Humankind will never fully understand the world they have inherited. Director James Cameron's attempt however, is commendable.
Through Avatar: The Way of Water, his biggest achievement is in bringing the stunning beauty of nature into mainstream cinema like never before. Weaving decades of research, knowledge, and reflection into Hollywood at this depth and scale has simply not been attempted; not for lack of skill but mostly of intent and ecological adventure.
In all honesty, there are many things about Avatar that don't work well for many people, but let me tell you a truth that you are least likely to know—most concepts that you see in the film are not imaginary. It was not imaginary even when the first Avatar movie released back in the day in 2009.
Fungi, Trees, and Us
In the first Avatar movie an important tree, the Tree of Souls, was shown central to the lives of the Navi forest tribe, who connected themselves to it and recorded their memories with Eywa, their spiritual deity. We see human scientists in the film being stunned after discovering the extent of communication that goes on in the forest, between Eywa and other flora and fauna, through the tree's roots and flowers.
Ten years later in 2019, the documentary Fantastic Fungi released on Netflix and made many interesting facts about trees, roots, and mushrooms known to lay people like us.
Fantastic Fungi dives deep into explaining how fungi, like mushrooms and others, have underground roots called hyphae. These hyphae, when they connect with each other and form a network, are called mycelium. Why is this mumbo-jumbo important at this point in our story?
Because trees in a forest can use this fantastic network, like the nervous system in a human body, to communicate with each other! Since time immemorial, healthy trees have been using mycelium as a channel to send carbon to their other tree-friends that are carbon-deficient, helping each other without us knowing what's going on beneath our little feet.
The Magic of Whales
Similarly in the second Avatar film, ace director James Cameron explores the world of whales in great depth. He throws open the doors to unexplored wonder and spectacles, colourful and alive, so the whole world can be mesmerised and sensitised.
A large part of the film depicts a connection the Navi water tribes have with these whale-like creatures—known as Tulkun—which are described as spiritual beings that the Navi speak to, share memories, exchange stories, compose music, and form a deep bond with.
Guess what? This is what real whales do too! (Except for speaking with humans, of course)
Whales are known to compose songs, have deep bonds with their family, they laugh, celebrate and feel complex emotions; they form traditions and pass them on from one generation to another, they have culture and learn hunting techniques that are unique to their geography, their languages are rich and detailed, and they live fulfilled lives. The docu-series The Secret of the Whales on Disney+ records these observations in an engaging manner.
In this film, however, the Tulkun's depiction is not limited to just its brilliance. Cameron's pain about whale hunting is evidently visible too.
Through brutal hunting scenes of the Tulkun, his message is loud and clear - whale hunting has hurt our ecosystems like no other and we cannot afford to lose these gentle giants to human greed. His mastery is in connecting it to the central storyline in a way that isn't preachy.
This aside, what does not work in Cameron's Avatar is the one-sided ‘satanic’ depiction of technology, advancement, and development. He is not careful in the line that he toes—running the risk of spreading an extremely negative sentiment against scientific progress.
At the stage that we are, only technological advancement can save the planet's ecology—that is the paradoxical truth. By going against it with such hate is not in our best interest. It must be impressed upon the minds of young dreamers that scientific progress can do wonders for the world—the same that enabled Cameron to shoot his Avatar films.
Yet, it is a masterpiece that must be seen on the big screen. In 3D. Avatar connects the wonders of the Universe in ways that we cannot imagine.