James Cameron’s world-building didn’t start with Avatar (2009), but his now less-hidden spiritual humanism certainly did. And he comes into his own with Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).

Cameron isn’t falling back on escapism — it’s his stock in trade. Thankfully, others have celebrated his sequel’s plot, characters, 3-D and CGI, its insignia themes of environmentalism, techno-utopianism, even warfare as a metaphor for muscular adventurism. 

James Cameron - Avatar
Gage Skidmore / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

So, the question isn’t whether Cameron’s films are escapism or not — they are — but whether they say more than they seem to, more absorbingly than other genre films. In The Way of Water, his fascination with the transcendentals (goodness, truth, beauty) bubbles over more than in his filmography so far. 

Sure, it’s tempting to see Na’vi as good and humans as bad, but Cameron’s protagonists and antagonists aren’t poles apart — they’re like positive-negative expressions of the same being. It isn’t Humans vs Na’vi (or vs Nature, or vs Tech). It’s just us divided against ourselves. He asks: can we use Nature and Tech as forces for good, to elevate (not diminish) our appreciation of goodness, truth and beauty?

Goodness isn’t a given, it’s hard work

Cameron’s Sully saga suggests that freedom doesn’t lie in choosing, but in choosing the good: forgiveness, sacrifice, responsibility, humility, gratitude.

Choice in and of itself isn’t freedom, the right choice is. 

And, only love can make you choose the good. 

Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are no longer just carefree lovers or spouses. In their new avatars, they must now love as parents too. Discipline or go easy? Shower affection only on children who conform, or on all equally? 

Both now embody Eywa’s mysticism, but differently and to varying degrees. Yet both run on faith.

Neytiri’s faith is direct. She trusts in Eywa’s omnipresence (grace? immanence?). She envisions herself and her family as one with, not separate from, her people the Omatikaya. Jake’s fear (of death to their family) holds him back. He uses it to rationalise fleeing, first their Omatikaya home, then their Metkayina home. Only later does he endorse her conviction: if you don’t defend what you must, soon you won’t be able to defend even what you can. Her threat to stand and fight at the start, becomes his promise to do just that in the end.

Jake’s faith is indirect, circumspect, “The most dangerous thing about Pandora is that you might grow to love her too much.” So he trusts in his agency, his free will, which he keeps exercising, instead of bending blindly to fate. Since he finds ways to belong everywhere, he’s an outcast nowhere. He’s better at making his home anywhere, adapting to unfamiliar environments, “Wherever we go, this family is our fortress.” 

Still, Jake and Neytiri know that having faith doesn’t mean you squat on your hands waiting for fate to flower. Go ahead, trust in Nature or Grace, but trust also in yourself. Nature includes your will, reason, emotion, memory, imagination. Draw on those gifts. Don’t cryostasis your way out of circumstance.

Our darkest impulses of selfishness, pride, greed, shown here as ruthless Marines, brag that they “… can’t be defeated. You can kill us, but we’ll just regroup in hell.” So, until we’re reunited as spirits with Eywa (God?) we must battle these impulses, turn from “darkness to light” rather than seek numbing solace in new worlds: the addictions of Pandora. Neytiri’s cry to Quaritch (Stephen Lang), “I will kill you as many times as I have to” echoes a resolve, to keep trying.

Truth isn’t only about becoming, it’s more about being

Watching the gargantuan, whale-like rogue Tulkun, Payakan swallow Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), many are quick to recall Moby Dick. After all, harpoon-armed whalers infest the waters, spermaceti or similar life-prolonging treasures in mind. 

But with Cameron’s now stubborn spiritual humanism, it’s more meaningful to recall  Jonah and the whale. Like the “great fish” (swallowing Jonah) becomes a pathway to unravel the hidden “word”, Payakan too (inviting Lo’ak into its belly for a one-on-one) reveals its hidden “word”. Here again, the point isn’t about whales, but “death” to old and petty selves, then “resurrection” to new and better selves, whether after three days or not.

Cameron doesn’t need to deliver a sermon on the cruelty of whaling. As his camera zooms in on the Tulkun’s eye, he makes you see deep, wide, long through a doorway to a universe that you want to protect. Marine biologist Dr Garvin’s (Jemaine Clement) evasive eyes confess his complicity in poaching. You can almost hear him thinking: Do I feel the death of that Tulkun? Or do I feel nothing? How human am I? Am I human enough yet? 

An avatar isn’t about becoming something or someone else, it’s about being fully human. Or in the words of St Ireneaus, being “fully alive” — more caring, forgiving, sacrificing. It isn’t a destination, but a journey toward your fullest self. 

Here, blood signifies intent, a slash more serious than sacred oath or handshake. A fellow Na’vi slashes Jake’s chest to show that he, as the old Toruk Macto, must “die” for the new to “live”. Quaritch and Neytiri invert that, keeping the old (vengeance) alive by threatening to kill the new (their children). She slashes Spider’s (Jack Champion) chest to warn Quaritch — she’ll kill his son if he doesn’t free her daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). 

Jake’s scar will heal, inside and outside. Spider’s scar will heal outside; the one inside not as hastily. He’s already “dead” to Neytiri, her cut merely confirms it. Not only because Spider is human rather than Na’vi, but also because he inexplicably — if not wholeheartedly — aids marauding humans through Pandora, virtually choosing Quartich as his real father. Does Neytiri’s blade hover above Jake too, the first human who aided marauding humans in their conquest of Pandora?

