In a case of reverse-assimilation, it isn’t the indigenous that adapt in Avatar: The Way of the Water; it is those from the first world. This resonates today at this particular juncture in history. With his dreadlocks and borrowed blue body, literally the being of Jake Sully is an attempt to be a part of another culture to which he does not belong. But then again, he’s made this new life work for him.
Sully (Sam Worthington) has betrayed the Resources Development Administration (RDA), and really planet Earth, so now they want revenge on him. Whatever the exact motive, the movie consists of the RDA Avatars chasing after Sully in extended fight scenes and action sequences. I’m not sure you’re supposed to ponder their exact grievance; and anyway, you will not have much time to think about literary matters such as character motivation as you process the 3-D sensory stimulation.
A fandom page for James Cameron helps explain what exactly the RDA is:
“The Resources Development Administration, or RDA, is the largest single non-governmental organization in human space. Its power is such that it outmatches most of Earth governments in wealth, political influence, and military capability. The RDA has monopoly rights to all products shipped, derived, or developed from Pandora and any other off-Earth location. These rights were granted to the RDA in perpetuity by the Interplanetary Commerce Administration (ICA), with the stipulation that they abide by a treaty that prohibits weapons of mass destruction and limits military power in space.”
Given the parallel between the RDA’s exploitation of Pandora and Westerners’ exploitation of the Americas, the RDA is a stand-in for the US Military, especially since Colonel Quaritch, as an ex-marine, has a macho, militaristic bearing. But technically the RDA is not the military.
The Na’vi speak English (suspend disbelief) with a hint of a Rastafarian accent, yet also emit yelps like American Indians when they get excited. Every facet of their culture, from the bows and arrows to the dreadlocks, are meant to evoke “non-Western.” The stand in for all that is Western (and therefore bad) is Colonel Quaritch. Played by Stephen Lang, Quaritch is back to reprise his role as toxic White male, yet this time he has been brought back to life as an Avatar.
That Quaritch is now a big blue person detracts from the colonialism metaphor which the first Avatar exploited so successfully. It confuses the distinction between human and Na’vi. At least in the first film we could easily demarcate the lines between good and evil, pure and exploitative: Westerner/ Earthling = bad; blue person/ indigenous = good.
At any rate, Quaritch has been brought back to Pandora, leading a team of deceased soldiers who have been reincarnated as Avatars, in order to colonize Pandora for human use. We have pretty much destroyed Earth by this time. Humans, then, are a type of parasitic race that simply won’t leave these beautiful and spiritual blue people alone. I’m actually okay with that level of misanthropy.
Another bad guy and toxic White male is Mick Scoresby (Brenden Cowell). Scoresby is on Pandora to extract a liquid which provides an antidote to aging. His mission represents exploitive capitalism. He frequently cheers on his crew, “Let’s make some money.” He isn’t as bad as Quaritch, who seems to enjoy harming the Na’vi. Scoresby is only motivated by profit. He doesn’t particularly want to provoke the Na’vi or other tribes on Pandora if he doesn’t have to. In fact, such conflict is bad for business.
There is something self-righteous and off-putting in the bearing of protagonist Jake Sully. His tough guy persona quickly wears thin. His facial expression is that of an obstinate and dense person.
Incidentally, actor Sam Worthington speaks with an Australian accent; therefore, Jake Sully’s “jar-head” persona is entirely an invention for the film. Sully’s an ex-marine who was paralyzed from the waist down, and then replaced his twin brother in the NDA project on Pandora. It is irritating, though, when Sully addresses his family as though they were also a military unit.
At any rate, Sully betrayed his people on Earth when he switched sides and fought with the Na’vi against the NDA (in the first Avatar). Now he is a mere interloper among the Na’vi, though he has earned their respect by helping them in that first battle against the NDA. He has a beautiful wife, as far as Na’vi go. First and foremost, he is now a family man, family being another theme in Avatar: The Way of the Water. They stick together. As Sully says, “I know one thing: wherever we go, this family… is our fortress.”
