Nobody is as committed to the merciless slaughter of authority figures as James Cameron – but there is more being eviscerated than marines in his latest box office juggernaut. Avatar: The Way of Water speaks to a longing for being part of something larger than ourselves – and the need to wage war on the ideological assumptions that prevent this.
In the months leading up to the release of Avatar: The Way of Water, there were numerous things which fan-war content producers primed their readership to be irritated by. The first of these was its three-hour length – such a bloated run-time had no place in the shrinking attention spans of audiences in the social media era… even though it is basically the same length as content like Avengers: End Game, which the same commentators could not get enough of.
This line of thought mysteriously quietened down, when it turned out plenty of people were more than happy to sit through another three-hours of James Cameron’s sci-fi. As the film inevitably passed the $2 billion mark at the box office, lines of attack shifted to other ways to discredit its financial performance. One of these was a tellingly dog-whistle series of arguments, pointing out that a larger chunk of box office revenues for both Avatar films came from international audiences. That, some argued, was somehow less legitimate than films like Top Gun: Maverick, which took almost half its income from the US – but did less than half the international trade of The Way of Water.
How strange that these films – one, whose payoff revolves around indigenous rebels shooting pool-cue-sized projectiles into the chests of inescapably American jarheads, and another, which insists that US military pilots spent the last decade doing something more than carpet-bombing Afghan wedding parties – were received so differently. It’s almost like one of those films adheres to a way of seeing US foreign policy in a way the rest of the world has trouble suspending its disbelief in. That’s not to say Cameron is only taking aim at the US establishment, of course. It is just that its iconography remains the most obviously identifiable short-hand for the hegemonic culture of late capitalism, so if you’re going to do this sort of allegory, it’s going to be the likes of Colonel Miles Quaritch you’re up against.
I will note, at this point, this is not going to be a blow-by-blow explanation of The Way of Water, or an exhaustive evaluation of its politics. If you want that, it’s worth listening to Chapo Trap House’s review. At the same time, I am not interested in talking about the technological achievements it features, grand as they may be – or giving it a technical appraisal (the editing is jumpy, suggesting it would have been a five-hour film until some late chopping – but honestly, I would have watched the five-hour cut just as happily). There are other reviews which will do a better job of detailing that too – though I suggest you see the film in cinemas yourself before seeking any of them out.
What I am interested in instead, is exploring why people are so invested in finding a way to prove James Cameron is a hack, and what he does so well in his films to warrant that treatment. He does not command the unwavering establishment respect that the creators of cinema’s other most successful cash-cows command – which is odd considering how integral the income from his films has become to propping up the post-lockdown movie industry as a whole. But once you take into account the most enduring themes of his oeuvre, that may be a little less surprising.
Nobody has so successfully re-cast authority figures as villains. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the T-1000 masquerades as a member of the LAPD, gaining all the trust and access ideologically afforded to that uniform, and using it to try and murder a child. In Aliens, Carter J. Burke fronts as the archetypical compassionate capitalist, all plaid shirts and friendly faces, until his mask slips and it becomes clear he is willing to sacrifice many other people’s lives in the pursuit of quick monetary gain. In the Avatar films, meanwhile, the identifiable military characters Hollywood usually uses as short-hand for ‘good guys’ are deployed as a banal, amorphous force of the apocalypse.
The thing is, Cameron makes no attempt to change those characters – only what we think of their success. They are the same endlessly quipping vessels for hegemonic culture they always were, with all the ‘relatable’ qualities that have made them such marvellous propaganda figures. They drink endless amounts of coffee to grind their way through jobs they don’t really enjoy. They care about their families. They banter about recognisable topics. Usually, this serves as short-hand for “you, too, are a hero, by keeping your head down and doing your part for your loved-ones in this imperfect system.” Here, however, the unspeakable cruelty these people are willing to inflict on this basis serves not only to make us hate them, but translates as “you, too, are an abject failure as a sentient being if you refuse to challenge a system which depends on this kind of behaviour.”
Backlash against a filmmaker deploying such devices is predictable. Not because there is a global conspiracy against Cameron – there doesn’t need to be one. Rather, in a world where civic life has been utterly undermined and defanged, most people are now primed to see their media consumption as the only way they can engage in collective endeavours for change. The norms Cameron is skewering are part of culture which they have previously thought vicariously made them right or good parts of society. So, some of them will reflexively look to defend those archetypes – and the way they see themselves as righteous individuals through them – by doing whatever they can to belittle Cameron’s stories.
The marines of Avatar are the unapologetic foot soldiers of a cancerous way of life, which has already destroyed one world, and learned nothing from it. But they are also representatives of us – keeping our heads down in the hopes that we and our loved-ones may just get by today, while the economic and social system we serve strangles the world around us, providing a tomorrow we will not be able to live in anyway.
Cameron’s long format may have raised eye-brows among the tedious creators of fan-war memes, but it makes the pay-off for this theme utterly transcendental. After hours of being shown the wonders of Pandora, and how the cruelty of figures representing us and our way of life is bent on burning them to the ground, every arm-length arrow piercing the cockpit of a marine pilot becomes ecstatic. Every time a colonising troop gets their skull turned to mulch with blunt force, it is undeniably satisfying. And when one particularly cruel man – a stand-in for real capitalists who trade on the wasteful slaughter of nature’s greatest wonders – gets his hard-earned comeuppance, the theatre will erupt into cheers and applause.
At the same time, Avatar’s protagonist Jake Sully shows it is possible to come from our world, but to change. By shedding the ideological trappings of the marines – even though that comes with massive sacrifices of personal comfort – you can find fulfilment as part of a collective force, fighting to create a future for your loved ones which is worth surviving to see.
More importantly, though, this is not passive viewing. This is not the end of Avengers: Endgame where the call to action will simply be to consume other stories (though of course there will be others due to the previously mentioned monetary success). The most important takeaway from both Avatar films, as Sully breaks the fourth wall, staring directly at the audience, is that this is not where your participation in this story should end.
We are left recognising an aching for something bigger than ourselves, which mainstream political life so vehemently denies us. While liberal discourse insists we are only individuals, and thereby powerless to enact any meaningful change, that yearning to reach out and help each other is an innate part of us. It can only be sated if we are willing to ditch the idea we’ll be fine as long as we don’t rock the boat. We can still have an interconnected, peaceful, healthy Pandora of our own – but first the ‘marine’ inside us needs to die.