Back In Blue: ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’

James Cameron is one of our foremost purveyors of special effects-driven blockbusters, movies that blend action and another genre — usually science fiction, but sometimes romance or comedy — to appeal to the masculine id for explosions and gunplay. If one element links all of his films together, it’s destruction.

But Cameron’s movies have never been particularly “macho” the way most other action filmmakers’ have. Women have played major roles in all of his films, and not just as emotional support or damsels in distress. Even before she became a total badass in the sequel, Sarah Connor was a lot more interesting in the original Terminator than your usual female in jeopardy, and that was just the beginning for Cameron decentralizing the straight white male in action blockbusters. Unlike most 80s action flicks, The Terminator saw the ripped, taciturn white guy as a killing machine, not a hero. Terminator 2 flipped the script, making Schwarzenegger — now a beloved and very bankable leading man — the near-invincible hero. But it also made fun of his robotic stiffness, explaining away his too-good-to-be-true physique by making him an actual cyborg. The Terminator is a tough guy who looks pretty awesome shooting shotgun while riding a motorcycle, but he’s also kind of a tool, and the movie’s villain, the T-1000, appears as a white male cop — a figure who is generally the hero of the piece.

Cameron used Schwarzenegger to similar effect in True Lies, which, on the one hand, centered on a suave, globe-trotting spy in the 007 mold — but on the other hand, made him a total goof in the domestic space, fearing that he’s losing his dowdy wife to a jackass car salesman. Harry Tasker saves the day, at one point piloting a fighter jet through downtown Los Angeles in order to rescue his teenage daughter, but the movie also sees Jamie Lee Curtis’ Helen transform into a smokin’ hottie action heroine herself. Harry doesn’t just save his wife and daughter, he learns to appreciate them — and in so doing, makes room for Helen to appreciate herself. True Lies satisfies the 90s blockbuster requirement for a muscular white hero to kick all kinds of ass, but not before spending a lot of time poking fun at the macho archetype. And in Titanic, an awards behemoth, cultural phenomenon, and 12-year “king of the world” atop the global box office, Cameron made his male hero a sensitive artist pretty boy who trembles in his lover’s arms after sex. The rich and powerful man is, once again, the villain.Avatar was something of an outlier in Cameron’s filmography. His protagonist was, in most respects, the typical white masculine hero (complicated only slightly by the fact that the character is paralyzed from the waist down when not in his Na’vi body). Neytiri fit the bill as a kickass heroine in some respects, but in others, she seemed more like the typical female love interest in an action flick than a true action heroine. She wasn’t as complex or captivating as Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley, nor did she feel like a co-lead the way Lindsey Brigman, Helen Tasker, and Rose DeWitt Bukater did. Avatar was very much Jake Sully’s story.

Cameron got a fair amount of flack for the weaker elements of his Avatar script, just as he did for Titanic. But in both cases, this was vastly outweighed by the experience of watching the movie on the big screen at the time. The special effects were breathtaking. The 3D was immersive. There had never been anything quite like it before. Many thought it would usher in a sea change for the moviegoing experience, and Hollywood sure tried. In the early 2010s, innumerable box office hopefuls were released in 3D, most looking woefully shoddy in comparison to the mighty Avatar. All these failures had one fatal flaw in common — not being directed by James Cameron. Celebrated filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson, and Ang Lee have tried to reinvent special effects technology. They almost always fail — not because they lack the skill, necessarily, but because they lack the will to devote years — maybe even a decade — to this singular task. Avatar’s success couldn’t be replicated simply because no one was both as powerful and as obsessive as Cameron himself. Over and over again, the lesson is learned — the only man who can ever top James Cameron is James Cameron.

I’m a huge Cameron fan. His movies loom incredibly large over the span of my lifetime. But it’s funny to think that Avatar: The Way Of Water is only the third James Cameron movie I’ve been able to see upon its initial release. Titanic was my first Cameron film experienced in a movie theater. (And my second, third, and fourth, thanks to repeat viewings.) Afterward, I became a fan of his earlier films — which were all too adult for me to have seen any earlier — which kept me entertained in the twelve-year wait for his next release.The original Avatar was a dazzling cinematic event. It was my #10 film of that year. But our collective appreciation of that film took a big hit in the ensuing years as we discovered that the experience of watching it on the big screen in 3D couldn’t be replicated at home. Not even close. The film’s weaknesses became more and more apparent in less immersive settings. The memory of seeing it for the first time faded over the years, and we started watching movies about white male heroes differently than we used to, which made Avatar’s white-savior-dyed-blue a more complicated character to embrace.

