The Stereotype is Dead? No! – A Review of Avatar: The Way of Water

By Dr Nikolas Sellheim
Image © Disney.

The stereotype is dead? No. Long live the stereotype indeed.

Dr Nikolas Sellheim reviews Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).

Dr Nikolas Sellheim
Director, Sellheim Environmental
Fellow, Polar Research and Policy Initiative

Attention! Many spoilers included.

In 2009, director James Cameron released a movie which was one of a kind at that time: Avatar. Not only was the visualisation of this epic science fiction movie something very new, something aesthetic and simply impressive, it also depicted a science fiction version of indigenous resistance against ruthless, reckless and resource-hungry intruders. 

In Avatar 1, the indigenous inhabitants of the jungle moon Pandora, the Navi, successfully defended their home against humans, who, with the help of avatars, aimed to undermine the Navi and gain access to the resources of Pandora. One of these avatars is paralysed Corporal Jake Sully (portrayed by Sam Worthington), who becomes an avatar, thereby gaining back his fully movement. Throughout the film, Sully as his own avatar becomes attached to the Navi and ends up fighting with them against the human intruders. 

Avatar: The Way of Water (henceforth Avatar 2) is the sequel to 2009s box office success. In this movie, Sullys Avatar 1-sweetheart, Navi woman Neytiri te Tskaha Moat’ite (portrayed by Zoe Zaldaña) and Jake Sully have founded a family with two sons (Neteyam and Loak), one daughter (Tuktirey) and one adopted daughter (Kiri), who happened to be the biological daughter of exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver), who died in Avatar 1. In addition to these, the Sully family — whose motto is the Sullys stick together” — also quite opportunistically look after a parentless child, Miles “Spider” Socorro, who grew up on Pandora amongst remaining humans and the Navi after the human invasion, but who himself does not have a family and is the son of the evil mercenary invader (Miles Quaritch, portrayed by Stephen Lang) who got killed in Avatar 1

The story of the 03:10 hours long movie can be summarised as follows: Sully and his family have had a period of peace after the invasion. When the older kids are somewhere in their teens, human ships reappear, aiming to exploit Pandora again. On board is the avatar of Miles Quaritch, whose memories were preserved before he was killed. With a group of marines, avatar-Quaritch aims to be like the Navi in order to fulfil his quest to find and kill Sully. In order to protect the forest Navi, with whom the Sully family live, the Sullys leave the forest and find refuge amongst the sea Navi. Amidst some teenager conflicts between the Sully teens and sea Navi teens, Sullys younger rebellious problem-son Lo’ak befriends an outcast whale-like creature, a Tulkun, who himself is not liked by the sea Navi for being an outcast from his own Tulkun clan/family/group. Solidarity amongst outcasts, it seems. Alas, Quaritch and his lot succeed in finding Sully and start to spread terror to kill him. In a final battle, Quaritch is defeated with the help of the outcast Tulkun and almost killed (by choking underwater) by Sully. Unfortunately for Sully, Spider shows a loyalty conflict since he sees a father figure in Quaritch and rescues him from certain death. During the battle, Sully loses his older poster son Neteyam, and over his dead body, he indicates massive resistance against impending human colonisation of Pandora. With this — a close-up of Sully opening his eyes, looking very determined — the film ends. 

While sitting in the movie theatre, my eyeballs started hurting from all the eyeballing throughout the movie. Because the film is the most stereotypical depiction of so many different things that it starts hurting. But lets start one step at a time. The marines (or mercenaries) in the movie are, of course, tough guys (and a woman): Tattooed, muscular, iroquois haircuts, boo-yahs”, semper fis, and, of course, bloodthirsty — with an inherent lust to kill Sully. The marines are all avatars, too, and aim to live like, to be, the Navi in order to find Sully. Paired with this mimicry and the seemingly supreme military skills, they are optimistic, if not certain, that they will catch and kill their former team member. In the end, however, their military skills are reduced to taking hostages — Sullys kids and Spider who happen to discover them and, naive as they are, get captured by them — who are used to draw Sully and Neytiri close. In this first encounter, several of the marines get killed by the Sullys despite their military training and machine guns. Neither of the Sullys receives any scratch, of course.

