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James Cameron’s Many Homages to His Own Movies in Avatar: The Way of Water

Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

“I only have three or four great ideas, and I just keep repackaging them,” James Cameron observes in Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron, a fancy coffee-table book of the 68-year-old Academy Award–winning filmmaker’s sketches and paintings dating back to his tween years.

On one page, we see an alien landscape of exotic and luminous vegetation Cameron drew in the late ’70s when he was trying to get funding for a feature-length version of his sci-fi short Xenogenesis. That project would go unrealized but clearly inspired both his 1986 sequel Aliens and the Avatar films decades later. Cameron writes that he successfully used the decades-old drawing as evidence in his legal defense when unnamed parties claimed he’d stolen the idea for Avatar and its setting, the resource-rich planet Pandora. Truly, the Avatar franchise is his life’s work.

This becomes especially clear in Avatar: The Way of Water, a film full of extended self-homage. In addition to its ecological message, The Way of Water foregrounds the themes of paternity and parental concern that run through Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and even Cameron’s problematic but entertaining 1994 action-comedy True Lies. The new film devotes major screen time to Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldaña) four Na’vi children — and to the couple’s struggle to protect them from danger as the Sully clan is hunted by an old enemy.

We’ve compiled a by-no-means exhaustive list (in roughly chronological order) of more shoutouts to Cameron’s cinematic past that attentive viewers will find stuffed into the maximalist sequel’s one! Hundred! Ninety! Two! Minute! Run time! That’s half an hour longer than Avatar ’09 and just three minutes shorter than Titanic. Which might count as self-homage in itself.

Express Elevator to Hell, Going Down (Aliens)

Those evil colonizers, the Resource Development Administration, return to Pandora via a massive invasion wherein heavily armed soldiers aggressively deploy from dropships. It’s an exponential scaling-up of the Colonial Marines’ assault on the terraforming colony on the moon known as LV-426 in Aliens.

I Know the Date It Happens (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

As the invasion ships land, giant swaths of trees — sacred to the Na’vi — vanish in a wall of flames beneath the engines. The shot recalls the way the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles are flattened by a blast wave in Sarah Connor’s recurring nightmare of the coming nuclear holocaust in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

No Fate But What We Make (T2)

After the invasion of the Sky People, The Way of Water jumps ahead one year. (One Earth year? One Pandoran year? Unspecified.) In that interval, Marine turned Na’vi leader Jake Sully and Neytiri have trained and disciplined the three oldest of their four kids as soldiers in the Na’vi resistance. They address Jake as “sir,” he gives them “orders,” and Jake tolerates no, well, kiddie stuff. Their family dynamic recalls the way T2 introduced us to a radicalized Sarah who had trained her tween son John for his prophesied destiny as the brilliant soldier who’d lead the human resistance against the Machines. Partly as a result of this strict, affection-starved upbringing, young John acts out — just like Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), the younger of Jake and Neytiri’s two sons. His maturation and emotional reconciliation with Jake is one of the main emotional threads of The Way of Water.

‘He’ll Kill Us All! He’ll Kill Us All!’ (T2)

Colonel Miles Quaritch, Stephen Lang’s scar-faced, crew-cutted villain who got his just desserts in the finale of the prior film, is resurrected as a “recombinant” Na’vi avatar embedded with the memories the human Quaritch recorded shortly before his demise. This echoes the way Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to return in T2 (and in several subsequent non-Cameron-directed sequels) as a different specimen of the same “infiltration unit” that Sarah crushed at the end of 1984’s The Terminator. 

Warrior Mothers (T2, Aliens)

Neytiri was already a skilled hunter and warrior in the first Avatar, but motherhood has made her an even stronger protector. In this, she resembles Cameron’s prior warrior moms, Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. Cameron did not create the Ripley character, but his screenplay for Aliens substantially enriched her and made explicit that she had a child. Though Ripley’s biological daughter goes unmentioned in the 1986 theatrical cut of Aliens (her fate is addressed in a deleted scene restored for the film’s extended home-video “special edition”), she is arguably present in the subtext of Weaver’s performance, especially in her character’s protectiveness of the young orphan Newt.

Not in Kansas Anymore (Avatar)

The Way of Water reintroduces the all-new, all-blue Quaritch by repeating both the low-angle reverse shot and the line of dialogue with which Quaritch 1.0 entered Avatar 13 years ago: “You are not in Kansas anymore.” This part doesn’t make much sense, really, given that it’s Quaritch briefing the same squad of soldiers who served him in the first movie, all now resurrected, like him, in cloned Na’vi bodies programmed with the memories of their deceased human selves. So they’ve all heard his Wizard of Oz–quoting shtick before, and the entire point of resurrecting these goons is that they already know all about Pandora and its myriad dangers. But everyone loves a good pep talk, I guess. 

‘Get Away From Her, You Bitch!’ (Aliens)

Cameron did not invent the powered exoskeleton concept, but the way he realized it as the “Powerloader” in Aliens — basically a wearable forklift that Ripley repurposes as an odds-evening mecha-suit for her climactic smackdown with the alien queen — was its most advanced onscreen expression to date. (It was achieved on-set in late 1985 via a combination of miniatures and a full-size powerloader prop operated by a combination of cables and a guy hidden inside the robo-suit.) Both Avatar ’09 and The Way of Water lavish some of their exponentially larger budgets on even more sophisticated depictions of this device (now called an amplified mobility platform), used as both a piece of construction equipment and as a military weapon. Even Edie Falco, who plays the general in charge of the RDA expeditionary force, gets one. Unfortunately, Carmela Soprano’s robo-suit does not come with a dope pair of 22nd-century Reebok high-tops.

