The original Avatar was more than a movie. It was an event.
It was reportedly pulled from some theaters by the Chinese government for fear it could spark land riots; criticized by the Christian right for its “anti-Americanism”; eagerly used by protesters against extractivism and anti-colonialism; provoked depression among those who left movie theaters to face the impoverished earth of our cityscapes; and I’ve personally heard that it led some viewers to sell their 4x4s, leave the military, and much, much more. This was no ordinary movie.
After 13 years, the first of the Avatar sequels, The Way of Water, has finally hit the big screen. I praised the original film as a powerful and timely piece of popular culture that starkly recounted and questioned the exploitation of nature for profit, convincing viewers of the importance of resistance. The sequel is yet another movie for our time. And what we can and should learn from.
At the heart of the film are huge, beautiful whale-like creatures, relentlessly hunted – for the oily elixir of life they contain – by the Earthlings who have returned to Pandora. The hunting scene in which an adult female is chased to death in this way and then won for the oil is one of the most soul-wrenching scenes I’ve seen in cinema.
While the humans and the Na’vi are at war in the film, we learn that these Pandoran “whales” have taken a vow of non-violence. And that they are wiser and much more emotional than us bipeds. How magical for a blockbuster to think about to show U.S.
In both Avatar movies, processes of “education” are central, specifically for our avatars in the movies to really learn from natives. Could we be in an ecological crisis at a time — deeper than we were then the first Avatar has been released – where can we learn similar things? Perhaps even of the whales and dolphins whose cultures (yes, they do have cultures) are in some ways more impressive than ours? I think of the way they stick together no matter what, forming communities of super-organisms beyond our fantasies of individuality.
Could The Way of Water provide another opportunity to push these types of messages through? Avatar’s release coincided with the Cop Summit in Copenhagen, which was widely recognized as a failure. Thirteen years later, we’ve just had the damp squib of Cop27, agreeing in principle to compensate the global south for loss and damage from the escalating climate beyond emergency, when in fact we’re moving toward more loss and damage as well due to ever higher climate-deadly emissions.
At least the Biodiversity Police who just shut down Cop15 in Montreal have turned their attention to putting nature at the heart of things, but the agreement reached will be a paper tiger unless there is the will to implement it. The Biodiversity Police supposedly protects land and oceans; of these two, it is the latter that are, if anything, much more important, as they dominate our “blue” planet. In particular, the pollution and acidification of our oceans pose a potential existential threat.
At the end of The Way of Water, the main character wakes up with the idea that the ocean has become his home: “This is our home, this is our fortress. This is where we make our stand.” If aliens visited Earth, they would probably call it Ocean, after the habitat that occupies most of its surface. Could the second Avatar movie help us make our point known? In a wise, non-violent way, a way that looks beyond killing.
There’s a beautiful scene earlier in The Way of Water when a young Na’vi die feels the proximity of life permeating the planet says that Eywa – the god of all living things, similar to our idea of Gaia – is “like a word about to be spoken”. I found this extremely evocative: of another world that is still possible and that you can almost hear breathing on a calm day.
When you leave the cinema, you should take with you this sense of the profound value and beauty of life. As you emerge – probably on artificial, wildlife-free streets – you feel some sadness and some sorrow for what has been lost, and then some rising energy and a compassionate but fierce determination. To evoke that other world.
“Avatar Depression” will subside once we get busy restoring planet Ocean to be as beautiful as the pristine parts of Pandora.
As some reviews have already highlighted, there’s a lot that’s weak in the movie, but don’t let that obscure something that’s so strong. The real point is to state our point of view; to try to acquire the wisdom of whales, and the intelligence of the indigenous people and of our own wisdom traditions. The way of the water includes repeated lessons on breathing techniques and meditation, teachings that, as I watched, I found myself breathing along. Is there any other mainstream movie that has attempted something like this?
As our own planet continues to die, listen carefully to the word that is about to be spoken. Maybe you can help pronounce it.