Lately, while grading late into the wee hours of the morning, I have been putting on Dances with Wolves (1990). If you look at my review of that film, you will see a humorous anecdote about how it is one of the longest movies in the entire world. Hyperbole aside, my goal in putting it on is to race it to the finish. It is not that I am trying to rush my grading. I simply use it as a measuring stick for how much I have to get done in a given night. It is also helpful that there are long shots of, well, nothing. That is a relative term, of course, and potentially offensive to anyone who lives in the Dakotas. If that last bit describes you, then I apologize. Anyway, the reason I bring up this film is because the prequel to today’s film, Avatar: Way of Water, has often drawn comparisons to it. Its director, James Cameron, would tell you that he is not sensitive to such things. I think this review might suggest otherwise, especially if you are familiar with all three films.
Because it has been so long between Avatar (2009) and Avatar: Way of Water, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has to narrate a montage to catch you up on events. The former human marine turned Na’vi, who helped drive off the smaller, bad Earthlings, settled down into his new life on the planet we call Pandora. He started a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and they have three children of their own. They also have a few adoptees. These include the mysteriously birthed Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), daughter of the deceased Dr. Grace Augustine (also Sigourney Weaver), and Miles “Spider” Socorro (Jack Champion). For time’s sake, I will tell you here that he is the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who was villain in the last film. Spider had been left behind when the original colony evacuated and is raised by Jake and Neytiri. Everything is going well until one night Jake and Neytiri notice new stars in the skies. This marks the return of the Resources Development Administration (RDA), the corporation responsible for all the terrible things that previously occurred. This time they have come to set up a much more extensive operation because Earth is dying and we need a new planet to colonize. So, screw the Na’vi, I guess. Well, Jake and his clan will not take this lying down and begin raiding human activity wherever possible. It is during one of these raids that you begin to see some of the dynamics of the Sully family. The main source of angst is Lo’ak (Britain Dalton). He is the second of Jake and Neytiri’s sons, and he has some serious middle child issues. Like most teenagers, he wants to charge headlong into things to prove himself, particularly as against his almost fully grown older brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters). His actions almost get him killed and earn him a serious reprimand from Jake. Soon, they will have a bigger problem on their hands, literally. Arriving on Pandora is Colonel Miles Quaritch. Wait, you may be asking, did he not die in the last film? Yes, he did, but through science fiction magic his memories and personality were saved and uploaded into a what is called a “recombinant.” It is a Na’vi, but with human thoughts and traits. His mission is to hunt down and kill Jake and Neytiri. He, and the rest of his recombinant squad get their chance in their first patrol on Pandora. Lo’ak, along with Spider and the rest of the Sully brats encounter Colonel Quaritch while near where the former human met his demise. Jake and Neytiri are able to save them, but Spider is captured and taken back to the new RDA settlement. Jake realizes, though, that they are out to get his family, so they depart for the distant coastal villages of the Na’vi. They end up with the reef people, led by their chief, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), and his wife Ronal (Kate Winslet). They are initially reluctant to take in the Sully family, but eventually offer them sanctuary. The Sully kids have a hard time fitting in with these slightly physiologically different Na’vi. The Sullys had come from the forest and are adapted to that life, whereas the coastal peoples have bodies more suited for living in and around the water. While they face some bullying, Colonel Quaritch begins dishing out some brutality of his own. It is painfully obvious that getting Jake and Neytiri is personal for him. Using Spider as an interpreter, he figures out that the Sully family is amongst the chain of islands where the sea Na’vi live. What he needs, though, is a way to draw out Jake and Neytiri. The answer comes in the form of Tulkuns. These are the Pandoran version of our whales, though they are considered to be an intelligent species with whom Tonowari’s people have formed a connection. The Tulkuns also happen to be the new reason for why the RDA have returned because a liter of their brain juice stops human aging. Thus, the plan is to start killing them until Jake and the rest come after them. Once more, Jake senses a trap, and once more, Lo’ak springs it. Because he has formed a bond with an outcast Tulkun, when he finds out that Colonel Quaritch is hunting Tulkun’s, Lo’ak and the rest go to save his new friend. Like clockwork, Lo’ak, Kiri, and their little sister Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), are captured. Because Ronal and Tonowari’s daughter Tsireya (Bailey Bass) went too, Jake and Neytiri are joined in their rescue attempt by the rest of the clan. Bang-bang, boom-boom, in the course of the action, Neteyam is killed. There is the inevitable showdown between Colonel Quaritch and Jake, fighting as the giant RDA boat that brought the humans there is sinking. Neytiri and Tuktirey get trapped inside the vessel, as does Jake after his tussle with Colonel Quaritch. Kiri saves Neytiri and Tuktirey, Lo’ak saves Jake, and Spider saves his dad, but returns to the Sullys. The final scene is Jake communing with Eywa (more on this later) through the spirit tree and realizing he must continue the struggle against the human invaders.
