Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for Avatar: The Way Of Water.
“Unobtainium.” To critics of the original Avatar, that word is tantamount to “checkmate.” It’s a surefire argument winner; how could a guy as supposedly smart as James Cameron exert so little effort in naming a made-up mineral? Sure, unobtainium may be a real concept, akin to a widget or saying “mineral TBD,” but couldn’t Cameron have come up with a more impressive sounding name?
Good news haters: he almost certainly heard you. Unobtainium is mentioned nowhere during the entire run time of Avatar: The Way Of Water. It still exists—it’s the reason the floating mountains float, after all. But the greedheads of the RDA now have different goals than mere mineral rights. First, the military is here to build permanent homes for folks escaping the dying planet Earth. And second, private profiteers are here to harvest the seas, killing intelligent, whale-like Tulkuns to extract a substance called amaretum from their heads. This amber-like gel, we’re told, can stop human aging—not that that will help if the planet’s about to go boom. But humans being humans, we tend to think short-term, as whale-killing also proves.
Short-term thinking also explains the most tedious criticism of the first film: that it’s just Dances With Wolves in space, complete with all the problematic “going native” and “white savior” aspects of the narrative. Put aside for a moment the fact that Cameron’s actual credited inspiration is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter Of Mars novels, which line up much more closely with the Avatar story and predate Kevin Costner’s Western by more than 75 years.
The Dances comparisons seem simply based on the fact that both involve a military man “going native,” or eschewing their former culture and assimilating to a new one while retaining all the privileges of their former status. It often goes hand in hand with the “white savior” trope, where a white person muscles their way into another culture and “fixes” everything.
In Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner plays a Union soldier during the Civil War who transfers to a station on the Western frontier and falls for a white woman raised Sioux by the tribe’s medicine man. He eventually leaves his position in the Army to live with the Sioux, though in the end, he doesn’t save them—he’s actually a liability, and he goes off to live on his own outside of the Army and the Sioux.
There’s another complication, as Jake Sully isn’t merely a human Marine assimilating into a new culture, but one taking on a new body altogether. In The Way Of Water, Cameron subtly addresses the Dances With Wolves element as he shows us what an actual white person who has spent significant time with the Na’vi looks like on Pandora, in the form of Spider (Jack Champion). A human child unable to travel home, Spider grows up among Na’vi children because he has nobody else to play with. And while he certainly learns Tarzan-like skills, he’s not better than the locals at anything. He does, however, navigate the jungle better than most humans, as most kids who grow up learning a skill will do better than adults starting later in life.
So what about the “white savior” narrative? Burroughs and Tarzan suggest such influences, obviously, with Tarzan the classic example of a white kid growing up in the jungle to become superior to the locals at everything. But it’s less that than it is a pure “savior” narrative—the term “avatar” as originally coined in Sanskrit refers to a god incarnated in flesh. The humans in this story, who name their cloned bodies avatars, are pointedly playing god, with all the hubris that implies. And like a prophesied Messiah, fully human and fully divine, they come off as both Na’vi and “sky person” at once. Yet there’s an actual deity in play too: the planetary consciousness Eywa, who essentially baptizes Jake Sully as a savior with the Woodsprite seeds, long before he’s capable of being one.
The white savior criticism suggests that a white protagonist comes into a native population and becomes better than them at everything. A corollary, the Trinity syndrome, named for The Matrix, suggests an expert local woman will train him only to have him become inexplicably better than her, and her subservient to him as a love interest, never again being as badass as she is in her opening scene. Superficially, Avatar feels like it might fit easily into those categories.
The way The Way Of Water undercuts this is to suggest that Jake isn’t so special after all. He became great in the first one because he was the first human in an avatar body to have military training, something the program had eschewed, but couldn’t avoid once Jake’s more intellectual twin brother died, and only Jake could replace him. The combination of Earth and Na’vi military training made him the most adaptable warrior, but there’s a third factor, too: as far as we can tell, avatar pilots don’t die if their avatar bodies do. Thus, when Jake takes a leap of faith onto the back of the mighty Toruk, he can afford to be more reckless than any Na’vi would. If it doesn’t work, he’ll still at least be alive.
The Way Of Water shows what happens when humans with even better military experience than Jake take avatar bodies. Arch-villain Quaritch (Stephen Lang) tames a Banshee much more quickly than Jake did, and he hasn’t even had any Na’vi training. The only major disadvantage he has is that his team doesn’t know the terrain as well as the Sully kids. Aside from that, as a hybrid human/Na’vi with the abilities of both, a Recom—which Jake technically is now too, perma-bonded in the blue body—is going to be superior to either. Jake may have seemed like a savior because he was the only one last time, but now there’s a whole gang of them, and as saviors go, they’re more like Negan’s gang of that same name in The Walking Dead.
As for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) being Trinity, both films take pains to keep her equal—recall that she saved Jake, in the end, last time. Now a mother of four, she responds a bit differently and more emotionally in the sequel, but when the time comes, she and Jake save their kids equally ... only to both need their kids to save them in the end. Plus she’s philosophically vindicated: as great as it is that they made new allies among the Mekkayina, she was right all along that they couldn’t avoid the fight and shouldn’t run. Meanwhile, it seems Eywa has baptized a new chosen one in the form of Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), so maybe Jake was never the real savior after all—just the guy chosen to help raise the one coming after. Jake the Baptist, as it were.
Not everyone may agree that these are adequate responses to criticisms, of course—James Cameron has lately, and correctly, been dragged for some older tone-deaf remarks he’d made in the course of some well-intentioned activism. It’s clear, however, that his story is playing a long game, and in the end, some of the plot points may not be what they first seemed.