“Avatar” was released back in the late 2000s. It was set on an exoplanetary moon called Pandora. It was populated by a blue-skinned indigenous species called the Na’vi. The film’s villains were the humans (referred to as the Sky People) who tried to uproot them and even cause genocide to obtain a special mineral that cost millions on the dying Earth. But one Jake Sully saw the error of his ways and led a rebellion against the Sky People and banished them from Pandora. If Cameron’s critique of the glorification of the military in movies that steadily grew in American cinema throughout the USA’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan wasn’t obvious, let me tell you, it was very obvious. Now, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is here, 13 years after the release of the original. So, how has Cameron’s commentary (which is assisted by writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno) evolved? What is he saying, from a political and/or humanitarian perspective, through the Sullys, Quaritch, the Sky People, and the Metkayina tribe? Well, let’s find out.
Major Spoilers Ahead
James Cameron emphasizes that Jake Sully wasn’t a white savior in “Avatar,” which was and still is a common trope in movies to boast about white superiority by propping up a white character as the messiah of a not-so-civilized species. But in “Avatar,” Sully never sought to become the Chief of the Omaticayans or take on the role of the Toruk Makto. In fact, during the final war in that movie, it was Tsu’tey who led the assault and later transferred his title of Olo’eyktan to Jake. In “The Way of Water,” Sully starts as the chief of the tribe. But as soon as he realizes that his family is in danger, he transfers the title to Tarsem, someone who is way more mature than him. And then, he spends the rest of the movie living under the guidance of Tonowari, ordering his children to respect the Metkayina culture, and he retires his weapons until the very last act. That said, his urge to protect his family makes him a very orthodox patriarchal figure. He uses the not-so-classic “My wife is exhausted and is not making sense” remark. He bosses his kids around and has favorites, but he doesn’t really listen to any of them. Thankfully, by the end of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” he unlearns all of that.
Due to Jake Sully’s transformation into a pacifist, Neytiri echoes his stance by putting down her signature bow and arrow for good. But she constantly emphasizes the need to kill Quaritch because she knows that if he’s out there, she and her family cannot be safe. She is unwilling to accept the role of a refugee as she has spent the last few decades warring and rebelling against the colonizing Sky People. It’s also the reason why she fails to accept Spider as one of her own because, every time she sees him, she is reminded of the atrocities his kind has inflicted upon her people. You can say that it’s a very binary way of thinking. However, when you remember that she’s the victim of ethnocide (that too, twice), you kind of get why she is the way she is. And it all comes to a head in the finale when she finally takes on Quaritch and his crew to save her daughter Kiri and avenge her son Neteyam’s death, with the transition from a mother to a warrior so beautifully depicted by Zoe Saldaña. It remains to be seen, though, which side she’s going to lean towards next: a pacifist or an outright anti-Sky People rebel.
Kiri seems like a remnant of the hippie culture from the 1960s and 1970s, which makes sense when you see that Cameron is from that era and the character is being played by Sigourney Weaver. But unlike most American films that like to be anti-hippie because of their anti-war sentiments, “The Way of Water” portrays her as a source of goodness and immense power with a deep connection to the environment. She comes off as air-headed, but she is fierce and strong when she needs to be. Unlike the rest of her family, who dive headfirst into a problem and then strategize, she holds back to gain perspective and then acts accordingly. Her rescue scene at the end of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” is emblematic of that. You can say that hoping that Kiri will inspire anyone in the current and upcoming generations who are dealing with a very aggressive and cynical populace is idealistic. However, idealism is the only thing that can lead to change. Similar to Kiri, Lo’ak is synonymous with the teen angst of the 1980s and 1990s. He gets into fights to protect himself and his siblings. He wants to be like his father and his brother, Neteyam. He is aware of his shortcomings. That said, he’s willing to work on it by understanding that being unlovable or disobedient doesn’t limit him in any way. Instead, it makes them resilient and a figure of enlightenment (about both power dynamics in a family and the need to save whales) in a world that’s becoming more and more conservative. Tuk is too young to have any ideology. But she’s insanely cute, and I would’ve put my life on the line to save her from any kind of harm.
