Avatar Haters Owe James Cameron an Apology


Perhaps like you, I did not await Avatar: The Way of Water with any degree of excitement. I’d sit around with mates and someone would mention that an Avatar sequel was on its way, and we’d shrug.

When was the last time anyone mentioned Avatar, we’d wonder. In the decade since it became the biggest film ever made, had you heard anyone reference it in passing? The main guy was called Jake, right? And who was the other guy, the blue guy? No, the other blue guy. You know the guy.

Saying that Avatar had no cultural footprint became a meme. It was, at most, a brief interlude in the decades-long failure of 3D cinema, and the go-to Halloween outfit for two years running. (It was drowned out by people who dressed up as Daenerys and Jon Snow in 2011, and never managed to get its foothold back.) Even when the sequel eventually arrived last year it seemed like it was somehow both unbelievably popular and sinking without trace.

But now we all probably owe James Cameron an apology. Avatar: The Way of Water has elbowed Titanic (also directed by Cameron) out of the way to become the third highest-grossing film of all time. It’s taken $2.24 billion across the globe. Jim: sorry, mate. You obviously know exactly how to make a preposterously successful movie, having done it like five times now. We shouldn’t have dismissed you and your blue guys.


Clearly, that is silly money. But I maintain there should really be more ripples caused by Avatar’s ascent into the top three biggest films ever. There's very little chat about it, no sense of excitement in the culture at large, no awards buzz.

You’d think that a character like – for instance – Mick Scoresby, the Aussie pirate who lives to drill holes in whales so he can reap a harvest of brain goo which makes humans live forever, would make a bit of impact. Scoresby (played by Brendan Cowell) is just one of the memorable characters who turns up in The Way of Water. He’s a whacky guy who gets his arm cut off. Where are the Mick Scoresby fancams? Why can’t I buy a Mick Scoresby t-shirt?

However, there’s clearly something happening here and it’s something which I (and most of my film-watching friends) missed in The Way of Water, and the Avatar world at large. We saw it as a technological coup that leaned on the plot of Pocahontas (white guy meets native woman while stealing her land’s resources, they fall in love, white guy’s boss gets what’s coming to him, happily ever etc). But we didn’t get it.

I went into The Way of Water expecting to be baffled. The couple from the first film head out into the wider world to stop its destruction. It’s very much three hours and 12 minutes long, but its charm is in the way it really means what it’s saying: don’t destroy your environment, and don’t accept the idea that everything is going to shit. There’s a moral certainty to it which is very embarrassingly Nineties, very James Cameron, and very hard to deny makes you feel some unexpectedly big feelings.

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Is it good? I genuinely don’t know. The Avatar universe is all about feeling, and communion, and the thrill of connecting across boundaries. (And harvesting goo from magic whale brains.) All of that sense is captured in an episode of How To With John Wilson, the rambling docu-comedy in which the filmmaker heads out into New York and follows the strangeness he finds wherever it takes him.

In one episode Wilson goes along to a meeting at a hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where a handful of enthusiasts get together to talk about Avatar. A cardboard cut out of James Cameron stands at the entrance, greeting fans with a friendly Na’vi greeting – “Kaltxi” – in a speech bubble.

The half-dozen Avatar fans speak in Na’vi, and one of them gives a lecture on the linguistics of the language spoken by the big blue guys. Then they sit around in what feels like a therapy circle, and talk about the low mood which can follow time spent in Cameron’s world.


“It feels like wow, this is so beautiful, and it also just feels impossible,” says one wearing a fedora. “Like, it can never be.”

A fan who acquired a brain injury in a car accident would take the chance to wake up in a perfectly working body: “I would 100 percent be in that link unit.”

Another found the Na’vi learning group when he was at a very low ebb, and was picked up by another member who saw his pain. “He’s the father that I always wanted,” he says of the guy with the fedora, visibly choked up.

Part of the reason Wilson goes to the meeting in the first place is exactly the ‘huh?’ factor I had felt about the idea of an Avatar sequel, more than a decade since the first film opened. Was anyone truly asking for this? But these fans don’t just know Cameron’s world; they really deeply feel it.

That’s Cameron’s superpower as a filmmaker. Particularly since 1989’s The Abyss, he’s never been embarrassed about being earnest, and really embracing the very biggest emotions. It doesn’t make him cool, but it’s his sincere optimism and faith in technology, plus a hatred of human avarice, which cuts through to this hardcore of fans.

“Ultimately it comes from a desire to want something better,” says the Avatar fan who had been at a low ebb.

They sit down for slices of cake with a slightly frighteningly blue icing on top, then go and climb trees together in Central Park. It looks absolutely lovely. This bunch of disparate people brought together by their love for a purer, more genuine world that they didn’t think could exist made it real for an afternoon. And for the first time, I wished I could climb into Avatar, too.

FromEsquire UK

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