On December 18, 2009, a movie opened that would make history. James Cameron, producer, director, screenwriter, and self-identified “king of the world,” had previously created blockbusters like Titanic, The Terminator, and Aliens. Avatar cost $237 million, with another $150 million for marketing. Avatar would have to break box office records just to break even. Avatar did indeed defy skeptics’ low expectations; it broke records in numerous categories. Avatar is one of the highest grossing films of all time. Avatar was nominated for nine Academy Awards and was well-received by film critics, professional and amateur.
In Avatar, earth is becoming uninhabitable because of human depredation. Humans expand to Pandora, a moon. There, corporations and Marines despoil the Na’vi, a tall, slender, blue-skinned species who live in harmony with nature and their Mother Goddess, Eywa.
According to an online fan-run Avatar resource, “Eywa … is the biological sentient guiding force of life … Eywa acts to keep the ecosystem of Pandora in perfect equilibrium … The forests of Pandora are Eywa’s brain with every tree being comparable to a single brain cell. All lifeforms on Pandora are considered part of Eywa’s ecosystem, with Eywa even having an immune system that … detects humans [as] a virus … the souls of the dead [are] reborn … in an eternal cycle of death and rebirth.” Fans relate Eywa to the Pagan goddesses Gaia, Papatuanuku, Yewa, and also to Buddhism and Taoism.
In opposition to the environmentally attuned Na’vi are Marines, American white men. Their leader is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is such a bloodthirsty, genocidal killer that after his human essence is transported into a Na’vi body, he crushes his own skull in his own fist. Lang, from New York City, plays Quaritch with a Southern accent. In a popular stereotype, Southern white men are the worst white men of all.
Marines are the shock troops for the Resources Development Administration, or RDA, that lays waste to Pandora in order to mine unobtanium, a valuable mineral. The essence of Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is placed into a Na’vi body, and Jake, in Na’vi guise, is sent to spy. Against his orders, Jake falls in love with the female Na’vi Neytiri (Zoey Saldana). Jake joins the Na’vi in their fight against the Marines and the RDA. The Na’vi are victorious.
The plot of Avatar is comparable to the plots of previous films. Dances with Wolves was awarded 1990’s best picture Academy Award. An American soldier joins a Sioux tribe and assimilates to their culture. The soldier marries a culturally Sioux woman. Other American soldiers menace him, the tribe, and shoot a wolf he had befriended. In the 1995 Disney animated film Pocahontas, Pocahontas becomes romantically involved with John Smith at a time of strife between Powhatans and English settlers. She sings “Colors of the Wind,” a song that instructs Smith in what she presents as Native American oneness with nature. In the 1992, Australian animated film FernGully: The Last Rainforest, a human man is invited into the nature-loving world of fairies. He is part of a development project that is tearing down the rainforest where the fairies live. The formula: a white man from a colonizing Western, anti-nature, despoiling culture travels to a non-Western tribe in tune with nature. He forms a romantic bond with a tribal woman. Through her, he learns and adopts beneficent tribal ways. The tribe and their natural world faces genocidal white, Western destruction.
Its derivative plot notwithstanding, Avatar was so popular and so powerful that Post Avatar Depression Syndrome, or PADS, afflicted vulnerable viewers. One PADS sufferer reported, “Ever since I went to see Avatar I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them … I even contemplate suicide … I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora.” Another wrote, “I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time … the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for lost its meaning. It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.” “I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world.” And another, who also reported PADS-related suicidality: “For me the post-Avatar depression hit hard because I have this serial track record of trying to escape my reality.”
In spite of its gigantic commercial success, some argue that Avatar became “the forgotten blockbuster.” “James Cameron’s Avatar defied the skeptics and became the highest-grossing film of all time, but five years later it is all but forgotten in the pop culture landscape,” wrote Forbes in 2014. In 2016, Buzzfeed posted a quiz entitled “Do You Remember Anything At All About Avatar?” Buzzfeed asked very simple questions like “What is the name of the main character?” Kids don’t dress up as Avatar characters on Halloween. Avatar produced no frequently-quoted lines like “I’ll be back,” from Terminator or Star Wars’ “May the Force be with you,” or even the eighty-year-old, but still quoted, “I don’t give a damn,” from Gone with the Wind. People facing difficulty don’t use Avatar characters as their inspiration, as in the phrase from The Godfather “go to the mattresses.”
