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  • Writer's pictureEirini Sampson

How has the ocean been portrayed in movies recently?

There is a striking focus on our modern interactions with water in the cinemas recently. When I watched both Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar: The Way of Water I could not stop but think of the several issues that arise but are often sidelined in the sustainability discourse around water.


We have not explored, mapped or seen more than 80% of the Earth’s oceans despite the fact that 97% of our Earth’s water comes from our oceans.



We dump up to 12 million metric tons of plastic annually and it is estimated that by 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish. We also have 5 garbage patches floating on our oceans - with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch including an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash. This resonates with an old article I wrote about a year ago on our out of sight, out of mind mentality when it comes to our waste culture and our toxic (literally) relationship with plastic waste.


More broadly, climate change is tightly connected with water - the most essential substance we need to live. According to UN-Water:


  • Flooding and rising sea levels can contaminate land and water resources with saltwater.

  • Glaciers, ice caps and snow fields are rapidly disappearing. Meltwater feeds many of the great river systems. Volatility in the cryosphere can affect the regulation of freshwater resources for vast numbers of people in lowland areas.

  • Droughts and wildfires are destabilising communities and triggering civil unrest and migration in many areas.

  • Growing demand for water increases the need for energy-intensive water pumping, transportation, and treatment, and has contributed to the degradation of critical water-dependent carbon sinks such as peatlands.

Now back to Black Panther and Avatar. Wakanda Forever introduces the Talokan in (what I found) a striking scene where American explorers are trying to find vibranium in the ocean. As with Avatar, the Talokan and their flourishing underwater in Wakanda Forever alludes to just how little we know about our oceans despite their prominent role in our ecosystems and livelihoods.

Avatar featured a planet where intelligent beings live in harmony with their environment until humans come to destroy it. In Avatar 2, we see two broad themes in relation to the planet - one quite specific and the other not so much. Humans insist on colonising Pandora as climate change has destroyed Earth. This is quite a direct commentary on the endeavours of Bezos and Musk kind who see space exploration as an opportunity to continue expanding humanity, and as a means of escape in the case of a permanent climate catastrophe. The other theme we see is that in relation to poaching and the ways that the lucrative enterprise ultimately comes to finance the operations led in Pandora.

“Our planet is 80% water, so there’s so much more about our life on Earth that we don’t know because it lives beneath us and Pandora was sort of mirrored from that as well. Which means that when we saw Avatar 1 we only got to see 20% and that 20% took us for a ride that many of us across the globe have been unable to sort of shake. So imagine, what is the other 80%? Obviously we do know that with all of these relatable conversations that Jim (Cameron) is having around invasion, colonization, the erasure and genocide of civilizations, and the taking and the abuse of an environment. These are things we’ve seen throughout our history repeat themselves over and over again. So it’s not like we’re going to be seeing something that we’ve never heard of before, and I just hope it’s as thought provoking as the first movie was. Just to compel us in any shape or form to be more aware of each other, but also be more aware of our environment, but not in a way that’s preachy, just in a way that betters your life.”

— Zoe Saldana


More than anything, both Avatar and Wakanda Forever demonstrative of the destructive role that human-centric and unsustainable practices play in


This comes with some reservations as there have been calls to boycott the film as: “both Avatar films have drawn criticism for amalgamating aspects of various Indigenous cultures, while casting several white and other non-indigenous actors in the roles of the Na’vi.”

“Join Natives and other Indigenous groups around the world in boycotting this horrible and racist film.” Yue Begay wrote.

Nonetheless, it has been interesting to see the ways that different environmental messages are being portrayed using different mediums.



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