When they see that the NDA has returned, Sully’s family must flee to live with the reef people. The reef people are skeptical that this will work out because Sully’s family’s tails are not really optimized for swimming, being too thin. Sully assures them:
“We can adapt.”
Sully himself adapted to live with the Na’vi, as an act of reverse-assimilation, so he can do it again.
Let me expand on this theme of “reverse-assimilation.” It is somewhat of a neologism, though there are traces of it online used by others in a similar vein. Usually we associate “assimilation” with immigrants assimilating to Western culture, or indigenous Americans adapting to Western culture. In the case of Avatar: The Way of the Water, it is the reverse. Frankly, this situation resonates now in the United States, when it seems the West is being overwhelmed both demographically and culturally, should we follow Sully’s example? After all, Sully has a hot wife and a nice family. It’s actually not so bad.
Assimilation is also occurring on all fronts in Avatar: The Way of the Water. Another human, Spider, has assimilated to the Na’vi. Spider, the son of Quaritch, couldn’t return to Earth at the time the events of the first Avatar conclude because he was a baby and therefore couldn’t enter “cryostatus.” Spider, then, is a rare human hanging out on Pandora with the indigenous people. With the Na’vi standing nine-feet-tall, Spider appears quite diminutive. He has grown blonde dreadlocks, sports a loin clothe, and fluently speaks their language. It’s an ostentatious example of reverse-assimilation.
There is something self-conscious in Spider’s bearing. Though he does fit in to the culture and customs of the Na’vi, he still sticks out in a jarring way just by his physical appearance.
Spider especially resents his father, as a representative of all that is in opposition to the spiritual, pure, and living in harmony with nature (again, Westerner = bad). The sulky teenager is desperate for an identity other than that which he associates with oppression and authoritarianism. His “father,” meanwhile, is now an avatar with the uploaded memory and chutzpah of the deceased Quaritch. Nevertheless, Spider and Quaritch share some father/ son bonding moments.
It was not immediately apparent to me why this film had offended the politically correct faction. Upon further reading, it seems that Avatar 2 is guilty of the White Savior trope (through the character of Jake Sully) as well as tropes about indigenous people. This is perhaps the stupidest reason to dislike the film. If the Na’vi are an analogue to indigenous people, it’s worth asking, how can indigenous people possibly be portrayed in a manner that will satisfy the terminally offended?
The Na’vi are quite a blameless people; it’s the White humans causing the trouble. Yet James Cameron failed to satisfy the woke crowd, even after appropriately casting bad guys and good guys by their race (or metaphorical race). Despite literally being blue, Sully is still guilty of being a White savior and I suppose Cameron is guilty of “centering” Sully’s experience over the native Na’vi. As I said, the Na’vi are portrayed positively. Yet as Forbes explains, that’s perpetuating a “Noble Savage” trope. You’re really walking on eggshells these days!
Another common criticism was the length of the film. At three hours and twelve minutes, almost everyone in the theater took a bathroom break at some point. Was the length of the film necessary? Probably not. Though there are moving scenes which tug on our heart-strings, what really dragged the film on were extended action sequences. It wasn’t about plot or character development, it was about the characters chasing each other and shooting at one another. It gets really old really fast.
The critics had a similar opinion. The Guardian considered it “overlong”:
“The story, which might fill a 30-minute cartoon, is stretched as if by some AI program into a three-hour movie of epic tweeness.”
That seems a little harsh. There was enough plot and substance for about an hour and a half. Forbes also derisively referred to Avatar 2 as a “cartoon.”
Although the film had much else to recommend it, Avatar 2 ultimately seemed to be targeted an audience of the lowest common denominator (in other words, America). The emphasis, therefore, was on sensory stimulation rather than character development.
Finally, I’m afraid there will be another Avatar because the antagonist Colonel Quaritch doesn’t really die at the end.
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