Avatar is back, and the jury’s still out on whether sequel The Way of Water is going to make quite the splash its predecessor did. James Cameron’s 3D space fantasy spectacular has opened to a staggering $441m (£362m) across the globe, but its US bow of an estimated $134m (£110m) is down on expectations, if only just. If the first movie, the highest-grossing film of all time, was Dances with Wolves in space (with a side-order of FernGully: The Last Rainforest), then part two is a family affair, with Cameron digging into his experiences as a father to imagine what battling to save your planet from evil humans would be like if you had a bunch of giant blue space elf sprogs in tow, constantly putting themselves in harm’s way.
This is only the second Avatar movie in a proposed seven-film saga that the 68-year-old film-maker admits may well be completed after his death. Does it do enough to keep us all interested? Is the 3D as mind-boggling as it was the first time around? And does the decision to bring back Stephen Lang as a new, all-blue avatar version of big meanie Colonel Quaritch (who we all thought was dead) pay off? What do we think of Cameron’s shift from the forests of Pandora to its breathtaking oceans?
Let’s do a deep dive to the bottom of Avatar: The Way of Water and see what pearls of collective wisdom we can bring back to the surface.
Dialling down the stakes, but diving deeper into the world of Pandora
The Way of Water has something of The Empire Strikes Back about it, in that while a lot less seems to be going on than in the first movie – this is a minor skirmish rather than the full-scale battle that ended with most humans returning to Earth last time out – we start to get a much deeper understanding of the sheer breadth of Pandora and the power of its metaphysical infrastructure. The baddies who have returned to take down the Na’vi and steal all the verdant forest moon’s valuable resources are up against an entire planet of sentient alien species, gods and superpowered beings (enough to make even the Marvel Cinematic Universe a little jealous).
We learn early on that there is more than one species of Na’vi. As well as the blue-skinned Omaticaya, and the various other similar tribes we met in movie one, there are the greener-tinged Metkayina clan, an ocean-dwelling race who have thicker, fin-like forearms and paddle-like tails that are perfect for swimming. Later on, we discover that the Sullys’ adopted daughter Kiri has somehow developed the power to manipulate the flora and fauna of Pandora as though she were wielding futuristic touchless interface tech. Then there are the sentient, whale-like Tulkun, who we are told are more intelligent than human beings, with the ability to create complex art.
What next in movies three to seven as Eywa (Pandora’s guiding force and deity) continues to fight back? Will we meet flying Na’vi, or perhaps underground burrowing races who can pop up from beneath the ground and drag the Earthlings down to Pandoran hell?
Who is Kiri’s father and is she a cosmic clone of Grace Augustine?
Speaking of Kiri, it’s surely a pretty big clue to her identity that she is voiced by Sigourney Weaver, last seen in Avatar as Augustine’s tough but big-hearted human scientist and researcher. Could Kiri be the living reincarnation of Grace, brought back to life by Eywa?
At the end of Avatar, the Na’vi gather round the Tree of Souls in the hope that Eywa will transfer the dying Grace’s consciousness to her avatar body (as it later does for Jake Sully). The attempt fails, but Grace reveals just before her death that she has connected with the sentient, god-like entity, and we later learn that Kiri was subsequently born from the (presumably braindead) avatar body. So is she just a clone of her human “mother”?
There seems to be something more going on here, as Kiri’s previously mentioned ability to wield Pandoran life as though she were playing a futuristic video game can only have come from Eywa. Might she be the physical embodiment of the deity itself, a sort-of vengeful Gaian avatar, sent back Gandalf-style to take down the invaders?
Why did Spider stay on Pandora, and why did Quaritch not kill him?
Early on in The Way of Water it is revealed that the late Colonel Miles Quaritch fathered a baby son before getting two arrows to the chest in movie one. While Jake Sully’s nemesis never really came across as the fatherly type, we can just about buy this as the journey from our solar system to Pandora is presumably arduous enough that the evil invaders would most likely have brought their other halves along with them from what we know is a dying Earth. Still, why didn’t Spider go home with his mother?
This is partially explained by the young human, who states early on that babies cannot survive interstellar travel in the world of Avatar, which again is sort-of fair enough. But we’re also told Spider is an orphan, so what happened to his mum?
There is a sense that Spider only really exists so that Cameron can juxtapose the fondness the returning Quaritch (now a “Recombinant” in an avatar body) feels for his offspring with the love Sully and Neytiri have for their own children, natural-born or adopted.
It’s clear the Canadian film-maker sees Quaritch as the big bad of this entire saga, so it will be fascinating to see where Avatar goes with this in movie three. Given we’ve now seen that the villain isn’t just a sociopathic killing machine bent on the destruction of anything that gets in his and the humans’ way, might there even be a Vader-style last-minute change of allegiance waiting further down the line? Could Quaritch himself eventually go native, just as Sully did before him, after being wooed by the gorgeous, swishy-tailed Pandoran lifestyle?
Family ties and a constant craving for daddy’s attention
By my count, there were at least three separate occasions in which the actions of Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and his siblings put the entire Sully clan in unnecessary danger. Cameron has talked a lot about how Avatar 2 is all about family ties and the need to stick together, informed by his own experiences as a father (or stepfather) of five. “Artistically speaking, I’m writing what I know,” he told the Guardian recently, which makes you wonder if one of those real-life sprogs spent most of their teenage years running into traffic or surfing pipelines.
Why is Pakayan the Tulkun an outcast, and what happened to Unobtanium?
There were more than a few guffaws in the cinema during my screening when Sully’s son Lo’ak began communicating with a whale-like Tulkun during an adventure among the gorgeous oceans of Pandora – and it started talking back. We find out that the aquatic, four-eyed sea creature, whose name is Pakayan, has been exiled from his pod because he led a group of young Tulkun to their deaths while trying to take revenge on the humans who had killed Pakayan’s mother. Lo’ak, who as the headstrong second oldest son in the Sully-Neytiri clan has always felt himself to be a disappointment to his parents, clearly feels a sense of kinship with the giant exile.
Later on we discover the Tulkun are being hunted because their bodies contain a yellowy, viscous substance that stops the human ageing process. No longer is nefarious mankind obsessed with the first movie’s Unobtanium, a superconductor found only on Pandora that was apparently valuable enough back on Earth that its denizens decided to colonise an entire planet to get to it. Now they are really into this new stuff.
Oh and by the way, in the intervening decade or so since the last movie Earth has gone from being in a very bad place environmentally to being completely screwed, so Pandora is being made ready for full-scale colonisation. No wonder Eywa is starting to test her weapons systems.
Cameron’s message and human turkeys voting for Christmas
Speaking of all those soon-to-be-homeless humans, surely at some point we’re all going to have to point out the hammerhead Titanothere in the room here. Aren’t they, you know, us?
We know Cameron’s Avatar saga is all about what’s going to happen to mankind if we continue down our current path towards environmental destruction: clearly there is nothing meaner than a species about to witness its own imminent demise, with its back against the existential wall. Pandora is a heightened, hyper-real cipher for our own beautiful world and the Na’vi are the environmental activists battling against corporate greed and shortsighted ignorance. Can we, too, slip on an avatar skin and go flying through the floating mountains on a path to enviro-enlightenment?
Given the majority of cinema-goers probably travel in petrol or diesel cars and the amount of plastic wrappers left in the average auditorium post-show – and goodness knows how much electricity goes into completing each three-hour screening – we probably have a long way to go here before we can genuinely count ourselves as being on the side of Neytiri et al. Let’s face it, if we were to turn up on Pandora, begging for forgiveness, she would probably take one look at us, snarl and put two arrows straight through our chest cavities.