Avatar 2 Flips the Script on Steven Spielberg’s Most Important Blockbuster

In Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron reverses the central conflict from the grandfather of all modern blockbusters.

Sigourney Weaver in Avatar The Way of Water
Photo: 20th Century Studios

This article contains Avatar: The Way of Water spoilers.

For our money, it’s the best action scene in a film stuffed to the gills with kaleidoscopic showstoppers. At the top of the third act, the luxuriantly paced Avatar: The Way of Water finally pivots away from its world-building wonders and back toward the plot. In the broadest possible strokes (which nonetheless remain depressingly plausible), it’s revealed that human capitalists have made a lucrative discovery: Pandora’s tulkuns (large whale-like creatures) contain a substance in their brains that is beneficial to the most wealthy of earthlings. The liquid therein apparently “just stops” aging.

Yeah, folks would kill for that. And in James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar sequel, the folks who work for the RDA Corporation have been killing tulkun whales by the scores in order to obtain that precious fountain of youth elixir… that is until the tables are turned.

What precipitates the shift, conveniently, is that one particularly lonely tulkun has befriended the young Na’vi warrior Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), the second son of protagonists Jake Sully and Neytiri (Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana). So when the evil space whalers take Lo’ak hostage, our rogue tulkun sees this as the opportunity to take some dazzling revenge, beginning by going Free Willy right on top of the evil space whalers’ maritime ship.

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Soon enough he’s joined by Jake, Neytiri, and a whole crew of Na’vi warriors riding on the backs of glorified water-dragons as they do battle with space-age naval vessels, gunners, and most crucially a speedboat commanded by Capt. Mick Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), a regular Ahab by way of Ricky Gervais.

Throughout much of the second act, old Capt. Scoresby has whined like a petulant child to Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) about meeting quotas, sounding to our ears a bit like David Brent on a power trip as he boasts over the dead carcass of another tulkun he killed with his high-tech harpoon gun that’s built into the speedboat.

So to see him go head-to-head against the most dangerous tulkun, and in his last moments realize he’s lost when his arm gets trapped beneath one of the harpoons’ cables—ultimately being severed off at the joint, along with the harpoon gun as the tulkun pulls the boat to the sea below—is the one scene where every audience member cheered.

Truly, it’s as fist-pumping a moment as any in Avatar 2. However, it is also an intentional reversal of one of the most famous sequences in cinema, and one which paved the way for pictures like Cameron’s Avatar flicks—it’s a riff on Jaws, the first and arguably most important blockbuster Steven Spielberg ever made.

Forgive the admitted grandiosity of that last statement. After all, Spielberg is the director of more than a handful of influential and sensational Hollywood crowdpleasers that have stood the test of time. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jurassic Park (to name but a few) are all exceptionally well crafted event films that have admirers who number in the millions. And the filmmaker himself would seem to likely favor E.T. as his best tentpole since Spielberg has said on more than once that, along with Schindler’s List, he’s most proud of leaving the movie about Reeses Pieces-loving alien to his family.

However, Jaws is indisputably the first modern blockbuster as we understand them: a bonafide summer spectacle that was released wide across the U.S. on the same day (only the second film to do such a thing and the first to strike gold), and it immediately entered the pop culture zeitgeist. It made the then 28-year-old Spielberg a household name, and overnight showed Hollywood a new direction for mass entertainment. It also paved the way for more than Spielberg. A whole new generation of filmmakers like him started to come up… including Cameron.

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Indeed, the two directors have long seemed to stand at the top of the heap of epic populist entertainment over the past four decades. Sometimes the comparison is less clear since Cameron has averaged about one film a decade for the last 20 years, however each has an apparent gift for anticipating what will dazzle audiences—and where the inflection points in the industry are for technological innovation.

Tellingly, both Spielberg and Cameron pursued the rights to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park novel when they became aware of it—with Spielberg and Universal having the inside track thanks to the director already befriending Crichton while developing what became the television series E.R. But while Cameron’s Jurassic Park would have undoubtedly been a different animal (Cameron reportedly wanted to make a more adult, R-rated sci-fi thriller with dinosaurs), both filmmakers saw the obvious potential in the concept to move the needle and wow audiences.

Indeed, the ILM wizards who ultimately convinced Spielberg to go all-in on CGI for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and thereby ushering in the current age of CG spectacle, were the same guys Cameron handpicked to develop the innovative CG characters in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day a few years earlier. All of which looks like a warm-up act in retrospect—a teaser to the almost entirely digital worlds of the Avatar films.

