The long-awaited sequel to James Cameron’s groundbreaking film Avatar arrived this weekend. The original film was an avalanche of color and visual triumph for animation that had never been seen. The storyline a formula arriving out of Dances With Wolves confronted colonialism with its genocide, cultural and physical by a technologically advanced society.
As a Professor having taught Mesoamerican Art History it is hard to not draw comparisons to the conquest of the Americas in the cultural encounter of indigenous Americas with European civilization. The outcome of this encounter was the struggle of the church to declare the Indigenous people as fully humanholding rights to property and protection of the law within the Holy Roman Empire under the King of Spain. The parallel in Avatar is that the struggle between science and capitalist greed paralleling the church verses the exploits and greed of the conquistadors. In the Avatar story line the iconic struggles are well articulated in the fully developed characters of Sigourney Weaver and the corporate manager with his army of mercenaries headed by the supremely evil Colonel Quaritch.
In Avatar: The Way of Water we neither observe the magnificent vision where the animators employ vivid gestures of color that paints Pandora in distinct opposition to the beleaguered and dying earth. When you arrive at Pandora it was much like the experience for audiences when Dorothy opens the door to see OZ for the first time. In The Way of Water the animation gives way to naturalism rather than the super real, breathtaking visualization of the original Avatar. The underwater world that we are introduced to is bland, overwhelmed by blue and gray. They had the opportunity to create a water world on Pandora that rivaled the forests of the original film. Such a disappointment for this viewer.
The next disappointment follows with a storyline and characters that do not catapult successfully from the original. Our marine biologist is a cardboard cutout fed a few lines to reveal a new plot line. We see corporate greed’s desire to bring back to Earth eternal life by extracting glandular fluids from Tulkum which goes nowhere. Sigourney Weaver’s character and team of scientists in the original are fully developed and complex, facing deep ethical and scientific concerns in conflict with corporate lack of vision and greed. The biologist is merely complicit with a bunch of goons totally missing a corporate manager trying to find some middle ground between science and profits.
Let’s hope that the writers, animators and director can pull it together for part III. They have left open the possibility of character transformation in Colonel Quaritch, Avatar’s Darth Vader. As in Return of the Jedi, Avatar can be saved in the way Luke redeems Darth Vader, Javier can redeem his father, Colonel Quaritch. Fire the animators who sacrificed the splendid super real Pandora for this unimpressive water world of bleak realism. Let’s see the reemergence of the iconic triad between indigenous rights, science and corporate profits.
Michael K. Aakhus is Professor of Art at the University of Southern Indiana. He retired as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts.