Basically: For sf-fantasy readers, anime fans, and gamers, for those who dream of adventures on new worlds and stepping into the mantle of hero: This one is for us.
While my fellow Geek Girl Riot host, Julian Lytle, was hyped about the newest Avatar film, my enthusiasm was curbed. As an artist, I appreciated the awe-inducing craft of the first film, and the many Black and Indigenous actors voicing the Na’vi. I also connected with the inspirations from classic sci-fi and fantasy, like Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCafferty, Dune by Frank Herbert, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Midworld by Alan Dean Foster, and a bunch of cyber-punk sprinkles. Still, I wasn’t up for yet another Whyte Chosen One™ delivered in an expired Cowboys n’ Indians® package. Further souring the experience, the movie ended with the ultimate insult to graphic designers: 65 feet of papyrus font. Whyyyy? Were there no typographers amongst those magnificent artists? Were the filmmakers mad at me?
That was 2009 and I kept that same energy. Until last week on a soggy Tuesday in Midtown, when I was invited to see Avatar: The Way of Water on a Dolby Cinema screen in 3D. Yes, I know that’s a lot of detail but I’m immersing you in the moment here. We hopped off an Amtrak and rushed straight to the theater—missing the opening 10 mins but in a 3-hour and 12-minute movie, 10 out of 192 is a win.
From that moment, Avatar: The Way of Water enthralled me on the level of a sexy vampire.
Is it still white savior-y? Yup. Did I get past that like a “They’re a 10 but” meme? You already know.
We return to Pandora years after the Na’vi pushed the eject button on their demon invaders (us, the demons are us), with the help of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and the chief’s daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Now those mutha-fuckas are back. What? “Call colonizers f#ckers, punch Nazis”—those are the guidelines for better living (stop being sensitive). Anyway, the colonizers have returned with more Na’vi avatars and a bunch of new mecha. Why? Because of metaphors for cultural appropriation and “anime is great.” Also because the earth is dying and they haven’t learned to maybe stop killing everything. Sully and Neytiri are now revolutionaries who lead strategic strikes to debilitate the colonizers. It’s going well until it isn’t, and the two are forced to flee with their three teenagers and one young daughter.
They seek refuge with the Water Tribes (South Pacific Islanders) and the leaders (Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet) are persuaded to let them stay. (Sidebar: I know. I was confused by that last casting choice too but Winslet remains strong at her job.) Back to the story, this is where we begin to see cultural clashes, as the Water folks have different physiologies based on their environment. The Tree people just don’t look right to them. Family dynamics come into focus as well, we have the reliable Number One Son (Jamie Flatters), the brash and rebellious Second Son and second lead (Britain Dalton), and the Spiritualist Adopted Daughter (Sigourney Weaver). Yes, you read that last name correctly, the movie will explain. We also get cuteness relief with the Baby Girl (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).
Then there’s the villain, but there isn’t only one. We see the return of an old opponent (spoilers) and a new general (Edie Falco), alongside a Captain Ahab type (Brendan Cowell) and Jemaine Clement being great as a reluctant antagonist because being great is what he does.
The inciting incident is the fault of the colonizers. They are possessed with a need to stomp out Jake Sully for his “traitorous ways,” so they decide to hunt him down to destroy him and his entire family. No matter what it takes. But if you know anything about James Cameron movies, you know it is going to take a lot—which is where the fun is.
Avatar: The Way of Water is unfaltering in its high-octane action but it is infused with a steady emotional pulse. That is what keeps it centered; every character arc and plotline pays off. You’ll anticipate some of the beats but others will suplex you. Thematically, it is a melange of sci-fi fantasy adventure, family drama, and indictments of colonialism and environmental crimes—these ingredients come together to form a story that is deliciously satisfying.
Writer’s Note 12/20/2022: Now the film is out, I can speak on another Whyte Chosen One™ issue that presents a long standing problem with this franchise. The character Kiri (voiced by Weaver) is pointedly white-presenting from you the moment you see her. At first, you think it may be her connection to Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine. However, as the story develops you realize Kiri has a Metatronic (read: voice of god) connection to Eywa (Pandora). That’s the problem. Much like Winslet’s casting as a South Pacific leader, the Na’vi character who appears most white is somehow the chosen one of the entire planet. Really? Why? Seems like the capes these heroes continue to don are really just red flags.
Yet, when I tell you the emotional punches land it’s because you will feel them—they are earned. Yes through the coming-of-age plots, the loss, the vengeance, and the tangible human missteps, but especially in the references to the real-life atrocities committed throughout our timeline. Avatar: The Way of Water grabs you like one big historical re-enactment of the horrendous chokehold Indigenous people, from every continent, have continuously tried to break.
I’m going to call it well done.
(And no papyrus this time—even better.)
In the End: Refer to the ‘basically’ (at the top) and see it on the largest screen possible in 3D.