Director James Cameron has not been shy in revealing what inspired him to make the highest-grossing film of all time, “Avatar” and its sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Cameron said in an interview, “Avatar very pointedly made reference to the colonial period in the Americas, with all its conflict and bloodshed between the military aggressors from Europe and the indigenous peoples…It’s not meant to be subtle.” Amassing almost two billion dollars in revenue since its release, the film’s recreation of America’s violent colonial period has proved profitable – but not ethical. 

The first film is set in a futuristic world where humans have depleted Earth’s resources. In search of more, they travel to Pandora – a lush moon inhabited by a local tribe called the Na’Vi. The military along with the protagonist, Jake Sully, infiltrate Pandora by transferring their consciousnesses into hybrid clones of the Na’vi, called Avatars. After losing his way in the forest Sully meets Neytiri, a Na’Vi woman, and he falls in love with her and her culture. Along with other Avatars, Sully decides against exterminating the Na’Vi and embodies the white savior trope by defeating the colonizing corporal in the third act. In the end, Sully remains on Pandora to become chief of the Na’Vi tribe. “Avatar: The Way of Water” picks up over a decade later with Sully’s avatar rocking locs as he attempts to save his family from his fellow colonizing earthlings, again.

Both films are reminiscent of European colonization and the brutal genocide of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. While Cameron offers a more optimistic alternative in which the Na’Vi people are able to defeat the imperialists with Sully’s help, the film is unable to transcend tired tropes. “Avatar: The Way of Water” crosses the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. 

By inhabiting the bodies of the Na’Vi people, we once again see the commodification of Indigenous people’s bodies as was seen during colonization and slavery. Furthermore, the Na’Vi are predominantly played by white actors– aside from Zoe Saldana. The lack of representation is not just a glaring contradiction to the film’s source material, it also promotes the white savior mentality often seen in films. 

The protagonist, Jake Sully, manages to save the Na’Vi people with sheer military genius? Not only does it lack logistical sense, it paints a false image of white people as the savior of Indigenous people when in reality it’s the exact opposite. ‘Avatar’ follows behind other Disney movies, such as Pocahontas and the Legend of Tarzan, by perpetuating white savior tropes within the subtext of colonization. Crystal Echo-Hawk, president and CEO of IllumiNative, says “It’s a level of arrogance once again that a White filmmaker can just somehow tell a story that’s based on Indigenous peoples better than Indigenous peoples ever could.” 

In 2010, Cameron joined the Xingu people in the Amazon to fight against a dam project and spoke about how the experience related to Avatar. “This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar – I couldn’t help but think that if (the Lakota Sioux) had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder.”

Cameron’s heart may have been in the right place in protesting the construction of a dam in the Amazon, but his comment is victim-blaming and ignorant. Once again, Cameron crossed the line. 

“Avatar: The Way of Water” has reignited conversations about what distinguishes cultural appropriation from cultural appreciation. Although Cameron strives for cultural appreciation, Sully has a parasitic relationship with his environment and his ignorance endangers both the Na’Vi and Metkina people. The production of the film itself is unrepresentative of the Indigenous cultures it appropriates and it seems Cameron prefers complacency over apologies.

Cameron responded to criticisms in an interview with Unilad, “It’s not up to me, speaking from a perspective of White privilege, if you will, to tell them that they’re wrong,” he said of his critics. “It has validity. It’s pointless for me to say, ‘Well, that was never my intention.” 

Cameron plans to make three more sequels and further profit off the film’s depiction of colonization. Will you be watching, or will you be boycotting?