And now he’s back again, after an even longer wait. Titanic, Avatar, and this new sequel have all followed the same trajectory — bombastic hype, a lot of naysaying, and then awe upon release. But the moviegoing landscape in 2022 is very different from where we were in 2009. This time around, we have seen something like Avatar: The Way Of Water before. We’ve seen Avatar. The special effects are incredible — from a certain standpoint, probably the best in any movie, ever, to date — but they’re not as mind-blowing they were the first time Cameron introduced us to Pandora. Now, we hold special effects in our hands on our smart phones all day long. We’re inundated with tech wizardry. No video game or social media filter looks as good as Avatar: The Way Of Water, of course, but Cameron’s brave new world doesn’t feel as out of this world and alien as it once did. We’re spoiled. This new film is another global box office sensation, a likely Best Picture nominee, and a hit with critics, but we should probably be even more impressed by the new Avatar’s technical feats than we already are.

As much as the movie is a triumph, it doesn’t feel like it’s changing the medium the way the first film did. Cameron has made a sequel that it is technically and narratively superior to the most successful film of all time. And yet, being a sequel to a film audiences are mixed on, it simply can’t blow us away quite like Titanic and Avatar did. Cinema slid out of the center of the cultural conversation in recent years; Avatar: The Way Of Water won’t be looming over all of pop culture the way Titanic did in 1997. Two billion dollars is great and all, but wouldn’t that be even better for those of us who have cherished the mark Cameron’s films have made on moviegoing?

Well, Cameron’s sequel may not be able to top the first film in box office grosses or impact on the filmmaking landscape, but it does have one thing going for it that its predecessor did not. It is, in a strange way, a deeply personal film, and a great deal richer in theme than the original film — even if some of what shines through is probably accidental. 2009’s Avatar didn’t take advantage of all the potential it had to speak about what Jake Sully was really doing when he abandoned his white human body for an athletically superior blue one, which allowed him to “pass” in a community his own kind were violently exploiting. Its narrative was a little too simplistic, forcing the special effects to do all the heavy lifting in holding our interest. Avatar: The Way Of Water continues the story of the first film, of course, but what it really does is further entangle us in Cameron’s battle with his own identity, a project he embarked on back in 1984’s The Terminator, when he first started subverting the myth of the macho white hero. 

Jake Sully no longer has a white human body to return to in this new film. He’s fully Na’vi, more or less. (The new film rarely reminds us that he was once something else.) Of course, he’s still played by Sam Worthington, who is about as much a generic white leading man as we’ve ever gotten from Hollywood, and the trappings of the macho hero archetype are still integral to his character. Jake Sully isn’t as charming or as charismatic as Jack Dawson. He isn’t the butt of any jokes at the tough guy’s expense the way Harry Tasker and the Terminator were. The original Avatar was the first time Cameron, for all his success at the box office, ever went for the stock male blockbuster hero, which makes that film something of a disappointment in retrospect. Pandora is a wondrous world full of magical sights. Why must we be tied to this very stock, very unoriginal male archetype throughout this series, forced to see this amazing world through his eyes? Does Avatar even need Jake Sully?

