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Film Review: Avatar, The Way of Water dives deeper into ecological themes

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

by Alberto Sclaverano for Citiplat

Thirteen years after the release of James Cameron's Avatar, which continues to hold the title of highest-grossing film in history, the long-awaited sequel has finally been released. Avatar: The Way of Water will be remembered among the films with the most prolonged production process, especially considering that the preliminary shooting started in 2017 and continued for several years in different locations. Some of the technology used for the movie, such as underwater motion capture, was explicitly designed for it. The photo-realistic dimension of the special effects is astonishing, to the point that sometimes it is a documentary instead of a fictional product. The 3D is also stunning and gives real depth to the images and the environment. But is this visual experience also a meaningful film?

More than a decade after the end of the first Avatar, the main protagonist, Jake Sully human who transforms from a human to a Na'vi in the previous film, lives in peace with his wife, Neytiri, and their four children. But humans, often referred to in the movie as the "demons from the sky," return and start a new war to control Pandora's natural resources. After leading the Na'vi resistance against the humankind army, Jake leaves his clan to keep his family secure. They seek protection among the reef clan, a different species of Na'vi that inhabit the coastal areas of Pandora, and have a special bond with aquatic sea life.

The plot is complex, and the movie is perhaps too long, but it is perfectly premised upon the opposition between humankind and Na'vi. The most significant difference can be found in their approach to nature. While Na'vi, especially the reef clan, have a close connection with the environment and wildlife, humans appear interested only in exploiting it for profit. The Na'vi represent indigenous communities in Cameron's films. In the sequel, he further highlights the importance of indigenous communities and their way of life. He also denounces the arrogance and cruelty that humans are capable of in the name of power and money. In its best moments, Avatar: The Way of Water feels like a fairy tale with a clear lesson: we must live peacefully with the rest of the ecosystem.

In the movie's saddest and most touching sequence, Cameron shows humans hunting and slaughtering a Tulkun, a sort of giant alien whale-like creature residing in Pandora's oceans. Tulkuns are described as some of the most intelligent living species on the planet due to their enormously developed cerebral structure. They have a special bond with the reef Na'vi and are sentient and capable of creating art and music. But for humankind, they serve simply as a source of a specific substance in their brain, which can slow human aging. So, just like sperm whales were almost exterminated for the sake of oil, Tulkuns are brutally killed to sell a small product of them to old rich people on Earth. Humans have superior technology, and Tulkuns have the instinct to refuse violence, so they do not fight back. This moment, like many others, is set in a sci-fi fantasy context. Still, it is also an allegory for real tragedies, like whale hunting and the loss of biodiversity, which affect our world today. The number of species that risk going extinct due to the destruction of their environment is very high.

Avatar: The Way of Water is undoubtedly a beautiful and must-see visual experience. However, it also carries some profound lessons. Cameron said his projects aim "to remind us how important nature is to us, and put us back into that kind of childlike perspective where we have this sense of wonder and connection to nature." The hope is the millions who watch his movies walk away, recognizing that we cannot take the planet for granted.


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