Some theorize that Avatar was so big because of the power of its CGI, or computer-generated imagery, combined with 3D. Cameron’s use of 3D was innovative and exceptionally high quality. Since Avatar’s 2009 release, other films have filled the audience’s desire to see spectacular special effects, but they have combined those effects with more resonant stories. Such films include Avengers: Endgame and others featuring comic book superheroes, as well as the Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter franchises. Indeed, both positive and negative fan reviews of the 2022 Avatar sequel praise the film’s special effects and mention its shallow and derivative storytelling.
Cameron has been promising sequels to Avatar since the first film came out, sequels so spectacular that, as Cameron himself promised, they will “make you s— yourself with your mouth wide open.” The long-promised sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, opened on December 16, 2022. In this sequel, Jake is happily married to Neytiri. They have several children. The essence of evil Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch has been placed into a Na’vi body. Quaritch, in Na’vi form, leads another military assault on the Na’vi tribe. Quaritch wants to kill Jake and his family. RDA wants to colonize Pandora with humans, because Earth is so badly polluted that human life is no longer possible there.
Jake decides to leave the Na’vi’s forest dwelling and seek refuge among water-dwelling Na’vi. The water dwellers are cautious about accepting members of a forest-dwelling tribe. There are tensions, including bullying among the children. Eventually Quaritch tracks Jake and his family. The water-dwelling Na’vi are spiritually connected to tulkun, a whale-like creature. To entice Jake out from hiding, Quaritch joins an attack on the tulkun, who are killed for a substance in their bodies that stops human aging. Jake and Quaritch fight mano-a-mano underwater. The movie ends with both Jake and Quaritch still alive, because there will be a sequel that will resolve their fates, as well as the ultimate fate of Pandora and the evil, encroaching, colonizing humans.
As in the first Avatar, the Na’vi are depicted as practicing a religion. A Na’vi is shown chanting while running a string of beads through fingers, comparable to the Catholic rosary. Na’vi undergo a “first communion” with Eywa. One of Jake’s children, Kiri, experiences religious trances and exercises the ability to command nature to obey her wishes. Jake says, “We live in Eywa, and Eywa lives in us. The All Mother takes care of her children. Happiness is simple.”
A scriptural verse or prayer is frequently repeated. “The way of water has no beginning and no end. The sea is around you and in you. The sea is your home, before your birth and after your death. Our hearts beat in the womb of the world. Our breath burns in the shadows of the deep. The sea gives and the sea takes. Water connects all things, life to death, darkness to light.”
Cameron’s fictional Na’vi display features associated with real non-Western peoples. For example, they ululate, a sound associated with Muslim Arabs. The water-dwelling Na’vi have facial tattoos similar to Maori tattoos, and they stick their tongues out, as do Maori in a gesture called “pukana.” The forest-dwelling Na’vi fight with bows and arrows, similar to Native Americans. The Na’vi have black dreadlocks and cornrows, comparable to some African Americans.
In Simon Franglen’s musical score, he makes use of a fujara. A fujara is a Slovak shepherd’s flute that produces a sound that many perceive as wild and mystical. Slovaks are of course a white, European people, but Franglen probably assumed that most viewers would not realize that he was cribbing music from Slovakia in an anti-Western film.
Na’vi ritualistically say to each other, “I see you.” They say this in Na’vi language. Paul Frommer, a professor at the University of Southern California, developed Na’vi language as per Cameron’s specifications. “He wanted a complete language, with a totally consistent sound system, morphology, syntax,” Frommer says. And “he wanted it to sound good. He wanted it to be pleasant, he wanted it to be appealing to the audience.” An online site helps the interested learn to speak Na’vi.
I don’t remember if either Avatar ever uses the word “American,” but it’s clear that the bad guys are Americans. Quaritch is relentlessly violent and competitive. He emerges from the operation to turn him into a Na’vi by fighting the hospital staff. Quaritch speaks in Americanisms like “Ain’t this a bitch,” and he uses “Jesus” as an expletive. He says, “A Marine can’t be defeated,” “We are not in Kansas anymore,” and “Semper fi.” His mission, he says, is to “pacify” the “hostiles,” a word and usage associated with the wars fought between U.S. troops and Native Americans. He uses Southern phrases like “fixing to” meaning “going to.” The Marines’ stated goal is to “tame the frontier,” a clear reference to the Westward expansion of the U.S. Quaritch orders his men to “burn the hooches.” “Hooch” is slang used by American soldiers serving in wars in Korea and Vietnam. It refers to a thatched hut.