Quaritch And The Sky People
“Avatar” saw the end of the first reign of the Sky People. How they colonized Pandora, or the extent of the ethnicide they had caused, had already happened before the events of the film. We just got to witness their downfall in that film. “The Way of Water” shows the second round of their rise as the colonizers of Pandora. From the get-go, it’s established that they are very anti-environment as they incinerate forests and animals to make way for their new headquarters. They are completely militaristic now, with almost no space for a business-oriented mediator like Selfridge. This time around, they are ravaging the seas as well by riddling them with explosives and killing whales for an anti-aging serum called “amrita,” which is an obvious reference to the practice of hunting whales for oil and something that has been criticized for ages. You can say that they are hired guns who are doing these things for money and their bosses. But there’s something evil about them, which indicates that they’ve taken this up not out of desperation or the moolah but because they enjoy oppressing indigenous tribes. Peaceful cooperation and not destroying the natural resources of an ecosystem because you’ve already destroyed yours is always an option, but not for the humans or Sky People.
Quaritch doesn’t only personify this colonialist ideology, but he amps it up with vitriol that stems from his personal rivalry with Jake Sully. However, before even getting to them, Quaritch does something that fascist regimes have done in the past and are doing in the present: instilling hatred amongst the general populace against rebels. “Andor” did a spectacular job of highlighting it, and “The Way of Water” does it too, as it shows how fascists contort the narrative to make it seem that the victims’ troubles are because of this one or a group of anti-institutional elements. They portray their violent acts, such as torching homes or partaking in extrajudicial violence, as “unavoidable” consequences of the existence of this one rebellious individual or group of rebels. In doing so, instead of helping the people who are fighting for freedom, they start to see them as the problem and the oppressors as the antidote. Yes, in “The Way of Water,” the oceanic Na’vi tribes didn’t give up Jake and his family’s whereabouts because they respected Tonowari and his orders. But will they be ready to stay silent again if Quaritch rocks up to their front yard and starts destroying everything they love? It’s a tough choice to make, and although rebellion seems like the right answer, until and unless you and your family are at stake and a guy like Quaritch is breathing down your neck, you can’t honestly answer that question.
You can say that the commentary around the Omaticayans, Quaritch, and the Sky People in “The Way of Water” is an extended and more nuanced version of what was said about them in “Avatar.” And you’ll be right because James Cameron has essentially doubled down on what he thinks about Right-leaning and Left-leaning individuals and groups here. But with the Metkayina, he has focused on those who exist in the center. As soon as we meet them, Tonowari and Ronal explicitly state that they are not a part of the ongoing war. Yes, the war that’s been going on for the past year or so is right at their doorstep. They are saying they don’t want to do anything to fight the oppressors or appease them. They want to stay neutral. They talk about how much they respect the Tulkuns. However, they turn a blind eye to their hunting because they know that addressing it will require them to actively confront the Sky People. They do provide a safe haven to the Sullys, but the Metkayinans’ constant remarks about their appearance show their discriminatory tendencies. So, all in all, their “lack of bias” ostracizes the Sullys and allows the expansion of the Sky People.
It’s not until Quaritch, and his goon squad start to burn the homes of the ocean tribes that Tonowari and Ronal realize that Apoliticism or Centrism isn’t even an option in the face of fascism. That’s when they pick up arms and defend their region with their lives. So, through the Metkayinans, I am pretty sure that James Cameron and his team of writers are hitting out at the recent rise in “faux neutral” ideology in order to protect one’s public image. I say “faux” because Centrism and apoliticism usually benefit the oppressors and harm the oppressed, and the ones practicing it know that. I understand that society, in general, is very divided nowadays, and it’s difficult to understand where you should stand in this culture war. But when the facts and figures are so obvious, and there’s a fire raging in your backyard that has been lit by people with a fascist mindset, sitting on the fence doesn’t sound like a good idea. Fascists don’t care if you are apolitical or Centrist. If you aren’t siding with them and partaking in oppression, you are against them. If you are against them, you’ll be oppressed. That’s how easy it is to understand where you should stand while facing off with fascist colonizers. Now, let’s hope that this message reaches its target audience in 2022, just like the first film’s did back in 2009.