It’s been 13 long years since we last visited the planet of Pandora. During that time back here on Earth, we’ve seen huge tumultuousness: economic crises, the rise of populist politics, a deadly global pandemic, and a growing climate emergency. But on Pandora, very little has changed.
The main hero of the first Avatar film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is still leader of the Na’vi tribe. The tribe still live a symbiotic life with nature and the forests are still awash with neon flora and exotic fauna. Sully now has a family though: four children including an adopted child called Kiri (Sigourney Weaver).
Perhaps in an attempt to keep in tune with the development of cinematic universe franchises (one of the biggest popular culture changes in the last 13 years), director James Cameron has decided to rehash the themes of the first film only bigger, louder, and with a more substantial CGI budget. But in so doing, he has created a sequel that, while visually stunning, has stunted politics.
It isn’t long into the film that the “sky people” (the invading and colonising humans Sully was once among) make their return.
As if the last 13 years hadn’t happened, we are once again fed the plot of an evil imperialistic force fighting against a nature-loving indigenous population. Only this time it’s wetter and with bigger animals.
If the first installment was Pocahontas in Space, Avatar: The Way of the Water is Free Willy in Space.
The Way of the Water’s climate catastrophe
For those who haven’t kept up, Pandora is a far-away planet, rich in natural resources that the greedy human race is looking to mine. In the first film, it was the very valuable (if ridiculously named) unobtainium that they were willing to kill for.
This time, humans are looking for a new home away from a dying Earth.
This threat is explored through the familiar science fiction cinematic narrative of an invading army (who are working for a corporation looking to extract resources) fighting against an insurgent indigenous people.
This is a common cinematic allegory used to depict practices of colonialism that tie military offences tightly with the motivations of profiteering international corporations. Last year’s Dune, a similar science fiction epic, has clear colonial overtures, and since 9/11, many American cinematic adventures have played on how the US waged it’s imperialistic war on terror.
After a prolonged introductory conflict, Sully is forced to flee his forest home and take his family to a distant tribe living on and in the water.
We are invited into a serene, ethereal, and shimmering world full of colour, strange creatures and clear blue vistas. That the film spends so much time creating this beautiful but “natural” landscape is deliberate.
It is emphasising how indigenous populations’ careful stewardship of their habitats is an important corrective to the runaway climate catastrophe that we as a species (or more accurately, as a capitalist society) are creating.
This Blue Planet aesthetic only charms for so long. The hours spent building this water world add little to the characters’ depth. Instead, a cliched rebellious child versus stern father subplot plays out in exactly the manner you would expect. This is particularly irksome as the complexities of being a parent are themes that Cameron has explored brilliantly in the past – motherhood in Aliens and fatherhood in Terminator 2.
Given the clear links to the natural world and its destruction, this portion of the film could have leaned more into the current atmosphere of protest against climate catastrophe. Climate activism is dominated by the collective action of young people, yet The Way of the Water depicts the tribal children as passively submitting to the will of their parents and elders (with grave consequences for those who didn’t).
Where the film falls short
In Cameron’s third act, the rebellious unity of the indigenous tribes, the animal life and indeed the rocky edifices and outcrops come up against the mechanistic and militaristic invading humans. It’s nature versus capitalism, the pervading battle of our contemporary age.
Given that there is already an Avatar 3 in the works, it’s not surprising that this battle is only partly concluded. Perhaps Cameron is saving the collective resistance of the younger Na’vi against invading forces for the third film? If so, it would be a more fitting allegory for current climate activism.
Mainstream popular culture has always been a vehicle to speak truth to power. But in these turbulent times, it is often mirroring back to us the multiple troubles of our world with increasing detail and artistic quality. Avatar: The Way of Water doesn’t seem to go too far down this road. It tells a similar story to the one it told 13 years ago.
As geopolitical climate scholarship tells us so emphatically, climate justice is only possible with a recognition of, and action against, the massive damage wrought by climate catastrophe.
In the 13 years since the first Avatar, these lessons have yet to be learned. Climate catastrophe is upon us more than ever. And yet the world will need to take politically bold and perhaps even dangerous steps in fighting against it.
The inspiration for such bold action won’t necessarily be found in Avatar’s sequel. But what we do find is a reminder of the exquisite natural beauty in the world that we should all be fighting for.
Oli Mould, Reader in Human Geography, Royal Holloway University of London