Can Family Theme Push Avatar: The Way of Water to Blockbuster Profitability?

An earnest story of family, loyalty, and acceptance grounds technologically groundbreaking film

Avatar: The Way of the Water is a stunning, visually arresting display of cinematic achievement. Its story is also centered on one of the most enduring themes in movies: family. The film and the Avatar film franchise may need this theme to help sustain blockbuster profitability.

Earning $600 million worldwide during its opening week, The Way of the Water is on its way toward generating $2 billion worldwide (but just $528.8 million domestically). While the final numbers are likely to be lower than the original 2009 film ($3 billion worldwide), The Way of the Water’s box office numbers are impressive in the aftermath of the Pandemic.

Movies Face Daunting Economic Headwinds

Just three movies surpassed the $1 billion mark since the Pandemic started in March 2022, according to Box Office Mojo: Top Gun: Maverick ($1.5 billion and counting), Jurassic World: Dominion ($1 billion), and 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home ($1.9 billion). In contrast, nine movies earned over $1 billion in 2019.

Movies in the post-Pandemic world are facing significant economic and industry headwinds. Technology can take them only so far.

While CGI animation, elaborate world-building, and brilliantly executed underwater 3D imagery are worthy in their own right, movies need more than ultra-cool hi-tech buzzers and whistles to push super-big-budget films to profitability. Political agendas will also fall short of tapping into the broad base of viewer support necessary to justify their budgets. Fortunately, The Way of the Water is helped by a finely-grained human story of family.

Without a doubt, Jame Cameron’s crusade to save Earth is still well represented in the themes and fundamental conflicts within the Avatar film. Greed is front and center, and humans are about as two-dimensional in this film as they were in the first.

Family Drama Drives Story

But the heart of The Way of the Water’s story centers on drama and hard choices within conventional familial relationships. These relationships are fundamentally human in design, execution, and dynamics. They are also layered.

Moreover, these dynamics are largely consistent with conventional Western ideas of the nuclear family—two parents with multiple children. Indeed, this familiar drama ultimately drives the plot despite its naturalistic, non-Judeo-Christian spiritual context.

Oddly, while Cameron’s social criticism of human rapacity and environmental recklessness is evident from the very beginning, Cameron’s story seems to elevate conventional family values and priorities to an ideal type.

The Sky People Strike Back

In The Way of the Water, the Earthlings—“sky people”—are back. This time, their goal is to colonize Pandora, not just pillage it. Earth can sustain the human race any longer, so they need a new home. Pandora is their chosen new home.

The anti-colonization theme of the story is not much more profound than an 8th-grade history textbook. The social commentary is also transparent: Europeans colonized the Americas by subjecting and ejecting indigenous Americans. In the process, they destroy or “erase” indigenous cultures. At one point, the general overseeing the colonization of the planet (Edie Falco) explicitly references the need to subjugate “the hostiles.”

The dialogue also doesn’t stray much further than this simple narrative. The toxic “booyah” masculinity stereotype is on full display as the human marines are the primary villains. The female general can bench press with the best of the men, albeit with a little help from a robot.

Family at the Heart of the Story

Nevertheless, the heart of The Way of the Water is the family, what it means, and how it bonds.

The story picks up from where Avatar left off. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now chief of the Omaticaya clan of the Na’vi people. He is raising a family with Neytiri (Zoe Sandana) consisting of four children, which include three biological children and an adopted daughter. They are all Na’vi, but are “half breeds”—part human and part Na’vi. In addition, his family is joined by Spider, a human child orphaned when the Sky People were driven off of Pandora.

Sully and Neytiri lead a guerilla war against the Sky People. Their success prompts the humans to add “recombinants” as a special operations military force. Recombinants are Na’vi embedded with the thoughts and memories of humans. Jake’s nemesis, Colonel Quitrich (Stephen Lang), is resurrected as a recombinant with the mission of finding and killing Jake.

Realizing the danger his presence brings to the Omaticaya, Jake and Neytiri flee. They ask for acceptance into the Metkayina class, “reef people” who live on Pandora’s coasts. Knowing the risks, the Metkayina still take Jake and Neytiri in, protecting them and teaching them “the way of the water.”

Despite the shelter, their family are outcasts in the Metkayina clan. This dynamic also adds complexity to the story, which keeps audiences engaged. The sub-themes of group versus individual identity and acceptance are critical as the movie builds toward the climax.

Avatar Franchise’s Profitability Still Uncertain

Avatar: The Way of the Water has shown that James Cameron can lift the franchise above the gimmickry of technology. The open question is whether he and his co-writers can layer in enough story to tap into a broad enough audience to sustain its success at the domestic and worldwide box office.

The Way of the Water’s revenues will likely be enough to greenlight the final production of the next two Avatar films. These movies were filmed at the same time as The Way of the Water, likely as a way to reduce production costs.

While The Way of the Water will be a certified blockbuster, albeit at lower revenues than the original, whether the franchise will reach similar heights remains an open question.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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