Avatar: the Way of Water
Review of the movie
Warning! This review contains spoilers.
The Avatar blue-giants are back on the cinema screen with the first of four planned sequels. Avatar: the Way of Water was released in December 2022, and in spite of its epic 3 hours 12 minutes duration, it has proved immensely popular. Estimated to have cost over US$400m in production costs, it has already generated a global revenue of over $2 billion for the Disney Corporation and currently ranks as the fourth all-time highest grossing movie.1 Part of the costs was in developing new computer-enhanced techniques to capture the many stunning underwater scenes.
As with the first Avatar film, released in 2009 (see Avatar movie review by Carl Wieland), the cast includes Sam Worthington, who plays Jake Sully, and Zoe Saldaña in the role of the Na’vi princess Neytiri. The ‘new’ evolutionary religious theme of the original Avatar movie continues here and readers are encouraged to read the aforementioned review as well.
Christians thinking of viewing Avatar: the Way of Water should be aware of the many ways in which it portrays things contrary to a biblical worldview. The film has a PG-13 rating in the US, 12 in the UK suggesting the film is unsuitable for younger children. Christian parents may also want to consider whether it is appropriate for mid-teens. The main action moves from the forest to the ocean, but this science fiction film continues the themes of the first movie: transhumanism, evolution, and the exploitation of the environment. It also encourages a New Age or neo-pagan view of reality, with influence from Eastern religions—The Na’vi people worship a mother goddess, Eywa, who has forbidden stone building, metal working, and use of wheeled transport. In Hinduism, an avatar is the physical manifestation of a god, while in the form adopted by the West it is a reference to the action of taking a virtual reality character in a video game. The company Meta (Facebook) wants us all to take up our own avatar in its virtual world.2
Overview of the film
Without giving too much away, the sky people (‘evil’ humans) return to Pandora because Earth is dying and they wish to colonise the new planet and tame its wilderness. The nature-loving natives, the Na’vi, led by converted human avatar Jake Sully, are hostile and wage a guerrilla war against the invaders. In response, the human security forces send agents who have been transformed into Na’vi ‘recombinants’ (avatars implanted with the memories of dead soldiers).
Events unfold that lead to Jake, Neytiri and their family fleeing across the ocean to the Metkayina sea people, who seem to be modelled on South Pacific islanders3 (Moriori hunter gatherers). Members of this blue-green, tattooed clan spend a lot of time in the water where individuals have ‘evolved’ three-fingered hands, which are inferred to be better adapted for swimming. This community also has a close (symbiotic) connection with various fantastic aquatic animals, much as the Na’vi were portrayed as having with pterosaur-like creatures in the first movie. One of the new animals is depicted in similar form to long-necked plesiosaurs, another is like giant flying fish with fierce-looking jaws and teeth.
Some of the leaders of the clan are also able to connect with whale-like creatures, the Tulkun. Unfortunately, certain ‘whales’ are hunted by the new arrivals because of a rare and valuable brain extract, called amrita (another Sanskrit word), that greatly prolongs human life—it is the elixir of youth. Yes, ‘save-the-whales’ is one of the main messages the film delivers (though creationists would not disagree with wise whale conservation).
Encouraging sentimental environmentalism
Like the first film Avatar: the Way of Water depicts a rather simplistic, and sentimental environmentalism. While the Na’vi have a close bond with some animals, they are still shown killing fish to eat. In terms of a moral message for viewers, we might ask; why are some vertebrates more valuable than others? The lesson seems ambiguous within the New Age worldview. The hunter-gatherer existence is romanticised in the film, while the human colonisers and developers are shown in a bad light. But in reality, even hunter-gatherers still need to eat by killing animals. Also, bugs, insects, and snakes bite or sting, sometimes with fatal consequences, but these things are overlooked as, presumably, they would interfere with the simplistic ‘live close to nature’ theme.
Such a pre-industrialised existence is hazardous, and can lead to a shortened life span. In the West, the development that occurred through the industrial revolution led to an increase in life expectancy through better sanitation, and control of diseases. That isn’t to say that there aren’t ongoing problems with industrialisation—such as the burning of fossil fuels that causes increased air pollution—but access to cheap carbon fuels has benefitted humanity by allowing people to rise out of poverty (see A biblical and scientific approach to climate change). The Christian approach to the environment is one of careful stewardship, managing the land for the benefit of human communities. This applies to food production, housing, and industry. Land may also be set aside for conservation purposes (see The root of our ecological crisis).
