting to like it. 13 years is such a long time that it was inconceivable to me that James Cameron wouldn’t make something cool and relevant; take the very fair criticisms of the first movie and mesh them with his ability to singlehandedly progress CG technology and finally create the cultural touchstone he’s obviously striving toward. This is his only job, after all.
I don’t think this is a spoiler, but here’s your fair warning to dip out now. There is no difference between these two Avatars. They are the same movie, but the new one is wetter. I’m serious, even the villain is recycled. Steven Lang returns as our American military metaphor against the Na’vi’s Native American metaphor. Sam Worthington, having abandoned his human body in the first installment, is no longer technically a white savior, but without his double-crossing conflict is rendered completely bland. “American soldier switching sides” was a tired trope in 2009, but at least it’s a rich source of conflict. Here we get a saga of interpersonal relationships with Jake and Neytiri’s many children, way too many people to keep track of, let alone care about. Pretty much everybody either comes back, has a kid, or both. It’s like Cameron is writing bad fanfiction of his own work.
I feel a little bad coming down so hard on this movie. Its heart is in the right place. It’s a very earnest film. But its 80s-era literal Save the Whales messaging, chintzy on its own, approaches insulting in the face of the current climate crisis, which threatens everything and everyone. The Na’vi have always read as Native Americans idealized by a white American kid who grew up on media depicting them as spiritual, wise, fundamentally not-quite-human, and most importantly extinct. James Cameron has respect for indigenous people, but he does not see them as active participants in modern culture, an almost pathetic attitude to have as a moviemaker in light of today’s actual nonwhite and indigenous perspectives in film, including in very recent blockbusters like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
But does it at least look good? Sure! James Cameron spent $400 million painstakingly creating the reefs of Pandora the same way he created the rainforest in 2009. Here’s the problem: reefs exist. Rainforests exist. They’re just as beautiful, valuable, and threatened as the environments the Na’vi protect, except they’re real. There is no way to romanticize their destruction, and their protection, if we accomplish it, will have very little cinematic valor.
Look: media is important. Stories are important. They affect culture, which affects behavior. But James Cameron is not trying to change culture, even if he thinks he is. He does not want us to care about the planet. He wants us to know how very much he cares about the planet. Your opinion of James Cameron’s devotion to the planet is worth a $400 million dollar price tag to him, as well as however much carbon and industry was generated by this bloated production and the several sequels still planned.
I wonder how many acres of reef or rainforest $400 million buys? How many coral farms or research projects or wildlife sanctuaries? Screw you, James Cameron.
1/10 1 point for the pretty colors. -8 points for spending the GDP of a small nation recreating a world you could literally see for yourself, just go outside, I beg of you. -1 more point for giving everyone “native” accents even though they’re supposed to be speaking their own language. Just have everyone speak Na’vi and be done with it, Cameron, you coward.