The Way of Water in the Films of James Cameron

Film Fisher Blog

The Way of Water in the Films of James Cameron

If I take the wings of the morning, / And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there Your hand shall lead me, / And Your right hand shall hold me…

Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, / But the night shines as the day;

The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

Psalm 139

Although C.S. Lewis admired and enjoyed the science fiction of H.G. Wells and his ilk, he took issue with their conception of space as dark, cold, and dead, home only to unimaginable horrors. In his own science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis offers an alternative to Wells by giving the most quintessentially modern genre a medievalist Christian twist: his heavens are bright, warm, and vibrantly full of life, populated by ranks upon ranks of angels and archangels. As his hero ascends from the Earth and voyages to Mars, Lewis writes of a transformation in his thought:

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds…

For Lewis, the cosmos are overflowing with God’s presence; for Wells, “Space” is a desacralized absence, a cosmos emptied of God, ultimately meaningless and terrifying. The most complete expression of the Wellsian ethos may be found in Ridley Scott’s Alien, a work of total existential horror in which the seeming opposites of nature and technology turn out to be united in their perfect hostility towards humanity. The film’s atmosphere of palpable dread leads inexorably to only one conclusion: the entire cosmos wants you dead. According to Lewis, “the heavens declare the glory of God”; according to Scott, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” and more to the point, there is no one there to hear you scream.

If Ridley Scott is a spiritual descendant of H.G. Wells, Wells’ philosophical lineage can be traced back to Herman Melville. The sea occupies the same role in Moby-Dick as space does in The War of the Worlds. Out of Wells’ space come the monstrous Martians; out of Melville’s sea comes the white whale, haunting man with the appalling meaninglessness of the cosmos. Space and the sea embody all that is unknowable and thus a terror to the rationalistic modern mind.

Enter James Cameron – the director of three out of the four highest grossing films of all time, the first person to descend to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and a man who takes press junkets as an opportunity to boast that he has “spent thousands of hours underwater.” Cameron has come to know the sea, and in coming to know it, he has come to love it.

Cameron’s first cinematic foray into the depths of the ocean is The Abyss, which aims to rehabilitate the viewer’s conception of the sea in much the same way that Out of the Silent Planet aims to rehabilitate the reader’s conception of space. Set at the height of the Cold War, the film concerns a deep-sea rescue mission that is dispatched to find a nuclear submarine but ultimately encounters ocean-dwelling alien life instead. For the most part, world politics are relegated to the background of the story, though the Cold War setting informs the characters’ actions in crucial ways. The antagonist, Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), is a Marine whose fear of the unknown Other in all forms – Russians, aliens, anyone who is “not one of ours” – drives him to a psychological breakdown. As the film’s heroine, Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), tells her estranged husband Bud (Ed Harris), “We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.” Similarly, Lewis suggests that man imagines space as a source of terror because his perspective is distorted by fear. When the villain of Out of the Silent Planet is brought before him, the angelic overlord of Mars pronounces: “The darkness in your own mind filled you with fear.” For both Cameron and Lewis, the natural world is profoundly good. The evil is in mankind’s own darkened mind.

In the beginning of The Abyss, the sea seems to be as Melville conceived it to be: a domain of darkness and death. At first blush, even the title The Abyss has a hellish ring to it. And yet, contra Melville, the “cold blackness” of the ocean finally gives way to “light everywhere.” Ultimately, the abyss is revealed to be heavenly, home to glowing, winged, benevolent “angels.”

In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis calls space “the womb of worlds,” writing, “out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come.” Lewis’ likening of space to a “womb” and an “ocean” evokes the two most widely believed creation accounts in the modern world: the Book of Genesis and Darwinian evolution, both of which envision water as the womb from which life springs. Genesis depicts the Spirit of God “hovering over the face of the waters” before calling ordered, harmonious life out of their chaos, culminating in the creation of man in His own image. A Darwinian bumper sticker might depict a fish crawling onto dry land and becoming a man.

The imagery of ocean-as-womb permeates The Abyss. The cable connecting an undersea rig to a ship on the surface is referred to as the “umbilical.” To survive his descent into the abyss, Bud Brigman must wear a special apparatus that allows him to breathe fluid; when he is perturbed by the idea, a scientist reassures him by reminding him that we all breathe fluid for the first nine months of our lives. Bud’s descent, then, is a kind of rebirth. He is born again of water and even, after a fashion, of the Spirit. As he lies dying at the bottom of the sea, one of the angels comes to revive him, extending a hand so that their fingers touch in a direct visual reference to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. In The Abyss, the sea is both the place where things were made and the place where they are made new – reborn, recreated, resurrected.

In Genesis, the creation account is reversed in the narrative of the flood. Grieved by the evil of fallen humanity, God – who called creation out of the waters by His Word – makes the terrifying pronouncement: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth… for I am sorry that I have made them.” In the creation, God deemed the world good; in the flood, God judges it evil and undoes its creation, returning it to the water from which it came. During the exodus from Egypt, water once again becomes an icon of judgment. The Israelites are delivered from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea, but those same waters are the agent of destruction for their oppressors. These Old Testament instances of delivery through water both prefigure baptism, by which Christians are saved from sin and death.

James Cameron’s second aquatic extravaganza, Titanic, is – as Steven D. Greydaus has noted – a kind of secular salvation myth. Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) sacrifices himself for Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), and by his sacrifice, she deems herself “saved in every way a person can be saved.” Once Rose is saved, she takes on the name of her savior, and with it a new identity. In light of all this, perhaps we should not be surprised by the way Titanic coopts the Biblical imagery of water as a means of both judgment and deliverance.