Alas, Poor Quaritch (The Terminator, T2)

When Quaritch finds the desiccated remains of his prior human self, he cradles his own skull in his palm like Hamlet remembering poor Yorick, then crushes it. This echoes the skull-crush closeups that announce our arrival in the future-war hellscape of Los Angeles circa 2029 in both The Terminator and T2.

Gettin’ Short (Aliens)

Although military leaders refer to Na’vi “insurgents” and Quaritch even has a line in the original Avatar where he tells his soldiers they will “fight terror with terror,” some part of Cameron’s restless mind is still fixated on the Vietnam War. As with Aliens, Avatar’s futuristic military weaponry and aircraft, along with the military slang used by the soldiers, are all recognizable as the 22nd-century descendants of Vietnam-era equipment and lingo. That’s less surprising than it might sound since Cameron was 17, just a year shy of draft age, when his family moved from Canada to the United States in the early ’70s. In The Way of Water, Colonel Quaritch and his squad go village to village hunting the Sully family. When one Na’vi community pleads with him to believe that they don’t know where the fugitives are, Quaritch orders his soldiers to “burn the hooches.” Vietnam, man. 

‘The Most Beautiful Thing I’d Ever Seen’ (The Abyss)

In The Way of Water’s second act, the Sully family flees their forest home and asks the reef-dwelling Metkayina clan to shelter them. This raises the curtain on more than two hours of cutting-edge underwater sequences, expounding on Cameron’s breakthroughs for his relatively unloved 1989 thriller The Abyss (and some other obscure little seafaring love story he’d make a few years later), not to mention his 21st-century Imax 3-D documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. But The Abyss remains the most prominent point of reference. It’s the project where Cameron’s obsession with deep-sea diving and exotic ocean-dwelling species — the ones he made up and the ones he’d discover later — began.

It Was a Machine, But It Was Alive (The Abyss)​​

Kiri, the mysterious Na’vi teen — played through the Kimberly Akimbo miracle of mo-cap by ageless 70-something Weaver — wears a wing-like plant or organic device of some kind that allows her to breathe underwater. This recalls both the experimental liquid oxygen tank Ed Harris must wear to disarm the nuclear warhead in The Abyss and the bioluminescent organic technologies of the peaceful and intelligent sea creatures that save his life thereafter. 

The Destruction of Hometree (Avatar)

There’s a protracted sequence in which hunters track and kill a Tukkun — a four-eyed Pandoran whale species that we’re told (by Jemaine Clement!) is at least as intelligent as humans and far more empathetic. This heartbreaking scene parallels the firebombing of the massive “Hometree” in Avatar ’09 and reprises the passage of James Horner’s score that accompanies that sequence of the original film.

The Sinking (The Abyss, Titanic)

When the Sully clan and their Metkayina allies stage a counterattack on the RDA whaling ship with a little help from one of their smart-whale friends, said ship begins to sink. This echoes numerous sequences of hatch-battening and flooding compartments and such from The Abyss and, of course, 1997’s Titanic. In The Way of Water, cinematographer Russell Carpenter (who won an Oscar for his work on Titanic and another for Avatar) again delights in placing his camera right on the waterline with the surface bisecting the lens.

Steel Traps (Aliens, The Abyss, T2)

The interior of that whaling ship is a maze of ladders, catwalks, black-and-yellow caution stripes, and flashing orange emergency lights. In other words, it looks very much like the interior of the atmosphere-processing station in Aliens, the underwater oil rig Deep Core in The Abyss, and the roadside steel mill where the finale of T2 takes place. 

‘Fight, Goddamn It!’ (The Abyss)

The Abyss’s most intense sequence, wherein Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character drowns and is revived by her ex-husband (Harris), immediately follows a scene where they’re trapped together in a crippled, rapidly flooding mini-sub. The Harris character, Bud Brigman, has a wet suit, but Lindsey, Mastranio’s character does not. As the frigid water reaches their chins, Lindsey nixes Bud’s proposal that he put the wet suit onto her — it’s too late for that anyway — pointing out to him that she might theoretically survive if he drags her unprotected body back to their underwater oil rig and then attempts to shock her back to life there.

All this watery tension is echoed in a sequence wherein Neytiri and Jake are trapped in separate compartments of the sinking ship. Each parent is wounded and has one of their children with them. These scenes are framed very much like the close-up two shot of Lindsey and Bud in the flooding mini-sub. Jake even tells his son Lo’ak that he’s too weak to swim to safety and urges the boy to leave him there and save himself.

Bioluminescent Buddies (The Abyss)

When it appears all hope is lost, the Sully clan gets a lifesaving assist from their glowing sea-dweller allies in yet another echo of the neon-sea-life deus ex machina that is widely regarded as the weakest element of The Abyss.

‘She’s Gonna Blow Him Away!’ (T2, Aliens)

The Way of Water’s climactic standoff finds Jake and Neytiri facing off against Quaritch, with each party holding one of their enemy’s children hostage. This echoes two classic Cameron scenes: The first is the T2 scene where Sarah goes full Terminator, now ready and willing to murder Skynet creator Miles Dyson in front of his wife and young son. John talks her down from her homicidal frenzy, hinting at the persuasive leader he is destined to become.

On the other end of the genocidal spectrum, it also recalls the Aliens scene — which, like the finale of The Terminator, came to Cameron in a dream — wherein Ripley stumbles into the nest of the alien queen. She silently threatens to flamethrower the queen’s eggs into slime-coated breakfast omelets if the queen doesn’t direct the many lurking warrior Xenomorphs to leave Ripley and Newt alone.

She does — and then Ripley crème brûlées her eggs anyway. It takes an invasive species to fight an invasive species. And it’s been a long time since Cameron made a movie where we’re meant to root for the humans. Can you blame him?

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