In a statement, Cameron said, “Avatar is a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period. Avatar very pointedly made reference to the colonial period in the Americas, with all its conflict and bloodshed between the military aggressors from Europe and the indigenous peoples. Europe equals Earth. The native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle.”
Avatar’s Marines are not just bad because they are white and they are American. They are bad because they are male. The Na’vi have attenuated forms, as if they were human bodies, stretched out. Their limbs and torsos are long and slender. When Miles Quaritch adopts a Na’vi form, his form is more heavily muscled. His shape greatly exaggerates the classic male reverse pyramid, with very broad shoulders, muscular biceps, and narrow waist and hips. Quaritch’s fellow Marines who have assumed Na’vi disguises all swagger and engage in fist bumps. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Cameron said that when he was younger, he was “a wild, testosterone-poisoned young man … I always think of [testosterone] as a toxin that you have to slowly work out of your system.” Clearly, Cameron’s villains are testosterone-poisoned white men.
I also don’t remember if there are any non-white actors among the RDA or Marine casts. Hispanic American Michelle Rodriguez plays a Marine RDA pilot in the original Avatar. She changes sides and dies a martyr in her attempts to protect the Na’vi from the evil white men. Ours is an era that insists on inclusion of black faces in the most unlikely of casts, for example as leads in Bridgerton, a Netflix romance set among English aristocracy in the Regency era. The lack of black faces among the obviously American bad guys in Avatar sends a very loud message: it’s specifically white, American, Christian men who are Cameron’s eternal villains of the entire universe.
Conversely, there are non-white actors among the Na’vi. These include Zoe Saldana, Jake’s wife, Cliff Curtis, who plays Kate Winslet’s husband, and also Trinity Bliss, and Bailey Bass. Jermaine Clement plays a sorta kinda good guy on the white men’s team. He is of Maori descent.
During the initial Avatar hoopla in 2009, a few negative reviews emerged. Some fans at the Internet Movie Database were bold enough to assign less than stellar reviews to Cameron’s miraculous cinematic manifestation. I was one of those naysayers. Every negative thing I said about the original Avatar applies to Avatar: The Way of Water.
James Cameron promised that his new movie would make viewers “s—” themselves. Well, I didn’t, but I came perilously close to peeing in my theater seat. The Way of Water is three hours, twelve minutes long. Add in almost a half an hour of coming attractions, and you are in that theater seat for three and a half hours. Given that I planned to write a review, I was committed: no bathroom breaks. Artistry, intelligence, or insight might break out on the screen for those five minutes, and I could not write a fair review if I missed it. I can now safely say that the film is insight-free.
What is the worst aspect of Avatar, one and two? The lies? The hypocrisy? The hate? No; the worst aspect is this: It’s boring. Leni Riefenstahl, just like James Cameron, made hateful propaganda, but at least her films were cinematically interesting. Yes, yes, as in the past, science nerd James Cameron, who once studied physics at a community college, made significant advances in technology, this time, specifically, in how water is depicted in CGI shots, as reported by the New York Times. So what? There are dozens of low-budget films, from Brief Encounter to Rocky to The Blair Witch Project that have been moving audiences for a century, and that made back their costs several times over. What makes a film boring or moving is subjective; let’s talk about the objective BS in Cameron’s Avatar. Cameron says that testosterone is a “toxin.” The lies Cameron amplifies are unquestionably toxic. Ask the sufferers of PADS.
Cameron has said, “I’ve sworn off agnosticism, which I now call cowardly atheism.” He allegedly denounced the Lord’s prayer as “a tribal chant.” He produced a documentary meant to prove, with DNA, no less, that he has Jesus’ mortal remains. Christians believe that Jesus’ body ascended into Heaven and any evidence of Jesus’ mortal remains would discredit their faith. As Wired described it, “James Cameron Resurrects Jesus To Kill Christianity.”
