The Way of Water’s Environmentalism Is Blatant & Necessary

Dec 22, 2022

Editor’s Note: The following contains Avatar: The Way of Water spoilers.

While the first Avatar generated an unprecedented global box office total, earned rave reviews, and was nominated for several Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director for James Cameron), the movie immediately generated backlash as well. Even so, the film was generally praised for its effectiveness in wrestling with the very real issues of environmentalism. It’s an essential theme of the text that the sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water honors, and treats with even more diligence.

While Avatar: The Way of Water certainly wrestles with a lot of the same issues of cultural tolerance, assimilation, and xenophobia, it focuses more heavily on environmentalism and ecological terrorism. This was certainly a storyline within the first film as well, but it’s given much more attention in The Way of Water as we see the full effects of the effects of industrial destruction on Pandora’s ecosystem. It might be challenging for viewers to invest in a 192 minute science fiction epic that invites so many comparisons to the stories of environmental devastation that dominate headlines, and unquestionably there’s a segment of The Way of Water’s viewers that won’t take kindly to the film’s blatant cry for activism.
Of all the Oscar nominations that Avatar received, it noticeably did not receive anything for writing; Cameron is a technical wizard who has reinvented special effects forever, but he’s never earned particular praise for the nuance of his prose. While there are many elements of The Way of Water that are heavy-handed, it’s refreshing to see a film that’s unafraid of its political agenda. The focus on protecting the natural world, the safety of animals, and the dangers of the military-industrial complex are timely themes that are effectively communicated.

RELATED: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Review: James Cameron Crafts a Stunning Sequel for His Epic Franchise

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’s Bold Activism

Image via 20th Century Studios

James Cameron’s history of activism has earned him respect over the years. While it’s easy for many filmmakers and celebrities to show up at charitable galas or sign generous checks to activism causes, Cameron has taken an active role in scientific research, education, and awareness, particularly in the realm of protecting natural resources and dealing with global warming. He’s used his groundbreaking technology for good, and developed IMAX documentaries that show the majesty of the planet’s natural sights – and why they are under threat.

One of the reasons that the first Avatar felt so immersive was the detail and care that Cameron and his visual effects artists put into fleshing out the culture, environment, and societies of Pandora; this wasn’t a world or universe that was taken from a previously existing intellectual property, and it was brought to life in tactile detail. While it’s certainly a wondrous spectacle with many fantastical creatures, there are elements of Pandora that were inspired by our world’s natural wonders. In particular, The Valley of Mo’ara and the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in the Chinese province of Hunan inspired the floating “Hanging Mountains” that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) frequent on their adventures.

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Explores Humanity’s Sins

Image via 20th Century Studios

As with the first film, the conflict in The Way of Water is because humanity is looking to find a new home because Earth is already crumbling due to environmental decline; as General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco) explains to the resurrected Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) at the beginning of the film, humanity has already destroyed their own planet, and they intend to “cleanse” Pandora of its native people so that full-scale colonization can begin. In a sad parallel to the way that the governments of Earth react to these environmental crises, the RDA mining operation hasn’t learned any lessons. By destroying sacred areas such as the Hometree and hunting the natural creatures, they will once again devastate Pandora so that one day it will also need to be abandoned.

Perhaps Quaritch’s complete disregard for the environmental danger of uprooting the Pandoran ecosystem seems a little callous, but his vocabulary isn’t that much different than that of Global Warming deniers today. Quaritch is even willing to waste precious resources out of a pity act of vengeance; this shocks Jake’s adopted human son, Spider (Jack Champion), who is outraged that Quaritch would only take the memory of a whale, and waste the rest of its body. He’s informed by the marine biologist Dr. Ian Garvin (Jemaine Clement) that burning the reefs of the “sea people” could devastate biological growth in the region for generations, but he ignores it in order to draw Sully out into an open battle to get his revenge.

The reason that Sully, Neytiri, and their children Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) are forced to leave their home in the forest in the first place is that their residence could invite the attention of the human invaders, who could destroy the Hometree. The theme of whether it’s justified to sacrifice your livelihood for the sake of environmentalism is fascinating, as are the questions that the film raises about raising a child on a planet that could be dying. Perhaps these concepts aren’t as subtly handled as they are in something like First Reformed, but then again, The Way of Water is also handling massive action set pieces and crowd pleasing moments.

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Is an Intimate Spectacle
If Cameron attracts more criticism for his writing than his directing, then he more than succeeds on a visceral level with The Way of the Water. Few filmmakers have figured out how to use 3D as an asset, but Cameron’s juxtaposition of the immersive technology and IMAX cameras makes the wildlife, lush forests, and great oceans stand out in glimmering, visual detail; it’s almost guaranteed that The Way of Water will replicate its predecessor and take home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. However, the majority of the film is not action-centric; Cameron puts more focus on the Sully family learning, adapting, and caring for their new ocean home. The touching relationships that Kiri and Lo’ak form with sea creatures is a clear allegory for animal rights abuses.

There are lines of dialogue and slightly manipulative plot points, but these rarely detract from the overall power of Avatar: The Way of Water’s message. The lesson that Sully learns at the end of the story is that your home and environment are worth fighting for, and that’s a lesson worth heeding. It’s better that these themes come across bluntly than not be included at all; hopefully, the countless audiences that see The Way of Water will leave the film both enjoying their experience and learning something.

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