It’s been more than six months since Avatar: The Way of Water, the second part of a five-chapter saga born from the peerless mind of James Cameron, was released.
By now, everyone says their thing and moves on to the next blockbuster, so we can relax and finally talk about it in peace.
I believe many in Cameron’s audience and colleagues thought he was crazy when, after the astronomical success of Titanic in 1997, he locked away in his California fortress of solitude to create something completely different that no one had ever seen or conceived before.
It was right in the Lightstorm Entertainment headquarters, the production company with which the director has shaped his cinematic magic since the distant days of Aliens, where old James and his crew stayed at work for twelve years before arriving in theaters with the first chapter of Avatar.
Indeed, this madman not only wanted to make a new movie, he had it in his mind to turn the silver screen upside down with special effects and a unique 3D system so innovative that no one else could match it in the next thirty years.
A titanic undertaking (can we call it anything else?) at the cost of nearly half a billion dollars, which, however, returned with interest to James Cameron and associates’ pockets since these two Avatar episodes grossed about three billion worldwide so far, and we are not even halfway through this mind-blowing sci-fi epic.
Table of contents
Denying the undeniable
Nevertheless, despite the incomparable success of the Avatar saga, even surpassing Titanic’s historic box office, there was no shortage of critics attempting to sink James Cameron’s groundbreaking sci-fi masterpiece.
Unable to touch the visual wonder created by the director and his usual phenomenal style of staging adventure and romance with action sequences dripping with adrenaline from every pore, the haters pointed their sniper rifles at other aspects.
First of all, many complained about the predictable and unoriginal plot: comparing the various steps of this story to a not-so-inspired recycling of other big hits such as Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas.
Surrounding this supposed flaw were the numerous racial and cultural stereotypes portraying the invading white soldiers as villains against the indigenous cultures represented as primitive but also more honest in their values of family and connection to nature.
Even the environmentalist message (unbelievable but true) was demonized for being too didactic and simplistic in depicting complex problems such as climate change and unrestrained exploitation of natural resources.
Obviously, behind this destruction of nature was the unrestrained greed of modern society, the ultimate expression of a ruthless multinational corporation with no face except the funny and cynical manager Giovanni Ribisi, whom, unfortunately, in the second movie, we only see again for a handful of seconds.
Assuming, of course, Cameron exploits every drop of these cliches, since it would be impossible to convince haters otherwise: there is something wrong with caring about nature? Is it possible that there is anyone who gets convulsions every time some directors stage love stories between races (literally) so different and millions of light-years apart?
I must really be missing something in the evolution of global culture at this point.
Building a Planet from scratch
We open our eyes with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), unfrozen after a long cryogenic sleep for the space journey that brought him to the incredible planet of Pandora.
James Cameron wastes no time in small talk and takes us right into the middle of the action, so not even in ten minutes, we are already walking with the blue feet of Sully’s avatar, a lab-built, half-alien, half-human creature the protagonist remotely commands inside a capsule.
Frightened and intimidated by so much beauty and aggressiveness, we gaze wide-eyed at the animals carefully crafted in every detail, from their toenails to the last hair in their nostrils, stunned as new castaways on the Neverland island amid the great variety of colorful and equally dangerous plants.
However, instead of being little Peter Pan, we are gung-ho marines heavily armored, aiming to bend those damn natives who don’t want to know how to get off their tree/home right where we would like to drill every ounce of the most precious substance in the galaxy, Unobtainium.
Responding to previous criticisms, just in the above alone, we find far more ideas (and talent to put them forth) than any episode of the Avengers, Transformers, or Fast & Furious could have, to mention random box-office champion sagas of the last 20 years.
Pandora is an orgasm for the eyes of any cinema enthusiast, animal activist or fervent botanist, or even simply an art lover, as there is not a frame of these two movies that you literally couldn’t print out and hang over your chimney as a fine art painting; or maybe even use as a spectacular screensaver, more trivially.
All of this triumphs over any criticism, whether you accept it or not, even before the actual movie begins.
Naturalism and high technology
Besides being a master Blockbuster maker, James Cameron is consistently a director who, with almost every movie, pushed the boundaries of cinematic technology a little further; and in this sense, the Avatar saga is no exception.
Once again, the words “special effects” acquires another meaning, as it had been, for example, with morphing to create the creepy mutations of the T-1000 played by Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, a technology already pioneered in the marvelous The Abyss, a few years earlier, not to mention the even crazier Titanic achievement.
Indeed, in that case, Cameron built an almost full-size (scale 9 to 10) replica of the infamous ocean liner, then mounted it on a vast hydraulic system to angle the set and simulate the ship’s swaying and (inevitably) sinking.
Pandora provides this brilliant dream maker with an entirely new canvas to scratch his brushstrokes, once again revolutionizing everything we thought to know about cinema.
In a period when 3D was virtually dead, James Cameron’s team decided to go all in with Avatar by developing from scratch a new camera called 3D Fusion.
This camera used two separate lenses and digital streams to simulate three-dimensional human vision, increasing depth and cinematic immersion like never before, even with new volume rendering, making the 3D elements’ representation on the scene more realistic.
Equally significant was improving the old Motion Capture with the so-called Performance Capture, catching not only physical movements but also every actor’s facial expressions and eyes, finally making them actually pull their emotional acting in the final digital montage.
Seriously: what other blockbuster director on the face of the earth would stay over 10 years without working only for this?
We are Na’vi
Beyond the wildlife in Pandora’s beautiful ecosystem, there are also the humanoid aliens populating this planet: the Na’vi, ten-foot giants with blue skin with bioluminescent streaks, large golden eyes, and long, tapering tails.