According to Celebrity Atheists, Cameron “won every academic award in ninth grade and became president of the Science Club, and not surprisingly got himself beat up by all the other kids.” Being the smartest kid in ninth grade, and the maker of some of the highest grossing films, can indeed convince a megalomaniac that he is “king of the world” and is qualified to invent his own superior Adam and Eve and his own religion. Cameron did not invent the noble savage myth, but he milks it for all its worth.
The Na’vi are so fake I could never experience a second of willing suspension of disbelief in Cameron’s two Utopian films. Cameron clearly models the Na’vi on various tribes. That he places the tattoos used by human Maori on a species of space alien is offensive to some. In response to protests of his allusions to tribal people, Cameron said, “The people who have been victimized historically are always right. It’s not up to me, speaking from a perspective of White privilege … to tell them that they’re wrong.” Cameron would never respond in that way were I, a Slovak-American, but white, to object to his use of fujara.
Unlike Cameron, I’ve lived in traditional villages, in Slovakia, the Central African Republic, and Nepal. I loved my time there and my neighbors. But my neighbors were not noble savages. They did not glow in the dark, unlike the Na’vi. Here’s a brutal fact Cameron, for all his kingly majesty, cannot bring himself to face: John Smith and Pocahontas, Pizarro and Tupac, Dr. Livingstone and Shaka Zulu, were all the exact same species. Warfare, slavery, and genocide are not European monopolies. Maori practiced genocidal warfare, as did Native Americans.
In Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he describes Maori warriors invading the territory of their neighbors, the Moriori, and committing a genocide.
Maori “killed hundreds of Moriori, cooked and ate many of the bodies, and enslaved all the others … A Moriori survivor recalled ‘The Maori commenced to kill us like sheep … We were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed – men, women, and children, indiscriminately.’ A Maori conqueror explained. ‘We took possession… in accordance with our customs and we killed all the people. Not one escaped … What of that? It was in accordance with our customs.'”
Maori kept the preserved heads of their enemies. They would taunt these heads. One Maori said to one of his preserved heads, “You wanted to run away didn’t you? But my greenstone club overtook you! And after you were cooked you were made food for me! And where is your father? He is cooked. And where is your brother? He is eaten. And where is your wife? There she sits, a wife for me. And where are your children? The loads on their backs they carry as my slaves.”
Traditional people are entirely capable of environmental degradation. Desertification, the expansion of deserts by human causes like burning, overgrazing, and deforestation, is one of the greatest environmental disasters on the planet. Traditional people have been causing desertification for millennia, in Australia, the Middle East and North Africa. In C.A.R. I used to watch the bush burn in fires set by Africans.
The push for each woman to produce the maximum number of male offspring also is a planet destroyer. Somalia is an arid land currently experiencing yet another famine. Somalia’s fertility rate is almost six children per woman, clearly, not a sustainable rate in that arid terrain. In Afghanistan, another arid land with human-caused desertification, also facing famine conditions, the average woman is pushed by tradition to have over four children. In contrast to these “BIPOCs,” white Westerners are largely responsible for modern environmentalism; see John Muir, John James Audubon, Rachel Carson and Theodore Roosevelt.
Cameron’s religion includes worship of a mother goddess. Like, say, in Calcutta, where, once, a boy was sacrificed every day to Kali. In the Aztec empire, where goddesses were also worshipped, humans in the thousands were regularly sacrificed. Reality demonstrates that contrary to Cameron’s fantasies, goddess-worshipping religions are no better for women and are not more benign.
The religion Cameron dismisses, in favor of the one he invented, insists that “original sin” afflicts every one of us equally. Romans 3:23-24 says we are all equally scarred by sin, and are all equally capable of redemption. In Cameron’s invented religion, whether you are good or bad quite literally depends on the color of your skin.
As a feminist, I love seeing images of strong women onscreen. In lieu of strong women, Cameron gives us male qualities in female packages. Women aren’t strong because they are more verbal than men, more likely to be religiously observant, more patient, more relational, or the nurturers of life. Women are strong because, like men, they are warriors. One of Cameron’s CGI warriors is so pregnant she appears she could give birth at any moment. The depiction of a heavily pregnant woman as a hyperactive warrior does no service to women. Cameron has been beating his chest about his creation. He brags that he, a man, has conquered the “last bastion” of sexism. His arrogant exploitation of an image of a pregnant woman disgusts me.