The film also offers a rather simplistic critique of colonisation. In his review of the first Avatar movie, Carl Wieland pointed out the similarities with the story of Pocahontas. Director James Cameron has also admitted that the earlier Avatar film was in effect “Dances with Wolves in space.”4 In that light, the metaphor of the second film may be considered to be a further comment on the arrival of Europeans to North America over the last few hundred years, driving out the native Americans. Some of the first settlers to America were religious Puritans and dissenters who wanted to start a new way of life, away from the fighting and persecution in Europe. However, they were joined by those who wished to make a profit. Many people followed in the wake of the initial colonisation of America, searching for a new life. As social and political events unfolded, this was often to the detriment of those indigenous peoples who already lived off the land.
European colonisation also affected many other parts of the world. Western powers conquered large parts of the planet in past centuries, with the justifying purpose being to spread civilisation, commerce, and Christianity.5 Unfortunately, many of the actions of the colonisers were far from civilised or Christian, instead descending into selfish exploitation of indigenous people and their wealth of minerals and other raw materials. Sadly, Christianity was then seen in a bad light by indigenous populations, because religious authorities were perceived to be giving approval to exploitation and the abuse of power. In that sense colonisation actually undermined the Christian witness. In contrast, the twentieth century generally saw a planned decolonisation, and a growing understanding and concern for the needs of native people.
The pressure for European colonisation was also due to a growing population, the presence of poverty, and the fear of starvation. A crowded population in Europe required access to more resources in order to live, and the colonisation of new sparsely-populated lands was arguably inevitable (there is insufficient space to discuss the pros and cons of colonialism here, but we shouldn’t assume it was all bad).6 In the Avatar film we are also told that the reason for the colonisation of Pandora was due to Earth becoming unhabitable—so should the Na’vi have been more welcoming? The film had little sympathy for the needs of human beings, not that the invaders acted with good conduct of course (perhaps the requirements of humanity will be addressed in future sequels). We should note, however, that simplistic and sentimental approaches to the environment and to colonisation can lead to the devaluing of other human beings.
Film quality and final comments
The quality of the computer graphics is excellent, and the scenery of Pandora is visually stunning. While portraying the simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle in a sympathetic light—a people living in peace and harmony with nature—the film glamorises power, violence, and guerrilla warfare. On the plus side, Jake and Neytiri present good family values to their children (apart from the violence), who were largely respectful, even when struggling with self-esteem, rebellion, and sibling rivalry.
Regrettably, one of the characters blasphemes at one point, which is, in any case, especially out of place on a fictional planet called Pandora. Along with the promotion of a neo-pagan, New Age view of reality, the film also shows some of the characters connecting with plants and entering altered states of consciousness. Unfortunately, this might encourage impressionable young people to consider the taking of psychedelic plant-based drugs to be a positive thing.
There is a fundamental difference between the pantheistic worldview portrayed in this film, and that of biblical Christianity. Christian believers come to know and worship God as Father, the one who is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Christians have been called to be good stewards of the earth; not to argue for unrestrained exploitation of the planet, but neither to argue that we should turn humanity back to a hunter-gatherer existence. Good stewardship implies having managerial responsibility of our natural environment, firstly for the benefit of human flourishing, but also seeking to provide protection for the ecosystem as far as possible.
References and notes
- Box office comparison for all-time top-grossing films, the-numbers.com; accessed 31 January 2023. Return to text.
- Introducing the Meta avatars store, about.fb.com/news/2022/06/introducing-the-meta-avatars-store, 20 June 2022; accessed 31 January 2023. Return to text.
- Chery, S., Indigenous people slam Avatar (again) for tropes and inaccuracies, washingtonpost.com, 20 December 2022 Return to text.
- Boucher, G., James Cameron: Yes, ‘Avatar’ is ‘Dances with Wolves’ in space… sorta, latimes.com, 14 August 2009. Return to text.
- These three—civilisation, commerce and Christianity—have often been used to justify colonialism. The McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation? Christianity and Empire revisited: historical and contemporary perspective, on-Line conference, Faculty Of Theology & Religion, University Of Oxford, 27–28 May 2021. Return to text.
- Discussing the pros and cons of colonialism is controversial. Oxford Professor Nigel Biggar has recently been refused publication of a book by Bloomsbury (Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning) because it discusses positives as well as negatives; that for instance “…the British Empire learnt from its errors and was increasingly propelled by humanitarian and liberal ideals, most notably through the abolition and suppression of slavery.” Ellson, A., Nigel Biggar hits out at Bloomsbury over ‘cancelled’ book on Empire, thetimes.co.uk, 28 January 2023. Return to text.