“Avatar: The Way of the Water” is the quintessential American blockbuster. It is an empty, shiny piece of machinery, perfectly calibrated to please American audiences. The movie feels oppressively American, not in its plot, but in its perspective and world.
The new “Avatar” takes place some years after the first. Jake Sully and Neytiri now have a large Na’vi family, including a very bored-sounding Sigourney Weaver and two sons who I kept mixing up, one of whom sounded like an 18-year-old frat boy. After a brief introduction in the jungle, the Sully family flee to a distant water clan, pursued by the marines from the last film who have been resurrected as Na’vi to hunt down Jake.
Jake Sully narrates large portions of the movie, which gives the entire film a distinctly American twang. Throughout most of it, he sounds like he would fit better in a recruitment ad for the Marines, and at any moment might begin reciting slogans. “The few, the brave, the blue.” He doesn’t say that. But he does say, “our family is our fortress,” which might as well be a Marine slogan.
But it’s not just because of Jake’s all-too-American narration that the movie feels American. Throughout the film, there’s an instance on violence as a panacea, and a vacuous show of multiculturalism that feels steeped in American melting pot ideals. There’s Jake Sully’s oppressively heterosexual nuclear family. And there’s the film’s shyness of foreign language, and its default assumption that people speak English. When the Sullys arrive at a foreign water clan, the new tribe immediately begins speaking English, and besides a little bit of weird underwater sign language, there’s no hint that these are a foreign people, with a different native language.
All of this results in a movie that feels American, even though any obvious signs of its Americanness have been rubbed off. The film might posture as un-American, as somehow global and environmental and progressive — it’s not. It’s Middle American and barely liberal. There are large, rambunctious families, and children that act a lot like children raised in a house on capitalist Earth. The movie is so buttoned-up, so pseudo-religious, that its world feels like it was made for nuclear families like Jake Sully’s, even if they are dipped in the aesthetic of Indigenous people. But if they weren’t blue, the Sullys would very much fit into any suburban house. They could go to church on Sundays and take their kids to soccer games. I can easily imagine Jake Sully grabbing a beer and watching the game. There’s Neytiri making a dinner casserole. They pray, yes to a weird tree or underwater coral, but it’s all really the same. They’re the family that has a Coexist bumper sticker and a Prius, even though Jake is former military and he’s got a bit of a conservative edge.
This is the blockbuster movie that America dreamed of, in which a very American family — multicultural and maybe broadly liberal in some ways, but still very traditional — plays the central role, and gets to be the hero. It’s the idle daytime fantasy of most of the country. Nine to five, people will fantasize about being Jake Sully, married to Neytiri; about being different, but not really; about fighting for something so nondescript as to be totally righteous: for family and the fate of the world.
This magnificent trick, of crafting a blockbuster movie so generically American, was accomplished by rubbing off everything singular about the movie. Anything that might stir the human spirit — anything that might appeal to what is odd in us, what is ugly in us, what is beautiful in us — has been obliterated by the force of all its bland quality, by an overwhelming show of sheer craftsmanship, by its obvious, excessive prettiness. There is no fear, there is no sadness, there is no love. There is a gesture towards the sex appeal of near-naked blue bodies, swimming and fighting and hunting and touching, but without any eroticism. There are no sex scenes. There is a gesture towards true violence, towards pain and bloodiness and war, but without any actual blood, without any real death. We are shown hundreds of dead soldiers, with relatively little remorse or reflection. All that’s left is the subterranean, conflicting desires and values of all Americans: lust that won’t express itself, overwhelming self-righteousness, complete freedom and total devotion to family. We may not like this movie — I certainly don’t. But it’s all our fault. “Avatar” is nothing more than what we already wanted.