If you liked James Cameron’s 2009’s “Avatar,” you’ll probably love the sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water.” But if you were skeptical of the original, the sequel isn’t going to convince you. The new film has reproduced the original’s strengths and faults faithfully, providing stunning spectacle, environmental themes — and hoary colonial narratives.
First, the good news. It took Cameron 13 years to create this film, and his newest creation does indeed look like a decade-plus labor of love.
First, the good news. It took Cameron 13 years to create this film, and his newest creation does indeed look like a decade-plus labor of love. At 190 minutes, the running time of “Avatar: The Way of Water” is longer. The 3-D CGI alien planet includes even more detail and an even greater variety of landscapes, flora and fauna. There are more characters, more explosions, more dangers. There is just more.
Cameron even attempts to address the first film’s worst failing — it’s rote white savior narrative. Here, however, he doesn’t entirely succeed. This first movie was obsessed with reminding viewers, over and over, that they were seeing a new world from a colonial perspective. And despite a clear effort to do better, “Way of the Water” still falls back on conventional action-movie tropes, including a compulsive reiteration of colonial superiority and leadership even in a film devoted to exposing the evils of colonialism.
In the first “Avatar,” Earth is a depleted environmental wreck, and humans have become space colonizers in response. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine who goes to the planet Pandora to help infiltrate and pacify the indigenous population, the Na’vi. Under the command of hard-bitten Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), Jake’s consciousness is placed in a hybrid human/Na’vi “avatar” — a giant, blue, super-strong and super-tough body grown as a vessel for humans to pilot. But things do not go according to plan when Jake falls in love with chief’s daughter, Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), and ends up leading the resistance movement against the humans.
“The Way of Water” is set some time after the human colonizers have been forced off Pandora. Jake and Neytiri have had numerous children and adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the daughter of a human scientist’s avatar body. All is harmony and peace — until humans show up again. The bad guys (led again by Quaritch) are fixated on Jake’s family. So he and his family flee to the Pandora ocean clan of the Metkayina, where they learn (wait for it)… the way of water.
The first film was framed as Jake, the human colonizer, learning to hunt, worship and love the planet and Neytiri. You saw the amazingly detailed, 3-D environment through Jake’s eyes. And you also were by his side as, per "mighty whitey" Natty Bumpo/Tarzan tropes, the white guy eclipses the indigenous people and leads the ultimately successful resistance.
“The Way of Water,” like its predecessor, is about outsiders being led through a digital wonderland. In this case, though, the people learning new ways aren’t colonizers but neighbors. Rather than invaders exploring the land they’ve invaded, the second “Avatar” film is about the encounter of two different indigenous societies.
That encounter includes some friction and uncertainty; the Metkayina make fun of the Na’vi’s slender useless-for-swimming forest tails, for example. But the human colonizers —preparing to strip-mine Pandora for its minerals and its biological resources (including space whale essence) — are the aliens. You are encouraged, in glorious 3-D, to see them as such.
Or are you? It’s not as clear as it seems at first. Jake is, after all, still a white guy human, even if he has been transferred permanently into a blue body. His children, including his adopted child, are all also genetically part human — or fully human in the case of human foster child Spider (Jack Champion).
Rather than invaders exploring the land they’ve invaded, the second “Avatar” film is about the encounter between two different indigenous societies.
The kids’ human heritage isn’t just incidental. The Metkayina young ones bully the Sully clan, calling them “freaks.” Thus the colonizers’ children are targeted for (admittedly mild) prejudice. They’re presented as underdogs and as relatable because they are outsiders — and also presumably our distance relatives.
Two of Sully’s children — Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and Kiri — manifest special powers or sensitivities. Just as Jake was better at being a forest person than the forest people, now the outside forest people/humans are better at being underwater people than the underwater people. And of course, these sympathetic colonizer(s) are once again positioned at the head of the resistance. Cameron destabilizes his narrative, letting it flow into different channels. But eventually, the river winds its way into the same lake.
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It doesn’t have to be this way. This year’s “Predator” sequel, “Prey,” firmly centers the perspective of a Native woman fighting a monstrous colonizer; there’s no flirting with white savior tropes. And there are many science-fiction and fantasy novels, like the works of N.K. Jemisin, that steadfastly refuse standard colonial narratives altogether.
Cameron isn’t interested in such thoughtful alternatives, though. His film presents itself as anticolonialist. But it lavishes all its energy and innovation on its visuals. The storyline is secondary, and so it ends up somewhat helplessly reiterating the colonial vision it claims to reimagine. There are supposed to be three more “Avatar” sequels, and I’m sure they’ll all have very high-quality special effects. But, with “The Way of Water” as evidence, it seems likely that Cameron will continue to view Pandora through a colonial gaze.