This last scene in Avatar: Way of Water would suggest that there is going to be at least one more movie. Wonderful. Look, this movie is over three hours long. As such, maybe Cameron is not trying to get away from the Dances with Wolves model? The length is not the only similarity. There are specific parallels, such as the wasting of the Tulkuns, taking a tiny bit of brain fluid, relatively speaking, and casually discarding the rest of the massive carcass. You can see this in the 1990 movie with white settlers taking only the hides of buffaloes and leaving the rest to rot in the sun. Generally speaking, there are the long stretches where, in both, sequences are shown simply to give you the experience of being in that environment rather than advancing the plot. This can be cool, if you are into the film. I found myself more annoyed. The Pandora landscape is, admittedly, pretty to look at on the screen. I like nice scenery as much as the next person. What takes me out of it is how the humans are portrayed. In Avatar, there is a sense that this is a limited operation, and that there are good people amongst our own kind that genuinely care about the indigenous people on Pandora. With Avatar: Way of Water, it appears that humanity has abandoned any pretense of civility and are totally fine with genocide. This does not make any sense to me. I have a hard time believing that, despite this being fiction, we can be this barbaric. Call me naïve, and this is coming from a historian with a full catalog of atrocities I could discuss off the top of my head, but I just cannot see this happening.
There are some other things you see happen in Avatar: Way of Water that stretch believability, but they are more science fiction-y. These pertain to the spiritual side of things, which would also speak to the Catholic perspective. I supposed the reason I say they are more “science fiction-y” is because that is the genre in which this film fits best. It is tacked on because, you know, the Na’vi are indigenous people. What do we know about native peoples? That they are spiritual. Hence, Cameron is playing to our stereotypes because he is trying to make a buck. Anything more complicated would probably turn off audiences. Still, I will use my Catholic approach to revive this film somewhat. Now, I continue to not understand what is intended with Kiri. Her birth appears to be miraculous, but I would stop well short of comparing her to Jesus, no matter her connection to Eywa. Eywa, for all intents and purposes, is the Na’vi god, though the best way of describing it is that it is Pandora itself. In short, a planet with an intelligence. Again, since this all made up crap anyway, Cameron can dream up any scenario he wishes for how this works. As a practicing Catholic, though, there are some aspects of this I can appreciate. The language is somewhat similar to how we are taught to experience God. I especially like how they talk about how they live in Eywa, and Eywa lives in them. This is akin to how God takes up residence in our souls, and can guide us on a daily basis if we let Him. My favorite part, though, are the prayer beads with which Neytiri tells the story of her people. A Rosary is not solely a method for counting off Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Each decade has a mystery attached to it, and there are four sets of them that rotate throughout the week. Each one is a glimpse into a different part of the Salvation Story. These are but small moments that offer this Catholic reviewer a brief respite from the slow drudgery that is this movie.
Like watching Dances with Wolves, I came to appreciate Avatar a little more over the years. They are, as I have said, similar movies. I know I said that Avatar: Way of Water follows a similar pattern, but it would be more like if they had made Dances with Wolves 2. Since Kevin Costner does not have James Cameron money, that sequel has not happened. Let us be thankful for that, at least, no matter my more recent favorable opinion of it. With Avatar: Way of Water, it felt like a billionaire indulging his every fantasy. While it is not too objectionable, outside of a few swear words here and there, sometimes a little more restraint is warranted. In this case, there should have been a lot more restraint.