Moving on to the Navi. The Navi are significantly larger than humans, and they are exotically blue. The forest Navi live similar to the Ewoks in Star Wars and worship Eywa, the entity that keeps all life on Pandora together, allowing the Navi (and the avatars) to connect to all species on Pandora, both in terms of their braid (for lack of a better word) and thereby their souls. The one-ness between Navi and nature is the underlying narrative of the movie, stereotypically depicting indigenousness as inherently living sustainably with and within the natural environment. Not surprisingly, the Navi are not shown to kill any animal, apart from a fish, which Jakes poster-son Neteyam kills. In fact, no species is shown to kill any other species for food (more on that later). But back to the Navi. The forest Navi appear to be a patriarchy since it is especially Jake Sully — in the end, not a Navi, but a Navi avatar — who rules his family in a military fashion, aiming for discipline and obedience by his kids (Yes, sir” is a commonly heard expression by his kids throughout the film). When the mercenaries are getting close to the settlement, Neytiri is eager to fight them in order to protect her people. Jake, on the other hand, persuades her that it is better to leave the forest for the sea Navi in order to avert military aggression. Neytiri, who seems to be responsible for the kitchen as she is several times shown cutting fruits (not meat), of course, concurs, despite her having received a bow from her father to protect her people. Jakes word seems to weigh more than her own will — or purpose — to protect her people. Whether or not the other Navi wish to fight the intruders does not play any role. Jake Sullys decision to leave is what it is. 

When the Sullys arrive at the sea Na’vi settlement, they are greeted by their chieftain and his wife. Contrary to the forest Na’vi, the sea Na’vi have stronger tails and wider hands, allowing them to swim better. This evolutionary trait is somewhat odd, since this would allow for the assumption that the forest Na’vi have some special evolutionary traits as well, allowing them to climb better (which they don’t). Of course, this evolutionary adjustment to the marine environment simply underlines the narrative of the Na’vi being one with nature. They are not just living in it, they are even evolutionary adjusted to, they are part of it.

The sea Na’vi are an appropriated version of Aotearoa New Zealand Māori. They are covered in tattoos reminiscent of Ta Moko tattoos while their hair is again fashioned Māori-style. And when the sea Na’vi get angry, they also stick out their tongues, similar to the way it is done in a haka (traditional dance). The dance, however, is not seen in the movie. Be that as it may, when the sea Na’vi learn of Quaritch spreading terror to find Sully, instead of throwing the Sullys out or delivering them to Quaritch (after all, they are not “true” Na’vi) to avert aggression, they are lusting to fight the “sky people”. Luckily for them, they don’t run into the trap of a full-scale confrontation, but of course it needs a Jake Sully to explain to them how the sky people think. And only because of Sully, this drama is seemingly avoided. In the end, however, when the Tulkun attacks the invaders, the sea Na’vi also start their full-scale attack, and it remains completely in the dark what they have now done differently than they initially intended. What is clear is that they are seemingly unable to make their own decisions since this apparently unknown enemy requires somebody who has been involved with them (Sully). As before, Sully’s word counts more than the indigenous Na’vi. This patronising view seems to be a red thread in the movie. The indigenous Na’vi obviously need an outside leader who tells them how to protect themselves. While I am myself not indigenous, I find this utterly insulting. The ‘noble savage’ is not only stereotypically presented, but also presented as too naive — or even too stupid — to make her own decisions. These decisions are shared between the chieftain and his wife, who, like Neytiri, apparently is much more prone to aggression than her husband. Like Neytiri, she needs to be somewhat tamed by her husband in order to follow Sully’s request to find shelter. Although she is pregnant (or maybe because?), she still participates in the battle against the invaders, leaving the viewer to wonder whether she is naive or utterly determined. After all, she endangers not only herself, but also her unborn child, standing in stark contrast to the no-killing romanticisation of Eywa and Pandora. This misogynistic depiction of women is yet another example for the outdated discourses that underlie the entire story of Avatar 2.

But let’s get back to killing and the one-ness of Pandora. As mentioned earlier, killing does not appear to play a big role on the moon. While the Na’vi kill fish, they are not seen killing anything else. I’m not entirely sure whether the film mentioned conflict amongst the Na’vi. But either way, it is clear that it is absolutely in line with Na’vi morality to kill intruders, i.e. humans. Instead of negotiation or diplomacy, the Na’vi only know violence as a response to Quaritch’s actions. Again, a condescending depiction of the indigenous. The whale-like Tulkun are, of course, soulmates of the sea Na’vi, and they are poets, songwriters and even more intelligent than the Na’vi. They don’t kill and are inherently peaceful. But if one of their group kills a Na’vi (as the outcast has been suspected of having done), it is alright to ostracise him for the rest of his life.  And they are hunted by humans for a fluid that eradicates ageing in humans. But those who kill them also kill part of the Na’vi and are, therefore. their arch enemies. This anthropomorphised whale corresponds to a romanticised discourse on whales, first initiated in the 1970s – for instance, by Robert Payne’s ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale,’ removing whales from the food web for humans (or in this case Na’vi) and elevating them to a level of the sacred.

