Home » Unconventional » Emad's SF » Paddling to the Promised Land, PART II – Cameron the submariner asks us to escape the American gree… blue zone!

Paddling to the Promised Land, PART II – Cameron the submariner asks us to escape the American gree… blue zone!

Image credits: BOY’S BEST FRIEND: Payakan is great, even gives a better performance than this squirt, but he’s still no substitute for Jonah’s whale.

… Sigourney Weaver hasn’t been getting the attention she deserves these last few years, even in the Ghostbusters franchise. They fixed that here. Now she’s got her funk back if you ask me!

By Emad Aysha

This is on par with her performances in Alien (1979) and Gorillas in the Mist (1988). I’m all for yet another Avatar movie if a sequel (or prequel) means more of one of my favourite actresses of all time, and if nostalgia is the bitter pill we have to swallow to see her again so be it. (There was way too much nostalgia for my liking when the whaling vessel began to sink, reminding you of The Abyss and Titanic, both Cameron productions. And they still had that annoying actor, Joel David Moore, in this movie too, a clear stand-in for Cameron).

The moral message is straightforward and clear. You see it in the story of the prized whales the humans are after. They originally were selfish and fought for territory, then learned to live with one another and stop the cycle of murder and atrocity. If only humans would take heed. Oh, how original!

The Biblical angles don't help much, I’m sad to say, such as the whale and Kiri’s virgin birth. The world-building or the undersea ecology was, in my opinion, even more, original than the first movie. Lots of people have noted ‘borrowings’ from other movies in the first Avatar, and I can add to the list The Last of the Mohicans (1992), precisely the opening sequence when they hunt the deer. They apologize to it after killing it, saying this was out of necessity. There’s an identical scene in Avatar (2009). Here the water philosophy felt authentic exemplified by the excellent relationship between the reef people and the whales, singing with them and learning of their wisdom. (They even have the same tattoos). I do however feel Cameron ‘was’ imitating the village interrogation and burning scene from Platoon (1986).

NEON NIGHTS: Concept art for the ‘Way of Water’. The future has never been so bright!

Punched in the moral gut
No, well, actually, it isn’t ‘that’ bad. Neytiri bargains with Quaritch by threatening to kill Spider in exchange for him letting Kiri go. And she’s deadly serious about saying a ‘son for a son.’ Even Spider was scared of her beforehand, seeing how bloodthirsty she’d become for her son’s untimely demise. (The thingamajig she inherits from her father gets damaged during her rage, hint, hint). Later she accepts him into the fold as a substitute son, which is a big deal since she was always suspicious of him. Kiri also felt she never fit in, not knowing who her father was, and all of Jake’s kids have human hands and get signalled out for discrimination. So I suppose that alludes to the integration of migrants and Muslims.

I ‘suppose’ the message here is that Americans should get over the shocks of 9/11 and forgive and forget, or else it’ll be an endless cycle of violence. That ‘would’ explain the curious quip Quaritch makes about how Marines can never be defeated. They can be killed, but they’ll regroup in hell. So I suppose I shouldn't be so harsh. But the cheesiness of the main storylines with those annoying kids, with their teenage American way of talking, gets in the form of a lot of this. (You feel like you're watching Prey all over again). Payakan made the mistake of going rogue just as the younger Jake made the mistake of breaking from the tribe he was betrothed to. (His younger son’s go-it-alone antics get his elder brother killed, surprise, surprise). Only by working together, Navi, animals, and plants, could they nullify the technological advantage of humans. Work with nature, which will reward you; work against it, and you sign your death warrant. Again, how original. The ending with Jake talking about family unity feels like amateur dramatics hour, with his eyes opening and gazing into the camera. If his voice were better, maybe I’d sympathize more.

GLOBAL WARNING: The battlegrounds of the future are being drawn in the murky (polluted, overfished) waters of today.

I will say one more thing in the movie’s favour before summing up. There seems to be an undercurrent, quite well concealed here, a counter-culture to the dominant culture in Hollywood and medialand. That is, on the one hand, a celebration of fatherhood – your responsibilities as a protector, with the attendant respect that should engender in your kids. (Jake’s kids always call him ‘sir,’ an ancient word nowadays in American culture). Secondly, on the other hand, it is a celebration of motherhood. You see this in the wife of the chief Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), a heavily pregnant woman (Ro'nal played annoyingly, on purpose, by Kate Winslet) who insists on going into battle to avenge the slaughtered whales. You can even see this in the pet whale, who initially was fighting the humans because they killed his mother. James Cameron has always been into these things, from The Terminator to Aliens. He’s the inventor of Sarah Conner and the guy who made Ripley a household name. And Kyle Reese was a pretty good father figure in his own right, along with Arnold in T2: Judgment Day. The absence of father figures in that sequel movie, human fathers, is thematically linked to the macho persona that Sarah Conner grew into; had to grow because there weren’t any men ready to assume the responsibility of fatherhood. (You see it in the scene where John Conner talks about his computer hacking skills which his mom learned from a boyfriend who was a nerd but didn't want to settle down anyway).

But you feel Cameron is emphasizing these things here to counter the assault on masculinity and the feminine in Hollywood, especially regarding being maternal. Look how jealous and ferocious Neytiri is when she loses her son and how protective she is of her people. Terminator: Dark Fate, while I genuinely liked it, made a mockery of both men and motherhood, killing John Conner in one go and denigrating Sarah Conner. (Not to mention killing off the blonde Anglo chick, Macken… err, Grace, in favour of the lackluster Danny).

WEB OF INTRIGUE: Spider in a scene reminiscent of 'Apocalypse Now'. Hasn’t Cameron learned anything from his previous scissors-and-paste antics?

So, all in all, it’s a good, if fractured, movie. The entertainment value, the reasonably good (political) morality fable, and (most of all) the sheer sense of wonder. It was like being a kid again, watching The Never-Ending Story, Enemy Mine, or Star Wars for the first time. A magical world of good versus evil, weird animals and aliens (or mythical beasts), delightful robots and strange, new exotic planets, and heroes struggling to come of age and prove themselves up against insurmountable stakes or escape the legacy of their fathers. That is what you see in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, another master class in world-building and epic storytelling.

I can’t ask for more than that in these trying times when Hollywood has sunk itself into the mire of (fake) identity politics and corporate pandering. I didn’t see any evidence of that here. Nothing wrong with a bit of harmless escapism once in a while. Now, if we could only escape the ugly reality of American imperialism through a trip to imagination boulevard… wouldn’t that be a dream worth paddling for?!!

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Emad Aysha
Academic researcher, journalist, translator and sci-fi author. The man with the mission to bring Arab and Muslim literature to an international audience, respectably.
Emad Aysha
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