The Beautiful and Useless Return of “Avatar”

The Beautiful and Useless Return of “Avatar”

Last of Its Kind

The return of James Cameron’s Avatar.

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In 2019, I screened a series of films in my apartment organized around the theme of “Obama Baroque,” a term coined by the art collective DIS, which defined it as “renewed comfort in consumptive excess” following the 2008 financial crisis. Even then, the cultural products of the Obama years felt like artifacts from another era, ready to be historicized—bizarrely optimistic about the power of individuals in the face of obvious, planet-wide decline. Some of the criteria I developed for choosing the films were empirical—made between 2008 and 2014, with a budget in excess of $50 million—and some were thematic (“vague gestures toward anti-capitalist critique”). There was never any question that the first film in the series would be James Cameron’s space epic Avatar.

When Avatar premiered, in December 2009, I remember that it was a film everyone had to see, recommended less for its plot or characters than for the experience: being immersed in the realer-than-real CGI jungles of Pandora, riding along with a nine-foot-tall, blue-skinned, humanoid Na’vi on a prehistoric bird as it zigzags between floating mountains. I saw it in a suburban New Jersey multiplex and was dazzled. So were many others: About a month after its release, it overtook Titanic, another James Cameron production, to become the highest-grossing film worldwide, justifying its enormous budget and ending up with $2.92 billion in ticket sales, a figure approaching the annual GDP of the nation of Bhutan. (Avengers: Endgame briefly took the top-grossing spot before Avatar regained it in 2021 with its rerelease in China; it was also rereleased in US theaters the following year.) According to one consumer-research study, about one in five American adults has seen the film in a theater.

Two sequels were announced in 2010, and then Avatar entered a curious lull. The flurry of official and unofficial activities that extend a blockbuster’s cultural life—spin-offs, toys, games, theme parks, memes, fan theories, and the like—failed to accumulate. In 2019, the YouTuber Jack Douglas posted a video in which he offered money to people on the Santa Monica Pier if they could name a single character from Avatar. Most couldn’t. “What I remember about that movie was there was a large yellow machine and there was an old man driving it, and some blue people,” one respondent said. In an episode of How to With John Wilson, Wilson remarked that one of the few things people remember about the movie is that the Na’vi “make love by attaching their ponytails together.”

Now, after eight years of delays (the first Avatar sequel was originally scheduled for 2014), Pandora is back, just beyond the lenses of our plastic-framed 3D glasses. Avatar: The Way of Water is merely the first of four planned sequels; the next film and part of the following one have already been shot. According to Cameron, making The Way of Water was “very fucking” expensive. He also told the studio that it represented “the worst business case in movie history,” since it would have to become the third- or fourth-highest-grossing film of all time just to break even. (The Hollywood Reporter puts its budget at $350–$400 million; for comparison, the Fast & Furious movie where cars were driven out of an airplane two miles aboveground so that skydiving camera crews could capture them in free-fall had an estimated budget of $250 million.) But so far, it’s paying off, with The Way of Water already earning over $2 billion in worldwide sales, on track with its predecessor.

It’s strange to do this much business analysis at the start of a review. Cameron’s advice for new filmmakers is “Don’t make movies about movies,” and a corollary might be “Don’t write movie reviews about the movie business.” But it’s the brush you need to wade through to get to Avatar, a story of indigenous struggle on an alien planet, plucked from a drawer of unproduced scripts, this one written in part because Cameron wanted to showcase the work of his new special effects company. Avatar and The Way of Water are not the “movies about movies” that Cameron dislikes, but they are exceptionally well calibrated toward what makes movies sell: that undefined appetite for wonder that brought 19th-century Parisians into small rooms to see grainy footage of workers leaving factories.

The Avatar franchise also marks what a studio can’t stop Cameron from making. Since 2009, the film industry has been reshaped by acquisitions, notably the ill-fated merger of Time Warner and AT&T in 2016 and Disney’s purchase of Marvel Studios in 2009, Lucasfilm in 2012, and 20th Century Fox in 2017 (and with it, the Avatar intellectual property). A few large companies—Disney, Comcast, and Warner Bros. Discovery—now dominate the global spending on content and sit on massive reserves of previously developed IP, which tend to represent less risk for big-budget productions than introducing viewers to something new.

It is easier to get a movie made if it repurposes a story with a sizable, sympathetic fan base that the studio already owns; the first Avatar film, which was drawn from Cameron’s own imagination, represents an increasingly rare breed. But although the budgets for Avatar and its sequels indicate a hope that the Na’vi will join Disney’s roster of well-established, durably marketable characters, the franchise has not quite fixed itself in the zeitgeist yet, except as the butt of jokes about people barely remembering it. There’s something quixotic about it all: One of the few directors who can will a new franchise into existence on the strength of his box office record chooses to spin a yarn about bioluminescent jellyfish and ponytail sex, starring a Marine and his nine-foot-tall blue girlfriend.

In The Way of Water, the protagonists—the human Marine turned Na’vi general Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their four children—are driven from their home in the jungle by Jake’s old Earth enemies. They take refuge with an oceanside community called the Metkayina, introducing viewers to a new ecosystem of extraterrestrial wonders: giant flying fish with flapping fins and long jaws like crocodiles; an underwater tree with leaves that float in the current like fleshy feathers. The importance of Pandoran fauna to the Na’vi sets up the film’s final confrontation: To draw Jake out of hiding, his nemesis, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang)—who was killed in Avatar but, in a plot exigency, has now been cloned and reanimated in a Na’vi body—directs an attack on a pod of tulkun, whale-like creatures with a familial connection to the Metkayina. Two hunters (played by Jemaine Clement and Brendan Cowell) explain how to take down tulkun, a process with overt parallels to whaling: First, disrupt their ability to echolocate with sound cannons; next, target a mother with a calf and kill them with harpoons; finally, harvest a tiny amount of a valuable substance (ambergris on Earth; on Pandora, a golden liquid called amrita that halts aging) and discard the rest of the body.