In Titanic, the titular ship is not so much Noah’s Ark as a floating Tower of Babel. “God Himself could not sink this ship,” boasts Rose’s loathsome fiancé Cal (Billy Zane), and so the ship’s fate is sealed by man’s hubris. Cameron demonizes the patriarchal, capitalistic upper class that built, promoted, and captained the Titanic; then he visits his righteous judgment on them by sinking it. That judgment doubles as deliverance for Rose, who narrates: “It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me, it was a slave ship taking me back to America in chains.” The likening of the Titanic to a “slave ship” furthers the connection of the narrative to the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt. When it sinks, Rose is freed from bondage. After her escape from the repressive Old World, she passes beneath the Statue of Liberty, entering the New World as a liberated woman.

Cameron does not completely gloss over the tragic dimensions of the sinking, though. In marked contrast to The Abyss, in which water reconciled spouses to each other, Titanic ends with water separating the lovers from each other. Jack gives his life for Rose and then sinks into the cold blackness of the Atlantic, along with thousands of other innocent souls – and while Bud Brigman touched the hand of angel when he was on the brink of a death at sea, Rose must disentangle her hand from Jack’s in order to escape the freezing ocean with her life. Nonetheless, the film ends with a vision of eschatological hope, transfiguring the watery wreck of the Titanic into the site of a reunion beyond the grave.

If The Abyss is the thesis and Titanic is the antithesis, Cameron’s latest film, Avatar: The Way of Water, is the synthesis. In The Abyss, water is the source of life; in Titanic, water brings death; in The Way of Water, water is the source of both life and death, of both tragedy and healing. This paradoxical character is expressed in a mantra recited by the characters:

The way of water has no beginning and no end. The sea is around you and in you. The sea is your home before your birth and after your death. Our hearts beat in the womb of the world. Our breath burns in the shadows of the deep. The sea gives and the sea takes. Water connects all things: life to death, darkness to light.

If The Abyss posed a challenge to Moby-Dick’s conception of the sea as a void of meaningless horror, The Way of Water is in even more direct opposition to Melville. As Robert Brown notes, it may well be the most detailed exposition of whaling in American fiction this side of Moby-Dick, but the difference between the two works could hardly be more fundamental. Captain Ahab sees the white whale as an incarnation of evil: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.” The Way of Water’s answer to the malevolent Moby-Dick is Payakan, a sentient alien whale who – despite being outcast by the other whales and demonized by the water-dwelling Metkayina tribe – turns out to be benevolent and deeply misunderstood. The entire subplot revolving around Payakan is a reversal of Moby-Dick. Whereas Melville’s story centers on a human whaler who lost a leg to a whale and now seeks revenge, in Cameron’s story, it is the aggrieved whale who lost a fin to human hunters – and Cameron’s sympathy is with the maimed whale, not the maimed whaler. When the villains’ enormous ship sinks during the climax of the film, it is, like the sinking of the Titanic, a righteous judgment.

Like Ahab, the villains of Out of the Silent Planet are convinced that the unknown Other is evil. As Lewis’ hero shamefacedly admits to the angelic Oyarsa, “The tellers of tales in our world make us think that if there is life beyond our own air it is evil.” This same fear of the unknown undergirds mankind’s fear of death, the greatest unknown of all. In both Out of the Silent Planet and Avatar: The Way of Water, the villains are those humans who, driven by their terror of death, want humanity to “last for always… [to] leap from world to world.” For them, the desperate need to live forever overrides all other priorities, justifying the colonization of other planets and the extermination of their indigenous species. It is the fear of death that, as Oyarsa chides, “wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end.”

While the villains of The Way of Water cling to life at all costs, the heroes must learn the way of water, which means accepting that “the sea gives and the sea takes,” that “water connects all things: life to death, darkness to light.” For most of the film’s runtime, the heroic father Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), not unlike his enemies, is driven by fear: by the fear of death, and of its harbinger, loss. “A father protects,” he narrates. “It’s what gives him meaning.” In the end, however, Sully must learn that there are certain things a father cannot escape, cannot control – and mortality is one of them. Sully must learn what Jack Dawson taught Rose: that “life’s a gift,” which is to say it must be accepted with gratitude, not demanded as one’s due.

When Sully’s eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) lies dying at the end of the film, he tells his father, “I want go home.” This recalls the mantra of the way of water, which states, “the sea is your home before your birth and after your death.” During Neteyam’s funeral, he is returned to his true home: his body is curled up in the fetal position and committed to the ocean, for as in The Abyss, water is “the womb of the world” – and, like Titanic, The Way of Water ends with a watery vision of a reunion beyond the grave, envisioned as a return to a cherished memory. Death and loss are made bearable by faith that the sea is not a dark, cold void but a bright, warm overflow of life. Deep down, the cosmos is not founded on “a colorless, all-color of atheism” but on the unfathomably gratuitous goodness of God. As Lewis writes of his hero’s return voyage in Out of the Silent Planet:

He could not feel that they were an island of life journeying through an abyss of death. He felt almost the opposite – that life was waiting outside the little iron egg-shell in which they rode, ready at any moment to break in, and that, if it killed them, it would kill them by excess of its vitality… To be let out, to be free, to dissolve into the ocean of eternal noon, seemed to him at certain moments a consummation even more desirable than their return to Earth. And if he had felt some such lift of the heart when first he passed through heaven on their outward journey, he felt it now tenfold, for now he was convinced that the abyss was full of life in the most literal sense, full of living creatures.

Movie, TV Show, Filmmakers and Film Studio WordPress Theme.

Press Enter / Return to begin your search or hit ESC to close

By signing in, you agree to our terms and conditions and our privacy policy.

By creating an account you agree to Noxe's our terms and conditions and privacy policy.
Mechanicsburg, PA  17050

Center Office
Mechanicsburg, PA, USA

All Right Reserved 2022