The ramifications of a post-‘Avatar’ blockbuster landscape

By Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor

When James Cameron announced that the “Avatar” sequels had set release dates, internet discourse commenced about the original movie’s cultural impact—or perceived lack thereof.

Doubters noted that they couldn’t even recall the protagonist’s name, and claimed that “nobody asked” for a sequel to a movie that came out over a decade ago. In a culture of increasing capriciousness, 12 years is a fatally long interval for a movie and its sequel. Put in perspective, between the two “Avatar” movies are the entire histories of Instagram, “Game of Thrones,” and drill music.

Against their expectations, “Avatar: The Way of Water” grossed two billion dollars at the international box office, putting the debates to rest.

Its success is not a phenomenon. “Avatar” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” are event movies, like “Gone With the Wind,” “Jurassic Park,” or Cameron’s own “Titanic” before it. Audiences continually show up for scale and spectacle.

So the debates on its impact—mostly as it pertains to internet and meme culture—are moot. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is the extant relic of a pre-internet popular movie landscape—the simple novelty of a new “Avatar” is enough to draw people to theaters, recalling a time of homogenized pop culture when once in a blue moon came a movie that everyone had to see.

Besides, the film’s primary impact is not on popular culture, but the film industry.

For anyone who’s forgotten the movie: “Avatar” is set in the far-future. A depleted Earth has to siphon resources from the planet Pandora, which is rich in the valuable mineral unobtainium. To better do this, the humans have an Avatar program, which essentially puts human brains into synthetic bodies of the native Na’Vi species. Our protagonist, Jake Sully, is an Avatar sent to mingle with the Na’Vi and learn where their unobtanium is stored. He meets Neytiri, a Na’Vi who teaches him the ways of her people. Eventually he falls in love with her and the planet, and decides not to siphon its resources.

On top of being the most unsubtle movie of all time, “Avatar” was always primarily a vehicle to create the world of Pandora, which Cameron had massive ambitions for.

As it’s often described, “Avatar” was a vision Cameron long held, but lacked the technology to realize. In 1994, he had a full treatment written for the movie, and while making “Titanic” already planned a 1999 “Avatar” release.

However, he concluded the technology was premature. So after making the biggest movie of all time, he spent 12 years inventing and refining the necessary technology to make the next biggest movie of all time.

The visual effects innovations for “Avatar” allowed Cameron to shoot actors in motion capture suits against motion capture stages, and view the scene rendered with CGI in real time. All of this, and shot in 3D.

These technological breakthroughs facilitate moviemaking that no longer needs to be rooted in reality. And though I believe that “Avatar” centers the human element of its story, it is not difficult to read the movie as promoting fantasy over reality.

The consequence of this can be seen in the post-”Avatar” Hollywood blockbuster landscape that privileges visual effects over practical filmmaking. The abject form of this is in Marvel movies that employ green screen and CGI for the most mundane tasks, exploiting non-unionized visual effects labor.

Before we go any further—like water, let me be clear. I love “Avatar.” I love its simple love story and simplistic environmentalist narrative, and these in contrast with its maximalist presentation. I think it only ever uses its breakthrough technology in earnest, and its moments of raw environmental beauty are touching in a way not many landscapes can be.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” follows Jake Sully and Neytiri about a decade later, who now have a family: Neteyam, the older, obedient son, and Lo’ak, the younger, rebellious son. Also included in the family dynamic are Kiri, the Immaculate Conception baby of the deceased Sigourney Weaver, and Spider, a white human with dreads who paints blue stripes on himself and climbs vines with the Sully family. There is also baby Tuktirey, a daughter too young to be presently important to the plot.

However, the movie has faced accusations of cultural appropriation. The Na’Vi are metaphorical indigenous aliens, with customs and language drawn from various indigenous cultures—but almost all the Na’Vi actors are overwhelmingly white. Kate Winslet in the credits made me do a double take.

This most overtly manifests in the character of Spider. Audiences mostly found him cringe, but he is an essential component of the story Cameron wants to tell.

The first “Avatar” is all about a human that loves Pandora so much he becomes Na’Vi. In “Avatar: The Way of Water,” Cameron makes the concession that he will never be Na’Vi, despite how much of his life he has put into the world. Spider is the unflattering mirror held up to Cameron and the audience, someone who lives vicariously through unattainable fantasies.

Regardless, he still peeves some audience members, and I empathize with these criticisms. Even the original “Avatar” has itself been accused of perpetuating a white savior narrative, as Jake Sully is the rallying force for the Na’Vi to come together and fight against the invading humans.

Nevertheless, it’s easy for me to turn a blind eye to the problems of the “Avatar” franchise because the Na’Vi aren’t real, and that the story is so earnestly anticolonialist that I truly don’t believe any of these issues crossed Cameron’s mind. But the motion capture innovations in “Avatar: The Way of Water” could definitely have dubious ramifications.

Kiri, the canonical synthetic daughter of Sigourney Weaver and possibly god, is the Na’Vi equivalent of a 14-year-old. She is also herself played by 70-year-old Weaver. This made me do a triple take.

I’m certain that Weaver doesn’t have the dexterity, let alone the physique of a 14-year-old girl. So at what point is it still acting if an actor only plays a character’s face?

James Cameron has said that he doesn’t believe the motion capture technology diminishes his actors’ performances, likening the CGI to makeup. Zoe Saldaña’s powerhouse performance makes this clear.

But the motion capture technology still has its dubious uses, in allowing actors to play roles that normally wouldn’t fly, like white actors playing indigenous characters.

Of course, these are just hypothetical situations, and should be treated as such. Each entry in the “Avatar” franchise introduces incredibly powerful technology to the world, but only ever uses them in earnest. 

And the interesting thing about the 12-year gap is that it allows “The Way of Water” to avoid the uncanny valley. “Avatar” gets a lot of its charm from the actual humans interacting with the hyperreal Na’Vi, who have an unmistakable but nonthreatening video-game sheen. After releasing this technology into the world, other projects are allowed to refine and fail with it. Then “Avatar: The Way of Water” returns with impeccable visual effects, creating a race of aliens that look more real than some people, and that in 3D you can nearly reach out and touch.

And to reach out and touch, it becomes weirdly evident, is what James Cameron wishes to do with the Na’Vi.

You see, Cameron had plans for “Avatar” in the 90s, but the idea goes back much further. The conceptual seed of “Avatar” comes from his mother’s one-time dream of a 12-foot-tall blue-skinned woman, a relayed image that had apparently stuck with Cameron ever since.

It also seems that particular image had seeped into his desires.

In a notorious 2009 interview with Playboy, he goes on a sizable tangent about how horny he is for Neytiri, how she was informed by his own adolescent fantasies, weird sexist ideas of real women being unknowable, and the schadenfreude he gets from knowing viewers of his movie will similarly fall in love with an unattainable, tall blue alien mommy.

“They won’t be able to control themselves,” Cameron rants to a probing interviewer. “They will have actual lust for a character that consists of pixels of ones and zeros. You’re never going to meet her, and if you did, she’s 10 feet tall and would snap your spine.”

Like the final shot of both movies, this interview is eye-opening. One may even, like myself, momentarily think that the entire decades-long point of making “Avatar” was for the world’s biggest-budget, realized sexual fantasy wish fulfillment of a grown man who is—by his own admission to a Playboy interviewer—emotionally 14 years old.

And while this is probably at least partly true and extremely funny, it’s indisputable that Cameron wholeheartedly loves Pandora and the movies he makes.

In conclusion, “Avatar” shows how far a man will go to realize his dream of a tall blue alien mommy. I eagerly await the rest of the sequels.