Probably not. It’s easy to imagine exciting adventures of Pandora that sideline the original film’s protagonist completely. Following Sully’s kids in the sequel is a lot more fun than spending time with Sully himself. It’s Cameron himself who “needs” Jake Sully, because Jake Sully serves as his avatar into the world of the Na’vi. In Avatar: The Way Of Water, our main man has all but obliterated his white identity, learning through people of a different race how to be one with nature, how to value community and simplicity and above all, family, instead of wealth and power (more typical goals for white men). Jake Sully’s quest for peace and love rather than, say, vengeance, puts him more in line with Cameron’s other male heroes. He’s a little more sensitive, a little more Jack Dawson now. At many moments, you can feel Avatar: The Way Of Water yearning for this simple harmony. Like, maybe there could be a billion-dollar movie that’s just about hanging out with whales?But Cameron is who he is, and we are who are, and a movie of this scale must have wreckage and explosions. Cameron delivers on this, and not at all thoughtlessly. Avatar is very much about the way man’s violence intrudes on the natural world — and, specifically, how white men’s violence has intruded upon other cultures — and this time around, the intrusion feels even more painful. We, the human audiences of Earth, are asked to cheer for the deaths of nearly every human in Avatar: The Way Of Water (which, I must admit, is surprisingly easy with the way Cameron has set this up). In other words, we’re not on our own side here, and neither is Cameron. 

Of course, that was true in the original Avatar, too. Cameron just feels more comfortable this second time around letting us forget that we’re the bad guys. He’s confident that we’ll feel as connected to the Na’vi as Jake is, and he’s right. If the first Avatar was about being allowed to peek into Pandora “in disguise” as a Na’vi, Avatar: The Way Of Water is about actually becoming one, to the extent that we forget humanity almost entirely, except by some of its worst representatives. (The merciless colonialist military and profiteering whalers, to be exact.) As in Terminator 2, Cameron again flips the script on his original villain; Stephen Lang’s Quaritch is resurrected in a Na’vi body. (Still a murderous asshole, though.) The Way Of Water misses opportunities to say more about what a species-change does for one’s sense of identity, just as the first Avatar did with Sully’s character. But it does add a shade more complexity to what was a rather cartoonish villain in the first film.

Is Jake Sully still Cameron’s avatar? Or is it Quaritch this time around? Quaritch wasn’t such a dynamic character in the original Avatar that we really needed him to be brought back from the dead in the sequel. In bringing him back, Cameron makes it clear that this butch military warmongerer is an important part of this text, as he sees it. Quaritch represents the side of Cameron that enjoys military hardware and machinery, also known as the side of Cameron who can get a movie like Titanic or Avatar made; Sully, now, is the side that increasingly gravitates toward nature and family, the side that feels threatened by the masculine hunger for destruction. The threat of violence encroaching into a harmonious life is very palpable in The Way Of Water. Cameron portrays its intrusion as inevitable. Jake Sully can run, and he can hide, but that will only delay his showdown with Quaritch, whose reason for hunting down Sully is far from logical. It’s fully personal — revenge.

Cameron, never the most humble guy in the room, frequently makes male hubris his villain; he has never been fully comfortable with men being just men. In his first movie, he fused man with machine; hardware has had a starring role in every movie he’s made since. His men feel secure with their toys, whether it’s a machine gun, a fighter jet, or the world’s premier luxury ocean liner. Through Jake Sully, Cameron finally gets to explore the simple, machine-free life, one absent the obsessive quest for dominance he’s already achieved several times over. Now, in this sequel, he sends his villain on the same journey his hero went on in the first film — trading his white male body for a bigger, stronger blue one. James Cameron has destroyed so many things in his movies — cars, jets, motorcycles, bridges, buildings, spaceships, and one not-so-unsinkable ship. The Avatar films agonize over the annihilation of flora and fauna, but what they’re really wrestling with is Cameron’s desire to destroy himself — or at least, his more destructive attributes, allowing the serene and soulful parts to flourish unencumbered the way Sully tries to do.

The Way Of Water is a movie at war with itself. It wants to promote peace and harmony, yet can’t help depicting violent battles with Cameron’s signature action panache. It celebrates ideologies borrowed from non-white cultures — heavily Native American- and African-influenced, as in the first film, while also adding Pacific Islander to the mix this time around — but its action is still centered on a straight white man. The notion that a white man can “become” an honorary member of another race (while still keeping aold of all his cool white male power, of course) is not new; when it involves being physically inserted into an artificially created body of another race, it’s an especially problematic fantasy. (Is “blueface” really that much better than blackface? Discuss.)

