Fact: at the time of writing this, I have seen “Avatar: The Way of Water” in theaters four times, in 2D and 3D, alone and with company (welcome and unwelcome). Another fact: “Avatar: The Way of Water” is three hours and 12 minutes long. So, I have spent 12 hours and 48 minutes of my life watching this movie and forming opinions (and tears and a couple of chuckles) about it. While writing this piece, I am watching YouTube channel Ambient World’s “Avatar | Forests of Pandora Music & Ambience in 4k” video in the background to really get into the zone; I have a lot to say about this movie!
I would like to get it out of the way and say that I personally loved the movie despite some shortcomings that I believed it had. I do not think something not being perfect makes it bad. This project had a $250 million USD budget and took 13 years to develop from announcement to release. Surprisingly, the three hour and 12 minute run time did not feel like an endless Marvel movie, where most of the screen time is taken up by repetitive action scenes and loud noises. It was the kind of movie where you’re afraid to leave to go pee just in case you miss the dialogue and any world or character building that may or may not happen between these scenes. Or worse, you go pee just whenever because you do not care what you miss and what you see because you know whatever it is, you’ll be disappointed.
As much as I was expecting that mental battle on my first watch, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I did not want to miss a single moment of what was going on. Famed director of both “Avatar” movies as well as “Aliens” (a personal favorite) and “Titanic,” James Cameron, was quoted in a tweet from Culture Crave as saying that people can take a bathroom break “at any time they want” during the film because “they can see the scene they missed when they come see it again.” Some critics say that Cameron was a bit full of himself for that one, but it worked on me, and I know that I am not the only one. With each watch, I noticed more details and motifs embedded in the multicultural world of Pandora.
“The Way of Water” shows the protagonist Jake Sully’s family acclimating to live with the Metkayina (reef Na’vi) coming from their home in the Omaticaya (forest Na’vi) tribe. The Na’vi are the indigenous people of Pandora, and there are several races, clans and tribes throughout the planet. They are characterized by their large size relative to humans, blue skin, and distinct markings on their bodies. The Metkayina have a different skin tone and markings that mimic rippling water, and their physique is suited for swimming, with features like thickened arms and tails; I even caught a few nictitating membranes if I’m not mistaken (look it up). The cultural differences are great between the family and the new tribe, and they must learn to ride new creatures that they’re not used to, as well as learn the sign language that the Metkayina use to communicate while they are underwater. The Na’vi have had their own fully original spoken language created by linguist Paul Frommer since the first movie, which by itself is endlessly cool to me. This Na’vi sign language is also original and does not contain overlap with existing sign languages of the human world, as the creator of the language, CJ Jones, explained in several videos on the official Avatar franchise YouTube channel.
Back to the multicultural world of Pandora, outside of the fictional Na’vi cultures in the film, there has been a lot of internet buzz and debate around how real-world cultures are represented in the franchise. The accents and clothing of the first film are heavily inspired by several African cultures, and the spirituality via animism and deep connection to nature is very similar to many indigenous cultures. I myself grew up in the First Nations church and saw my own culture echoed in both films.
The Metkayina people that are introduced in “The Way of Water” are very much inspired by the Maōri people of mainland New Zealand (Aotearoa). This is most noticeable in their use of what appears to be a haka—a Maōri facial expression usually always accompanied by a dance—as well as facial markings that resemble tā moko, Maōri facial tattoos that can represent earned respect and reverence. James Cameron has spoken at length about his relationship with many Maōri groups and has stated that he received their blessing and invitation to use parts of the culture respectfully in his films, but the Maōri are not a monolith. There are some perspectives stating that “Avatar” is a cultural appropriation piece because Cameron is a white man.
I have also had conversations in my own communities around the use of what appear to be many indigenous First Nations motifs throughout both films, and have observed a spectrum of responses. For me, it is always comforting to see my culture represented in a way that is positive, complex, and multidimensional. I was discussing the new film with one of Franklin’s own social studies teachers, Greg Garcia (who happens to be a science fiction fan), whose remark on the topic of shared cultures really stuck with me. Garcia said “As both a Pacific Islander and a Historian, my personal philosophy is that these kinds of references–when done responsibly and in good faith–keeps the culture alive and should be encouraged.” Long story short, I thought that the references were tasteful and beautiful, but I can understand the perspective of those who think that their cultural likeness shouldn’t be used in popular media, especially if that culture has experienced some form of erasure or abuse in its history, as have both Maōri and First Nations societies.
There has been some controversy surrounding a press tour date that Cameron and some of the stars attended in Tokyo, Japan which included a captive dolphin show. As a main theme of the film is the Na’vi’s respect for nature and specifically aquatic creatures, the performance put a sour taste in some viewers’ mouths. It is unclear whether Cameron had any part in the planning of the event, but it was a disappointing display of animal exploitation that should not have been a part of the conference either way.
The original 2009 “Avatar” that “The Way of Water” built on was visually very impressive for the time. Both films utilize relatively new motion capture (“mocap” for short. How cute, right?) technology on the actors and actresses so that after filming, they can be transformed by the effects team into the tall, blue Na’vi people of Pandora on screen. If you have not seen the new movie but you care to in the future, I would not recommend looking up what mocap looks like during filming, as it is quite absurd and might ruin the extra-sharp and stunning visual effects of the new film for you. It is of course undetectable on screen, as essentially every element you will see is computer generated. I believe that a lot of movie goers came to see the film simply for the effects, as there were literally technologies invented to use in its creation. I will not attempt to explain these technologies; it will only confuse us both.
Now, I have been fighting with myself during the writing of this piece so I do not spoil the plot for anyone that cares but I do have to say that I was moved to tears multiple times while I was watching this movie (even the fourth time). Disclaimer: I cry at just about anything, classical music or clearly used and well-loved items in a free pile, so you may or may not experience the same effect. There are so many scenes in this film where a family is just trying to figure it out, whether it is a tricky sibling dynamic or the planned total destruction of a village. I’m a real sucker for those moments and at one point I definitely did sit in an almost full theater row, holding hands with my best friend, both of us crying so much that the 3D glasses were slipping down our noses. Just a warning for my sensitive brethren out there.
In the end, I did love this movie! I felt that there were some unexplored plot points and definitely a couple characters I could have done without, but I loved it anyways. The aforementioned crying friend and I sat next to a group of six or seven awful twentysomethings that yelled over the whole thing and catcalled all the female characters whenever they would come on screen while they drank White Claws (not sponsored) that they had snuck into the theater. Even then, I could not help but enjoy it. I would recommend this movie to anyone who is a fan of the original film, science fiction stories, or just hot giant aliens. You don’t have to just take my word for it, but I had a blast, and I would go see it again for a fifth time.