In traditional villages, beyond the reach of modernity and its gifts like technology, that lessens power differences between physically strong and weak people, and also technologically-driven diverse economies that make it possible for girls and women to earn their living outside of agricultural labor tied to a patriarchal family, men rule and women submit.
Cameron bashes white, American men while celebrating tribal and non-Western masculinity. In fact tribal and non-Western masculinity is far more domineering, and it celebrates violence far more overtly than does the West. Boys become men by killing other men, or enduring horrific pain or bodily mutilation, or fighting dangerous animals. In many non-Western cultures, men enjoy total dominance over women, and casually decide, for example, whether female neonates are to be allowed to live. Women who attempt to assert their equal worth can be gang raped or beaten into submission. Cliff Curtis, a Maori who stars in Avatar II, also stars in Once Were Warriors, a graphic and unromantic expose of how women fare in Maori culture today. Maori women are three times more likely to be killed by a partner than other women in New Zealand.
The nature Cameron worships bears no relation to, well, nature. Cameron’s nature glows in the dark. It comes in the colors of a 64 box of Crayola crayons, or of a Disney princess’ gown. In Cameron’s nature, it never rains. No one steps in infectious animal poop. The hammocks the Na’vi spend their days lolling in never fray with wear and tear and need to be repaired. Cameron’s nature is on the side of the Na’vi. Real nature is only on the side of the strongest or the luckiest. Real nature is chock full of parasites that suck on the liver, swell the testicles, and crawl across human eyeballs. Real nature kills children with the infections that can accompany scratched scabies bites or a toothache from lax hygiene. Cameron wants viewers to love and admire traditional people who bear no relation to real traditional people. He wants you to be wowed by his advancement of the rights of women who aren’t real women. He wants you to care about nature that isn’t nature at all. A consumer product that is turquoise and sparkly and without any blemishes or heartaches is not nature. It’s kitsch.
Cameron appears to be championing a peaceful, traditional tribe. But he devotes a good percentage of the runtime of his films to pornographic depictions of mechanized warfare. The sound effects of the machine guns his villains deploy are enough to excite any wannabe school shooter. It wasn’t just the intensity or verisimilitude of the sound that nauseated this viewer, or the inevitable mental images of bodies torn apart by such weaponry. It was the knowledge that somebody on Cameron’s team devoted a great deal of time and energy to perfecting that pop, pop, pop so it would sound like the gun in a shooting survivor’s worst nightmare. There are headless war robots, flamethrowers, military choppers and trucks and speedboats. Cameron’s fans are paying for that imaginary hardware. It makes their experience worthwhile. Cameron isn’t selling peace. He’s selling war.
Here’s, perhaps, the biggest hypocrisy of all. There’s a reason there are humans in Avatar. No one would purchase tickets to watch the Na’vi leading the lives James Cameron has assigned to them. All they do is loll in hammocks. There is no conflict and there is no drama. There’s nothing to root for, nothing to care about. Cameron’s Pandora presents the same problem as a simplistic and inadequate conception of Heaven. Pandora is so pleasant and so without struggle that it is, simply, boring. Its denizens are encased in the plastic prison of a snow globe. “Happiness is simple” Cameron has Jake insist. Alas, no, it’s not. Humans crave a telos, both in their own lives and in their fiction, and to reach that telos they require a narrative arch and, also, yes, struggle, and an antagonist that catalyzes that struggle.
The truth of narrative reflects the truth of human lives. Anyone, including James Cameron, could return to pre-modern conditions. There are ample instructions for building dwellings out of animal skin and wattle. Starting fires, hunting with atlatls and bows and arrows, and sleeping on the ground are lifestyles we can all adopt. And yet no one does. Maori, Native Americans, Africans, and my own cousins in Slovakia would rather enjoy internet access and supermarkets. Cameron may be the king of the world in his own mind, but until he solves problems like misogyny, environmental degradation, and war by addressing real people, real human nature, and real nature itself, his religion will only survive in the minds of the gullible at the multiplex. Once they leave the theater, they will be hit with PADS. False religions cannot satisfy.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery