It’s no secret that Avatar mastermind James Cameron has been making grandiose plans from the beginning. Even back in 2010, Variety reported that Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 would be forthcoming, and fourth and fifth movies were quickly added to the docket. Now, after significant delays, Avatar: The Way of Water is finally hitting theaters, and we can look ahead to where this saga could possibly go over the next three chapters.
Producer Jon Landau has let a key Avatar 5 element slip, and while it sounds intriguing, it could ruin what Avatar is all about.
In a conversation with io9, Landau revealed that a portion of Avatar 5 — should it come to fruition — would bring Neytiri and the Na’vi to an alien world: Earth. “In movie five there is a section of the story where we go to Earth,” he said. “And we go to it to open people’s eyes, open Neytiri’s eyes, to what exists on Earth.”
That sounds fun. In Avatar, we learn that an environmental catastrophe struck Earth and forced the human race to mine other worlds for resources. There’s no way the situation has improved during the time jump between Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water. By the time we hit Avatar 5, Earth might be nothing more than a wasteland. We could even get a Planet-of-the-Apes-style reveal where we learn an abandoned planet they visit is, in fact, Earth.
But would this really be a good choice for the Avatar franchise? Some fans claim this plan would delay a return to Earth to the point where the movie’s environmental message would hit theaters too late for viewers to do anything about it. But environmental messages are imbued throughout the Avatar films, and let’s be real: It shouldn’t be up to James Cameron to fix our climate crisis.
If Avatar: The Way of Water and however many more sequels we get are just as carefully crafted as the original, a return to Earth could be redundant. When the audience looks at the lush landscapes of Pandora, they see it in contrast to the Earth they live on. When Jake Sully admires how the Na’vi revere their habitat, they know he’s implicitly reacting to how carelessly humans treat Earth. Seeing any alien planet is going to beg a comparison to our world.
It’s through this nuance that Avatar has resonated with audiences, and a visit to Earth would undermine it all. Avatar has always been about alien worlds to the point that we never left Pandora in the first film. Showing Earth would create a sort of environmental uncanny valley: We know Pandora and like Pandora because it’s different from the Earth we know. If we see Earth, even as a wasteland, it could ruin the immersion this universe has so carefully crafted. Besides, we’ve already seen a million futuristic crapsack Earths in sci-fi; do we really need another one?
Whether we see Jake Sully return to Earth will ultimately depend on how much trust James Cameron and the other minds behind Avatar have in their audience. If they believe that merely knowing Earth is ravaged because of how humans treated their environment is enough for audiences to understand the gravity of the situation, then maybe we can go without. But if it’s clear the allegorical elements of the franchise are going overlooked, we may need Wall-E levels of cautionary tale storytelling to get the idea across.
Avatar: The Way of Water premieres in theaters December 16, 2022.