And what should we make of all the flesh on display in this somewhat family-friendly film? The Na’vi wear strategically-placed loincloths and benefit from a miraculous lack of nip slips. Their Barbie-proportioned bodies are sculpted and hairless and just out of our reach in 3D. It’s not just the flora and fauna we’re meant to gawk at on Pandora — Cameron is clearly inviting us to leer at the uncannily lifelike humanoid bodies, but it’s hard not to feel a little… confused by all the barely-covered Na’vi T&A. If James Cameron really wanted to get away from human power structures and embrace the natural world, he could have left sex — specifically, women’s scantily clad, often wet bodies — out of the equation. (If they all looked like manatees, this would be a whole different story.)

For all its celebration of indigenous cultures, Avatar: The Way Of Water is still rooted in a very white, very patriarchal, very Western, and sometimes very Disney view of the world. When the Sully clan takes refuge with the Metkayina reef people, one of Sully’s sons catches the eye of a local hottie who, of course, turns out to be a hottie princess. When Jake scolds his sons for fighting with the native boys, he can’t help but take pride in the fact that they “won” the fight. (Because we can walk the walk, but we can’t really let our blockbuster protagonists be pacifists, can we?) Men are in charge of every clan; their wives hiss at each other. Cliche and archetypes invade this supposedly reimagined new world at every turn.

But as blockbusters go, Avatar: The Way Of Water does a lot more good than harm. There’s some gunplay, but Cameron is more conscientious about it than most action filmmakers — the rest of the action, which includes archery, a Titanic-inspired shipwreck, and a lot of whale cleverness, is much more rousing than the stuff involving machine guns. This Avatar is also more in awe of the natural world than its predecessor was — a gambit that is surprisingly effective given just about everything we see is computer-generated, about as far from “natural” as can be.

The Way Of Water wrestles with the guilt we face for our part in the massive modern system that has wreaked such havoc on the world that existed before, the wildlife and indigenous people whose exploitation (and, often, extermination) got us where we are today. This new film comes from a very fortunate, very privileged filmmaker who had the luxury of spending more than a decade crafting exactly the movie he wanted to make. Nobody said “no” to James Cameron. (Nobody even said, “Uh, Jim, can you hurry it up, please?”) Avatar: The Way Of Water is still, mostly, the story of a white hero, but he’s a white hero who has gone out of his way to denounce his whiteness and cut ties with the flawed, imperfect man he was before. It’s not hard to see him as an avatar for the director himself, and to see the fantasy of Jake Sully shedding his most problematic elements as part of a narrative Cameron’s been fascinated by all along.

James Cameron may or may not be aware of all the subtext I found in his latest film. He probably would not appreciate the way I’ve carelessly psychoanalyzed him here, given that we’ve never met. Oh well. I still think this may be the best look we ever get into who James Cameron truly is as a filmmaker, and as a human being — assuming Cameron doesn’t decide to hold off on the next couple Avatars until he’s finished his own Fablemans. (What I wouldn’t pay to see that, though.)

Or, in the words of the Na’vi? “I see you, Jim.”

Yes, in this Avatar sequel, I think we can finally fully see the king of the world.

2 thoughts on “Back In Blue: ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’

  1. Your analysis here is deeper than my quick post movie thoughts, but I agree with everything you captured. My number one comment since I’ve seen Way of Water is how this movie works to balance a crunchy granola conservation story (which I’m here for) and a badass war-movie climax (not usually my style). I especially noticed how the script and dialogue – in this fantastic, futuristic, and far-away place – still follow a contemporary American-white-male speech code. Expressions like ‘take a knee’ made me chuckle in the context of these scenes. I guess I kind of marveled at the broad appeal in a film like this, and found myself imagining all the different demographics that would be activated by a film like this. I loved it.

    1. Thanks Joe! Honestly I had several moments while writing this where I asked myself: “Am I crazy for going down this route…?” But I was kind of blown away by how much pretty much every moment of this film had me thinking these things. James Cameron can go to the trouble of spending decades creating an entirely new planet and yet that white maleness is still at the forefront. But this time, more than the first film, it also seemed really clear how much this franchise expresses a desire to escape that, and what a battle there is between trying to imagine a peaceful utopia and the inescapability of destruction and domination white men have brought into such environments.


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