Those that hunt them — for instance, a morally troubled scientist and a reckless money-loving whaler — are depicted as ruthless and plain evil characters. “Let’s make some money” probably stands representative for the way these ‘whalers’ are depicted. The equation is simple: whales = good, whalers = evil. And since they are evil, it is fine that they are killed. Of course, they are also used by Quaritch to lure Sully and the sea Na’vi into the open by hunting Tulkun close to Na’vi settlements so that they see what they cause if they don’t deliver Sully. And to what do we owe the surprise that one of the hunted Tulkun is the outcast one? To the ingenious scriptwriters of the movie, who so eloquently spin a story that one is not able to predict. Sarcasm off.

This part of the movie is yet again so hard to understand… first, the notion of hiding amongst the sea Na’vi obviously fails, and they are found very easily. Second, it is a single Tulkun which is hunted by the whalers even though hunting larger schools makes much more sense (if one considers the economics of whaling). Third, without the solidarity between the problem-boy and the problem-Tulkun, all would have been lost. And, of course, it is the seemingly adopted Spider, who ruins it all by saving Quaritch in the end, yet hissing at him like a cat (he obviously is as ‘wild’ as the Na’vi despite him being human) and returning to the Sullys. And this last point is very surprising, to say the least. Prior to the final one-on-one fight between Sully and Quaritch, Quaritch takes Sully’s daughter hostage (again) and threatens to kill her. At the same time, Neytiri takes Spider hostage and threatens to kill him by cutting his throat if Quaritch doesn’t release her daughter. I wonder whether the authorities would appreciate a death threat of a quasi-foster mother. She obviously considers Spider as very low on the hierarchical ladder. So low that he is on the same level as a fish that one is able to kill to support one’s own. In spite of this, Spider returns to the Sullys. This does not make sense at all and again depicts the woman as uncontrolled, in need to be tamed. Misogyny at its best.

As a last point, the character of the Sully’s adopted daughter Kiri is noteworthy. Kiri is a teenage girl who is close friends with Spider and the other Sully boys. Of course, she also gets captured time and again, but apparently also has a special gift to communicate with or hear Eywa’s/Pandora’s heart beat. While spending time with the sea Na’vi, she gets some sort of seizure that requires medical help. This help occurs in the form of a helicopter that takes humans from the forest to the sea Na’vi settlement to help her. How this helicopter was called remains in the dark, but it is this helicopter that provides Quaritch and his lot with a hint as to the whereabouts of the Sullys. Either way, despite the fact that modern medical equipment is used, it is in the end the indigenous medicine, performed by the sea Na’vi’s chieftain’s furious wife, that saves Kiri from certain death. Kiri is then able to connect to Pandora in much more depth and even control fish and other subsea species, which leads to her saving her family from drowning at the end of the movie. She is the weird but special one with unknown capabilities that prove to be crucial. Is this aiming to foster the inclusion of disabled people? I don’t know, but again a cliché is served that only allows for eyeballing.

Avatar 2 is a movie that is visually impressive, especially in 3D. But as the above has shown, it is filled with issues that are worth criticising, making me wonder how in the 21st century indigenous cultures, women and gender roles can be depicted as they are in the movie. Of course, it is women who want to fight, thereby the movie seemingly empowers them. But this will is always apparently misplaced, in need of a man to tell them what is right. In light of the way indigenousness is portrayed and Maōri traits commercially appropriated, it does not come as a surprise that indigenous groups call for a boycott of the movie (here). The clichés and stereotypes the movie fosters and disseminates make it indeed worth boycotting. For me, it is absolutely clear that I will not spend a single cent on the Avatar franchise again. When Avatar 3 enters the movie, I will be unable to write a review.

Dr Nikolas Sellheim is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, specialising in international conservation law, indigenous peoples and local communities, as well as marine mammals. He is the Director of his own consulting firm Sellheim Environmental (, focusing on the nexus between human rights and conservation. Nikolas has published extensively on the seal hunt, whaling and international conservation law and has participated as an observer in meetings of the International Whaling Commission, CITES and other international conservation bodies. Nikolas holds a PhD in law from the University of Lapland (2016). In his doctoral dissertation, he focused on the EU regime on trade in seal products, for which he conducted fieldwork in the Newfoundland sealing industry, while during his first post-doc at the Polar Cooperation Research Centre (Kobe University), he spent several weeks in the Japanese whaling town of Taiji. Apart from his consulting work, Nikolas is also co-Editor-in-Chief of Polar Record, the journal of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK.

This article has been commissioned by Polar Research and Policy Initiative as part of a series of fact-checked articles about the Arctic, climate and the environment, and Indigenous issues, supported by the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 

Disclaimer: The sole responsibility for any content supported by the European Media and Information Fund lies with the author(s) and it may not necessarily reflect the positions of the EMIF and the Fund Partners, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the European University Institute.
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