Avatar: The Way of Water is a blockbuster eco-fiction film that was released in December 2022. It’s a sequel to the first Avatar movie released in 2009, and comes in at over three hours long. Both Avatar movies are based on the threats indigenous people and the natural world face from humanity’s insatiable greed. Please note the following review contains spoilers.
About Avatar: The Way of Water
Set on Pandora, the film picks up the story of Jake Sully, Neytiri and their family. When the ‘sky people’ (humans) return, they set their sights on revenge against the Na’vi. They want to take out Sully for what he did in the first movie, with Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) having a particular score to settle.
As such, the family flees the forest to protect their tribe and travels to a remote archipelago where they hope to be safe. They meet the Metkayina, who are a tribe of the ocean. Their leader is Tonowari (played by Cliff Curtis). His wife, Ronal (played by Kate Winslet) also has a great deal of influence within the tribe. Thus Sully’s family find themselves thrown in at the deep end and must learn a completely new way of life, as they seek to gain respect from the Metkayina. In some ways, this might resonate with people who immigrate and find themselves having to assimilate and adapt in a new country.
Quaritch is no longer human in this movie. Instead he’s taken the form of a Na’vi. This makes him better able to fight against Sully and the real Na’vi. He tracks Sully to the islands, and a battle ensues. An added twist is that Quaritch’s human son, Spider, wasn’t able to leave Pandora with the other humans, as he was too young to go in a space capsule. So he stayed on Pandora and befriended the Sully family, particularly Kiri. As such, there’s a complex dynamic in Spider having split loyalties to his father, and the family he grew up with.
The series is set to continue with further films. Hopefully there won’t be a thirteen year gap until the next one.
Who stars in the movie?
A list of cast members from the Avatar site includes:
- Sam Worthington
- Zoe Saldaña
- Stephen Lang
- Sigourney Weaver
- Kate Winslet
- Cliff Curtis
- Jemaine Clement
- Edie Falco
- CCH Pounder
- Joel David Moore
Box office success
According to an article in Deadline, the movie was the most valuable blockbuster in 2022. The article published in April 2023, states that Avatar: The Way of Water is the third highest grossing film of all time with a revenue of $2.3 billion. It sits behind the first Avatar movie ($2.9 billion), and Avengers: Endgame ($2.79 billion). It also made a profit of $531.7 million. Therefore it can be viewed as a massive success from a financial point of view.
Avatar as an example of eco-fiction
Avatar: The Way of Water has a strong eco-fiction theme. Explaining more, an article in Collider says that humanity is looking for a new planet, as environmental degradation has destroyed earth, hence why humans have travelled to Pandora. But humanity hasn’t learnt any lessons from their time on earth, so they begin a process of trying to colonise Pandora by eradicating the Na’vi, and set their sights on extracting resources regardless of the environmental, social or ethical costs.
The Na’vi have a symbiotic relationship with nature on Pandora. It’s very reminiscent of the relationship that indigenous people have with nature on Earth. However, the Resources Development Administration (RDA) want the resources which happen to be located where the Na’vi live. In the first movie, this was in the rainforest. In the second movie, humanity are hunting the tulkun, which are whale-like creatures that are said to be more intelligent, emotional and spiritual than humans. The hunting of tulkun is similar to the brutal manner that humans have used to hunt whales for centuries.
At the start of the movie, the rainforest Na’vi under Jake Sully are putting up resistance against the RDA and the marines. We see them ambush a train running through the rainforest. But the military have superior weaponry and are relentless. On earth, we see many indigenous people in South America being violently evicted from their land to make way for new mines, cattle farms, logging, and oil exploration. The planets might be different, but the story is the same.
Humanity’s short-sightedness and complete misunderstanding of the interconnectedness of the natural world to which we belong, has brought us to the brink of climate and ecological catastrophe. Meanwhile the Na’vi, much like the indigenous tribes on earth are fully connected to Eywa or the natural world. The Gaia hypothesis and animism both encompass this concept. Animism is described by Jason Hickel in his book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World as, “the idea that all living beings are interconnected, and share in the same spirit or essence.”
Avatar and technology
Humanity’s relentless quest for technological progress can be seen on Pandora, with a range of robots in use. The contrast between the rich natural world of Pandora and the soulless technological world the humans live in, couldn’t be more stark. Thus the movie offers us the chance to reflect and decide for ourselves whether we want to go down such a path, or whether we wish to restore, rewild and regenerate the natural world, so that we can live on our own Pandora. The timing couldn’t be more apt as unregulated AI threatens not just the jobs we have, but the future of humanity according to some experts.
Post-Avatar depression syndrome (PADS)
After watching the first movie, some people reported feeling a sense of sadness. It stemmed from humanity’s behaviour both in the film and on earth. The contrast between the symbiotic Na’vi and the detached humans is glaring. An article in the Guardian talks about how some of these feelings come from dissatisfaction with modern life and how we’re out of step with the natural world. Advice from the article is to get back into nature and take action on environmental issues.
This reminds me to some extent of eco-anxiety and climate anxiety. To understand more about eco-anxiety, a good starting point is Britt Wray’s excellent book, Generation Dread.
Both Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water are two of the best eco-fiction films I’ve seen. Not only that, but they are two out of the three highest grossing films ever made (at the time of writing). Yes that’s largely due to the stunning visual effects, which are incredible. But perhaps as PADS shows, maybe we love these films so much because they resemble what is happening to our own planet. Perhaps a deep natural instinct in us seeks what we see on Pandora. The irony is that Pandora is based on earth’s diverse ecosystems, which can be restored.
We have the opportunity to create a better world, one that is cleaner and greener and filled with an abundance of life. It’s not just an opportunity though, but also a moral necessity. So let’s take the feelings of despair and our deep desire for a better world and get started on building it. This is everyone’s purpose at this moment in time, whether they acknowledge it or not. My hope is that the Avatar films help people realise this, for stories can be far more powerful than the abundance of facts screaming the same message.
My new cli-fi children’s picture book is Nanook and the Melting Arctic. Nanook is a caring polar bear who lives in the Arctic. But when his igloo starts melting, Nanook must find a way to save his friends and his home. He knows that the people who can help are also those who’ve caused the problem and he must find a way to convince leaders to act on the climate crisis. You can purchase Nanook from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.