Is James Cameron brave enough to double down on Avatar’s important ecological message?

Avatar made a powerful statement about conservation. Luke Buckmaster asks: in a hyper partisan world, where these subjects are more important than ever, will James Cameron have the courage to continue the conversation?

The lanky blue aliens are still big; it’s the pictures that got small. James Cameron and 20th Century Studios are betting that Avatar: The Way of Water will work wonders with audiences, despite the original production—which remains the highest grossing movie in history—leaving a bizarrely faint imprint on the zeitgeist (as has been previously argued). The big question is not whether the belated sequel will draw a huge crowd (of course it will) but whether the size of that crowd will be commensurate with the scale of the investment.

Sporting an estimated budget of around US$350-400 million, Cameron himself has stated that in order for The Way of Water to start making money it would need to become “the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history.” Them’s some tight odds. There’s also the fact that Avatar 3, 4 and 5 are coming down the pipeline irrespective, it seems, of whether the public wants them or not.

The most interesting question surrounding The Way of Water is whether Cameron will have the fortitude to continue important political conversations raised in the original. Times have changed since Avatar blew up the box office in 2009: we now live in a more partisan era where virtually everything—including scientific facts—is viewed through an ideological lens. An astonishingly large portion of the American population, for instance, believe Trump’s lie about a stolen election. What do you reckon these people think about ecological crisis, the genocide of Indigenous people, colonialism, and the cataclysmic effect of capitalism onto the natural world?

Avatar is explicitly about these things, Cameron ramming his messages home with the subtlety of a two-by-four to the face. An early scene states what humans are doing on the lushly exotic planet of Pandora, with Giovanni Ribisi’s villainous corporate administrator holding a chunk of “unobtanium” and declaring: “This is why we’re here…this little grey rock sells for 20 million a kilo.”

This clearly frames the film as a commentary on the environment-destroying havoc of extreme capitalism. Later, Sigourney Weaver’s scientist explains the remarkable nature of the trees on this planet. They’re not just leaves and wood, she says, but conduits that share connections, like brain neurons, allowing the Na’vi to do incredible things such as uploading and downloading memories.

In a painfully accurate caricature of the way right wing blowhards dismiss the rapidly escalating climate crisis, Selfridge spits back: “What the hell have you people been smoking out there? They’re just goddamn trees!”

Conservatives lined up to dismiss the film as leftist propaganda. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat saw “a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message.” Libertas’ Govindini Murty vented about Avatar‘s “incredibly disturbing anti-human, anti-military, anti-western world view.” The Weekly Standard’s John Podhoretz slammed its “deep expression of anti-Americanism.” Big Hollywood’s John Nolte saw nothing more than “a thinly disguised, heavy-handed and simplistic sci-fi fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War.” And on we go.

It’s important for every film—especially the big-hitters—to ignite conversation and debate. This is one of the great functions of art. But will Cameron have the chutzpah to be as nakedly political, with so much on the line, in an America more obsessed than ever with the culture wars? It’d be a bold move, countering the toothless flapdoodle of franchises such as the MCU and Star Wars (with only occasional exceptions).

In many ways awareness of environmental issues has never been more mainstream, but at the same time the state of multiplex cinema is chronically meek. The rise and dominance of the MCU has played a huge role in accelerating the reduction of popular entertainment to a state of risk-averse monotonous stagnancy. Even occasional hit movies that belong to an unavoidably political context find ways to be apoliticalTop Gun: Maverick being an obvious example. As Politico put it: “Aside from a few feints to the realities of drone warfare and a geopolitical landscape described so vaguely it almost becomes comedic, politics are utterly absent.”

Things are different on streaming platforms, which, while also riddled with homogenised goo, offer bolder and more diverse big budget content (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a masterpiece, for instance, even if it seemed to get swallowed up by the algorithms pretty quick). Cameron wants, needs the prestige of cinema. That means reaching for the back rows, and presenting a film—like the first Avatar—that’s in part a coat hanger for special effects. But does it mean being topical and political? Does it mean having an explicitly pro-conservation message?

You’d hope so, given the state of the world’s oceans is dire and getting worse. An IPCC report published in 2019 for example found that oceans (making up more than 70% of the world’s surface) have “absorbed between 20% and 30% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions since the 1980s.” Currently, as one expert put it, the world’s oceans “are in a state of complete imbalance.” Translation: shit’s getting real. The Way of Water will arrive in cinemas the same month the Cop15 UN biodiversity summit is being held, which leading scientists have described as an event that will determine “the fate of the entire living world.”

I’m not suggesting a powerful pro-ecological message from The Way of Water will introduce some magical shift in consciousness and compel society to properly address the climate emergency. But during these critical times for the future of the planet, mainstream audiences of all political persuasions could certainly do with big and bold reminders of the importance of preserving the natural world, and rebelling against forces of capitalism hellbent on destroying it. Over to you, Jim!