Because they are also powerful and agile, they are more than suited to the lush and dangerous jungle full of predators, where they move quickly, leaping through the trees or riding their faithful Direhorse.
Through these tails, they can connect physically with the animals and plants around them, even riding the fearsome Mountain Banshee, creatures similar to small dragons with which the Na’vi fly through the skies of Pandora.
In creating Avatar society, James Cameron draws inspiration from several traditional cultures on our planet, especially indigenous ones, including the team Paul Frommer, emeritus professor of clinical linguistics at the University of Southern California.
The Na’vi story thus takes shape from countless tribes of our past, the most obvious of which are the Native Americans and their deep respect for the land and animals, life in harmony with nature, the importance of rites of passage, and of course, their sad slaughter during the European colonization of American soil.
However, we can also find some aspects of African cultures, especially the importance of community and family ties, hunting techniques, ceremonial masks, or even the distant Maori peoples‘ use of tattoos and body painting.
Finally, their type of jungle life and connection to Pandora’s ecosystem is reminiscent of the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, as later in The Way of Water will be inspired instead by the smaller villages of Indonesia living off what the ocean provides them.
Do we really want to keep pretending this story is trivial, insignificant or just a copy of many other movies from the past?
After this long but dutiful introduction, let’s also talk about the movies for a moment, shall we?
As mentioned, it all begins when young Jake Sully, a former Marine paralyzed in a wheelchair, lands on Pandora, ready to don a brand new Avatar to infiltrate the ranks of the Na’vi enemies.
This alien body was not meant for him, but for his twin brother Tommy, who unfortunately died years earlier during an accident: however, being genetically compatible, the mission to conquer the planet ends up in his hands.
Left alone during one of the patrols, he is rescued by the young and brave Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), none other than the daughter of the Omaticaya chief, the same tribe the Marines would like to evict to install their mines.
Exploiting this opportunity, Sully becomes friends with this clan, beginning to learn their language and customs, such as hunting or using their tails to fasten to animals, and later also with the Tree of Souls, the most sacred gathering place for the Na’vi on Pandora.
It is in that magical tangle of glowing leaves where the former soldier finds a connection with Eywa, the tutelary deity of life on the entire planet, as well as consecrating love with the young Neytiri, initially distrusting but later conquered by the courage and tenacity to never give up of the indomitable human.
Unfortunately, although he has forgotten his mission, his fellow Marines remember it very well, especially the ruthless Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who trusted him so much.
Fortunately, Sully will not be alone in the fight; along with him are some pilots and scientists on the base, such as the hot-tempered Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who is closer to the Na’vi than the soldiers, eager to put the whole jungle on fire.
Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
The story continues long after the Na’vi have banished the human invaders from their land, with Jake and Neytiri together now for fifteen years and having as many as three children together.
After the courage and cunning shown in the uprising, Jake is the Omaticaya leader and one of the most respected Na’vi on the planet.
But even though they have lost a tremendous battle, the humans have not given up the war. Instead, they are regrouping behind better and better-defended walls by building bigger and bigger cities.
Their aim is no longer just the rich deposits of unobtainium but to prepare the way for a mass relocation of all humanity from the distant Earth squeezed and polluted beyond all possible logic.
As the vanguard of the conquest, a platoon of marines cloned inside Na’vi bodies arrives on Pandora, no longer remotely commanded Avatars but real hybrid creatures whose head is the revived and more pissed off than ever, Colonel Miles Quaritch.
On his first mission into the jungle, the colonel almost captures Jake’s children, who, at that point, convince his hesitant partner to move to quieter shores and seek shelter with the Metkayina, the clan that dominates the planet’s eastern coast.
Abandoning their tree-house, the merry Sully family must learn from scratch how to survive in their new ocean habitat, following what the clan calls precisely The Way of Water.
Meanwhile, Quaritch has captured a human boy living with the Na’vi, forcing him to serve as a guide and interpreter along the coast, ravaging one village after another to flush out his hated enemy.
Once again, the man’s steel and bullets will cross battle with the spears and arrows of the Na’vi, another step toward a global war that now seems inevitable.
The Future of Pandora
James Cameron‘s plans regarding the sequel to this saga seem well defined, with the following three chapters expected to arrive at much closer intervals in 2025, 2029 and then conclude in 2031.
After so much work, anticipation, and effort, the American director’s lips are obviously more sealed than ever, trying not to let any indiscretions slip out.
However, as always, a few rumors have leaked anyway, and we know that Cameron has split the bulk of the writing work among screenwriters Josh Friedman, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Shane Salerno.
Together with him, each of them should have edited one story from these five movies, where the characters we know will return to tie up the many loose ends in this interplanetary feud.
We can certainly expect further evolution in Avatar 3 of Jake Sully‘s alien/human family, especially young Kiri, who has given way back to the superb Sigourney Weaver.
Transformed into a charming digital teenager, she still seems to have much to reveal about her more than a close relationship with Eywa, the invisible god behind every plant and animal in Pandora.
The rumors about Avatar 4 are equally curious since it is supposed to be a prequel temporally unconnected to the other movies and wholly set in space.
As for the far-flung Avatar 5, on the other hand, we know nothing except the supposed title of Avatar: The Quest for Eywa, as well as the disturbing premise that there will also be infighting on Pandora, where we will discover that, after all, not even all Na’vi are so good and peaceful.
What else to say? We still have plenty of time to parse these first two incredible movies to exhaustion; in the meantime, who knows if we’ve missed any details of paramount importance?