Avatar: The Way of Water Uses Common Tropes but With Important Messages
Although I expected more from 13 years of production
Can we ever escape the desire to conquer? I pondered this question on humanity as I watched Avatar: The Way of Water over the weekend. In this latest installment from James Cameron, 13 years in the making, humans are portrayed as the Sky People who are seeking to colonize and plunder the planet, Pandora.
The Na’vi, an indigenous population on Pandora much like the Native Americans were to North America, are simply in the way. As is the Metkayina, an oceanic clan that inhabits reefs in a distant archipelago.
In Avatar: The Way of Water, we learn that Earth is dying and humans need to colonize. While this latest film in the series was more focused on a battle between the main protagonist and antagonist, the pieces are set for a broader conflict for all of Pandora.
Cameron ran with familiar tropes like colonialism, “cowboys and Indians”, and environmental destruction. They were a bit much at times, verging on overt attempts to be almost too politically correct, but I thought the overall theme of conquest raised interesting issues.
Perhaps it’s mainly a Western mentality and problem. To conquer. To plunder. To colonize.
Although there have been many Eastern empires that enslaved large populations and subjugated millions, when you see a white man with a faded crew cut hop out of a military plane, you can’t help but think: American! The man in this movie went through some treatment to morph into one of the Na’vi, blue skin and all. Yet he still kept some of his same western male attributes. Like the crew cut and bombastic personality.
Will humans ever be satisfied in NOT expanding?
Do you think we could ever be content with what we have? Improving our current situation to the best of our ability without having to conquer more territory, colonize other planets, or adapt to an environment we destroyed. Could we tame those seemingly innate desires?
I think this is where cultural differences come into play. These differences are evident in Avatar: The Way of Water too. The indigenous populations respect and live within the land and sea. They adapt to the environment. They use all parts of what they kill. And many animals and sea creatures have spiritual connections with the Na’vi.
The white man by contrast forces the environment to adapt to them. They conquer whatever they can monetize. They take whatever meets their needs. They discard whatever they consider worthless, even if the remainder of a carcass has some utility, for example.
These dynamics sometimes make it seem that this James Cameron film is very much a reenactment of “cowboys and Indians.” Instead of the American frontier, the stage is the fictional planet of Pandora. If you strip away all of the CGI and special effects, that’s the core story we’re left to consume. A tale as old as time. Might makes right.
Given that it is a tale as old as time, I’m skeptical we can ever change. Certainly, there have been human civilizations like the Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, and many others from different parts of the world who demonstrated serious respect for the planet. They adapted to it. Although many of them still waged war and used violence, they by and large acted as good stewards of the Earth.
The same cannot be said for Americans and Europeans. While many of us today want to do the right thing, it’s impossible to fully escape our colonial and environmentally destructive past. It’s a burden that previous generations have left us. It’s a pain that many minorities and indigenous populations still live with to this day.
Would you run or stand and fight?
No spoilers here, but I do have a question. If someone threatened your home. If someone was actively hunting you and your family. Would you run? Or would you protect your turf and fight?
For me, I have to give the lawyerly answer: it depends. If I was a tribe leader and my presence put everyone at unnecessary risk, I think I would run. With my family. Although that could still put everyone at risk if my enemies were under the impression my people knew where I was. They could be tortured.
Unless there was a significant risk to my community, I would stay and fight. Even if it meant complete destruction. There’s something to be said for home-field advantage. Just ask the American revolutionaries in the late 18th century. Not to mention the fact it’s far more honorable to go down fighting than fleeing.
Overall take on Avatar: The Way of Water
Multiple parts of the storyline, as mentioned above, bothered me. I thought Cameron could have been more creative instead of centering his film - which he worked on for 13 years - around western white men and what were effectively Native Americans. Not that the oppression isn’t true and problematic. More that it’s been done before in movies. Many times.
I guess I just expected more in terms of the storyline from a movie that was in the making for over a decade. With that said, the CGI and 3D IMAX experience was well worth the price of admission. Make sure you see it on the big screen with the 3D goggles if you plan to sit through all 3+ hours of this movie. There were times when I thought I was swimming with the characters.
What I appreciated most about this movie, however, is the warning it provides about our environment. Yes, our climate models and some of the data have issues, but it would take a pretty willfully blind person to say that climate change is not an existential threat.
This movie gives a glimpse at what humanity could devolve to. A species in desperate need of a home. A species that has to resort once again to conquest to achieve its goals. Destroying one planet after the next.
If there’s anything we can take away from films like Avatar, I hope it’s that we should be working to better adapt to our environment. We should not be forcing the environment to adapt to us.
Note: if you don’t have a Medium subscription, sign up here!
This Is Not About Banning Gas Stoves
Democrats keep losing the culture wars — Modern Republicans struggle with many things, including ethics, fascism, and objective truths. But one area where they excel is in the culture wars. So when…
Biden Is a Hypocrite Over Classified Documents
And so is the mainstream media — It was only a few months ago that President Biden called former President Trump “irresponsible” for his handling of classified documents. Now he appears to be guilty of…
11 Predictions in Politics, Economics, and Technology for 2023
From Ukraine and inflation, to TikTok and Apple. — The world is a crazy, uncertain place heading into 2023. From geopolitics to domestic…
How America Transported Fascism to Brazil
Fascism from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro — Some 1,500 supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro were recently detained after what can only be described as a failed coup attempt. Any…
For more content from Logan Stone, sign up for his Newsletter, Podcast, TikTok, and YouTube channel.