The plots of both Avatar movies are generic; what sets them apart from similar films are the aesthetic details that make up the world of the Na’vi. If you had to define the look of Cameron’s pre-Avatar films, the references would include fire and chrome, heavy machinery and wisecracking soldiers, not blue catgirls and glowing mushrooms. But Avatar is the expression of another set of interests: an affinity for the mind-bending environmental sci-fi of the 1970s—Cameron cites writers like Ray Bradbury and Stanisław Lem, as well as James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the idea that a planet functions similarly to a self-regulating organism—and an appreciation for and “outrage” at the destruction of Earth’s natural ecosystem.

Cameron often discusses these influences in the same breath as analogies between the Na’vi and Indigenous people: the First Nations of the Americas in the first film and the indigenous Oceanian peoples in The Way of Water, particularly the Māori. (At one point, the Metkayina leader performs a version of the haka, a Māori dance.) Cameron dates his “fascination” with Indigenous cultures to an anthropology class in college, and he has described Avatar as a “science-fiction retelling” of “the European destruction of native peoples, using military force, in order to acquire their land and resources,” according to a document he filed in 2012 to combat a plagiarism lawsuit. “Europe equals Earth. The native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle.”

Avatar’s relationship with Indigenous viewers has been contentious. Some comments that Cameron made in 2010 while protesting Brazil’s Belo Monte dam project—in which he opined that the Lakota Sioux “would have fought a lot harder” if they could have seen the present—recently resurfaced, prompting calls to boycott the film. In general, Cameron’s characterizations of Indigenous cultures show a lack of specificity that would be perplexing in any artist making work about colonial dispossession, much less a director with a limitless budget and a reputation for exactness. “I see the Indigenous people that still remain in our world today as the people who are more connected to nature than we are in our industrialized urbanized civilization,” Cameron told the British men’s media outlet Unilad. Asked whether the Avatar films engage in cultural appropriation, he replied, “We try to draw from everything so we kind of average it out and we’re not extracting from any individual culture without their permission.”

Avatar and The Way of Water’s mishmash of Indigenous cultures reflects the problems with the franchise: Abstracting and systematizing things people care about can make for a successful blockbuster, but if you go too far, the connection to reality breaks. You’re left with something hackneyed, offensive, uncanny, or all of the above. At the Avatar theme park in Disneyland, which the YouTuber Jenny Nicholson describes as having “a ghoulish wrongness” about it, you can buy clip-on beaded hair extensions and a plastic walking stick and watch humans perform a traditional Na’vi drum circle, something the performers clarify that the Na’vi love. The films’ collage of woven and braided fiber crafts, percussion instruments, ear gauges, domed dwellings, and non-mechanized weaponry creates a sense of unplaceable indigeneity, without history or origin, though it serves as a great backdrop for special effects.

Avatar is like some rare mineral, produced by one man’s ill-conceived aesthetic taste placed under the immense heat and pressure of the blockbuster industry. The product is scintillating, beautiful, and feels fairly useless. Some requisite elements of Hollywood’s hit-movie formula are barely transformed: Remove the lines about the Na’vi deity Eywa, and Jake’s descriptions of his “date nights” with Neytiri and his preference for having his sons call him “sir” could belong in a drama about the coach of a struggling Texas football team. The Na’vi, a species with the ability to connect with other living beings with a degree of intimacy beyond human imagination, seem to favor heterosexual monogamy as the organizing unit of society, and they are also comfortable observing military hierarchy. They prefer male leaders, and Jake’s parenting style causes little friction. Everyone is thin, ripped, and able-bodied.

This generalized view of culture extends to Earth: Even though humans still inhabit Earth in Avatar, we know little about the state of our own world, other than our continued ability to muster a military, the fact we’ve destroyed the environment, and the existence of a busy market for alien goods. Markets are, among other things, proxies for desires, and the desire we can glean from what people on Earth are buying is that they want to live forever—by buying amrita, the substance harvested from the whale-like tulkun, and by staving off extinction by relocating to Pandora. More mysterious or profane desires are absent.

For all the detail—a technically correct explosion, a faithful facsimile of what it looks like when a whale breaches to breathe—there’s a thinness to life on Pandora. Allegories often feel this way. When characters are part of a lesson, it’s troublesome to let them diverge from the flaws and strengths of the types they embody; to do so complicates the message. It also happens to be what makes stories feel real enough to remember as something other than an artifact of a particular time.

The Way of Water does show a shift from the franchise’s Obama-era origins: Its focus is more tightly on the nuclear family, its posture more defensive. “A father protects. It’s what gives him meaning,” Jake says in voiceover not once but twice, first at the beginning of the film and again at the end. Relatable and capacious enough to fit almost any ideology, The Way of Water has found an audience, which indicates that the franchise’s unstable footing in the zeitgeist hasn’t hurt its marketability. But there are still three sequels to go. By the time the final installment premieres, the world may be unrecognizable; we will probably be doing things that James Cameron could never even imagine.

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