Be that as it may, it all goes back to Jaws, a seemingly simple tale that, like The Way of Water, touched on iconography from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick novel in order to tell a popcorn-laden adventure about man versus nature. Also in Jaws, as with Moby Dick, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and so many other primal tales of men sailing to the seeming edge of the world and looking down, it becomes about a man overcoming the might of nature—usually in a bid to save himself from his own demons.

Cameron is also interested in man versus nature, but in his film, nature is the hero, and man the monster. After spending decades trying to raise awareness about the beauty, and fragility, of our oceans and their ecosystems, Cameron has little interest in depicting the capitalist exploiters of Pandora’s resources as anything more than greedy cartoons.

The image of Capt. Scoresby with a harpoon intentionally echoes memories of Melville’s Ahab in Moby Dick or Robert Shaw’s mercurial and fascinating Quint in Spielberg’s Jaws. And those were the most interesting characters in their respective works. Scoreseby though? He’s an underdeveloped cardboard cutout of a villain. A fiend who despite being in a three-hour-plus movie has no more motivation or depth than a puddle draining on the decks of one of his ships.

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Even the resource within the tulkun he hunts is thinly explained, revealed ultimately to have the same coveted characteristics as the “spice melange” in Frank Herbert’s Dune (minus the psychedelic side effects).

Cameron of course has rarely been one about originality in his scripting. Still, even by the standards of previous Cameron films, the motivations and desires of humans are immaterial in Avatar: The Way of Water. While the first Avatar was told from the perspective of one human (Jake Sully before he went native) and had sympathetic human characters like Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine, Avatar 2 paints everything blue. In fact, Worthington as Sully, and Weaver as an entirely different character, return for the sequel but are now working in motion-capture 100 percent of the time.

The natural world of Cameron’s idyllic sci-fi Eden is what The Way of Water cares about. Humanity? It’s the same song on a different day: greedy, capricious forces exploit and ruin, and whether they find some profound internal growth from that is meaningless.

Hence, as with Jaws, Avatar 2 has multiple great action sequences in which a crusty seaman chases down a creature of the deep, attempting to stuff the beast full of harpoons. Now, however, the spectacle is one of horror instead of revenge; villainy instead of heroism.

That, along with the fact that the sequence is still at the bleeding edge of moviemaking, creates an interesting counterpoint to Spielberg. While both directors have been the proverbial king of the world at one time or another because of the beloved blockbusters they made, Spielberg’s were always entrenched in the journey his characters went on in their stories: Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody faces his existential fear of the water (and nature) by staring down the shark while Quint is consumed by a 30-year trauma he never let go; the little fatherless boy of E.T. is made whole thanks to forming a profound friendship with an alien from above; Sam Neil’s Dr. Alan Grant learns that he does want to have kids after being chased by dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

While Spielberg’s blockbusters are typically most interested in wowing the audience, he wants to ground the experience in the personal or intimate for the viewer. So much so that interesting cultural side effects like Jaws inspiring a mass murder of shark populations caught the director entirely by surprise.

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Conversely, Cameron’s movies have focused on characters that generally have been archetypes who never grow beyond their default settings. Their stories are classic formulas that plug in conventional beats which engage the audience as the storyteller turns his interest to his real obsessions.

The story can be about a grieving mother who seeks to save a surrogate child, or a poor boy and rich girl who fall in love despite the expectations placed on them by class and society, or a riff on the Pocahontas myth through the prism of modern white savior Hollywood yarns. Each is the centerpiece of one of Cameron’s most popular films, and all provide a sturdy backdrop so Cameron can push the envelope on action movie set-pieces, cultivate detailed recreations of a famous ship’s tragic sinking, or build his own idealized alien world from the literal ground up with new CG and 3D technology. And if Avatar 2 is intended to have any message to folks’ everyday lives, it is perhaps about not overfishing sharks and creatures of the deep. You should revere them.

And tellingly, both directors have only gone more so in their own directions, to the point where Spielberg has largely eschewed modern blockbusters and in 2022 released a self-portrait of his childhood, The Fabelmans. Meanwhile Cameron has made his most gargantuan blockbuster yet where flesh-and-blood human characters are now the faceless swarm annoying our heroes: intricately and lovingly realized digital creations. Now humans are the other, and the proverbial shark is the hero when he rips them to pieces.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in theaters now.