What of Jake’s refrain, “Sullys stick together… our greatest weakness and our great strength”? Short of quoting Corinthians again, Cameron’s saying, Eywa’s “power is made perfect in weakness”. Love moves them to sacrifice readily (and repeatedly) for each other, making them vulnerable. Yet in giving their all, they find strength. No mere slogan. As the SeaDragon sinks, watch Neytiri (not yet at home in water) dive unhesitatingly after her child, into a whirlpool of an open hatch.

Jake’s ethos of responsibility is one of restraint. It’s new but clear, “A father protects. It’s what gives him meaning”. Quartich grasps it, but dimly. He’s unaware of what moves him to stake everything for Spider’s life, yet it moves him regardless. When tribes refuse to divulge Sully’s whereabouts, he’s unaware of what moves him to spare them, destroying their huts instead. Quaritch’s unlikely to be softened just by Spider’s babyface; remember, Quaritch calls the terrifying sky-beast ikran a “cupcake”.

There’s more at work here.

Could it be that as he settles into Na’vi skin, Quaritch is becoming more human than he ever was?

Our ignorance of a power beyond us, isn’t proof that it doesn’t exist. Nor do we escape its power over us.

For all their tactics against Matadors and SMP-2 Crab Suits, both families might as well be meditating on the prayer of St Francis: “It’s in giving that we receive.” For it’s in forgoing his hostage Kiri that Quaritch ransoms Spider, it’s in staking everything to save their children do the Sullys find their children saving them.

Grateful for Lo’ak’s kindness, Payakan not just breaches, but beaches, to give the Sullys a chance to escape Quaritch’s clutches. Rising up clean off the water like a giant aircraft-carrier, it then hurls itself down onto the SeaDragon.

Beauty is as beauty does

Cameron’s wordplay with Kansas (Earth) and Pandora is like Dorothy’s discovery in The Wizard of Oz (1939): there’s no place like home. 

Why? Home is not a place! Home is not where you are, but where love is. If you’re loved, you needn’t flee from, or flee to.

Cameron’s sci-fi action-thriller begins with — of all things — a prayer, a hymn of gratitude for the first gift (of being loved), and its sister gift (the chance to love back). First, Neytiri sings thanks when happy, “blessed” with children. Finally, she sings thanks even when sad, “cursed” by a life snatched from her. That’s the way of water: “the sea gives and the sea takes” and “nothing is lost”. Even in grief, her cry “Thank you, Great Mother!” resounds.

Cameron relishes cheeky irony. Jake was the first “freak” in a wheelchair. Now “freaks” abound: Kiri, Spider and Lo’ak. All feel outcasts of a sort, but heavily-tailed Kiri calls Spider, the only one without a tail, “monkey boy”. Quaritch becomes the “blue” being he’s hated and hunted.

Happily, Cameron’s towering themes return.

Again, avatars aren’t just prototypes to playfully “try out”, they’re vital pathways to grow: beyond loss and longing, above slights and separations.

Again, women are on par with men, complementing rather than competing. Neytiri opens Jake’s eyes to what matters: they’re a family, not a squad. Ronal is a sought-after healer. General Ardmore is Frances (Edie Falco). The only one with a semblance of superpower is the slip of a girl, Kiri, and it’s Neytiri’s daring that saves her. As if that were not enough, Jake ends up following his wife’s lead (to stand firm and not keep fleeing) not because she’s a woman, but because her choice here is wise; far from being sidelined, she’s central.

Again, Cameron thrills in the journey upward, outward and downward, gazing at skies, forests, rocks, trees, oceans. Except, now he’s more adamant that what counts is the journey inward: husbands, wives, sons, daughters. Babies! Death — to our selfishness — may be the only pathway to life.

Younger son Lo’ak’s bond with Payakan isn’t incidental. Lo’ak too is a misjudged outcast, having to prove himself to Jake who has eyes only for his elder son, Neteyem (Jamie Flatters). When Lo’ak bursts from the ocean surface, a flailing Jake imagines it’s Neteyem to the rescue, until he’s told otherwise. 

Remember the blind Biblical Isaac? His son Jacob feels compelled to disguise himself in elder brother Esau’s hairier “skin” to claim his father’s blessing. Lo’ak doesn’t deceive, but he too feels compelled to beautify himself in “skin” (of heroics and daredevilry) so that his unseeing father blesses him as son. Jake first sees Lo’ak’s waywardness as wanton defiance instead of as a cry for acceptance, but when he finds that he’s imbibed the way of water, he sees him anew. 

For all his portrayals of power striding across the screen, Cameron defines power by its purpose. It is use if driven by a caring protection of the weak, but it is abuse if driven by fear, conquest. Power isn’t what you have (RDA’s tech, Na’vi’s skill with arrows, a Tsahik’s curative powers, or Kiri’s superpowers). It’s what you do with it.  

To Cameron, it wasn’t ever only about Tech or Nature. It was always, more importantly, about us; not us being better than Tech or Nature, but us being better than our mediocre or worst selves. And few make that point as engrossingly, as entertainingly as Cameron does.

Over three decades after Cameron released his Terminator 2: Judgement Day, few remember the shiny bolts that the T-800 sported. But many can’t forget the eerie warmth he radiated as Sarah pondered the “unfeeling” robot’s bond with her teenage son John: 

“The Terminator would never hurt him, never shout at him, get drunk and hit him or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there and it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went, this machine was the only one who measured up.”

Even then, Cameron wasn’t saying: Tech’s better, Nature’s better.  Even now, he’s reminding us: We’re better.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer, writing on pop culture. Some of his writing on Hollywood movies, movie icons, women in film, feminism in film, women directors, Hollywood's #MeToo has...