13 years have passed since the first Avatar was released — in both our world and Pandora. The story of a man arriving on a new world and choosing between his own species and those he was sent to exploit, Avatar was a film about discovery. So, when Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) ship arrived on Pandora, the scene was one of grandeur, wonder, and heavy curiosity. Conversely, Avatar: The Way of Water is not about discovering Pandora, but about the importance of establishing your roots, specifically through a family unit. Because of this emphasis on the family, The Way of Water is, at once, larger and smaller than its predecessor.
Jake and Netryri (Zoe Saldaña) have since started a family of four: two sons, Neteyam (Jaime Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and two daughters, the adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, playing the offspring of her prior character Grace’s avatar) and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). There’s also Spider (Jake Champion), a human who spends his time among the Sullys, who Jake affectionately compares to a “stray cat.” But when the “sky people” arrive in the same ships that brought Jake to his home years ago, the Star Trek-ish sense of wonder is gone. Instead, their arrival is framed like an alien invasion. When Netryri sobs at the new loss of life that results from these fiery ships simply landing, it’s not just out of horror at what’s happening—like when Home Tree is destroyed in the first film—but devastation that it’s happening again. But amidst this heartbreak, she and Jake ground themselves in their family as foundation. In, as Jake puts it, “our fortress.”
What’s important here is that the lines that were staunchly drawn in the first film are affirmed from the get-go, with the arrival of the sky people. There are new technologies, new factions of avatars created by the RDA called recombinants (recoms), new environments to explore and new species of Pandora to marvel at, but the core conflict between the Na’vi and the RDA remains the same. As an avatar, Jake’s presence in the first film may have shaken things up by briefly blurring the lines of the conflict, but when Jake and Netryri come across some recoms holding their children hostage, gone is the hesitation Netryri had when she first laid eyes on Jake. Jake disposes of a fellow avatar with no hesitation, no sign from Eywa telling him to stop, no chance for the recom to plead his case—nor would they have a case to plead.
Director James Cameron and his co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver could have written a dramatic scene where Jake hesitates before killing this avatar, maybe looking in his eyes and hesitating like Netryi did. It’s more effective that they didn’t, because the simplicity of the scene is what gives it substance, and heightens the evolution of the conflict. Jake is aware that the flesh of the RDA may have changed, but its soul hasn’t.
Nor, for that matter, has the soul of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch’s human self was killed in battle, but his memories were copied and transferred into an avatar, and The Way Of Water makes explicit comparisons between this new Quaritch’s arc and Jake’s from the first film. When Quaritch aims to tame a flying Ikran with a tranquilizer, he stops with the tranquilizer after learning “Jake Sully did it the hard way.” In a hilariously badass way of distinguishing character, Quaritch starts his fight by punching the Ikran in the face. But there is an unsung little detail that permeates Quaritch’s new characterization, a quirk he has in his Na’vi body that he didn’t really have as a human: now that he has fangs, he bares them. It’s what he does when he first sees his reflection, and he does it repeatedly throughout the film. It’s an effective distinction that establishes how Quaritch is happily accommodating to this new body.
But all this conflict is worthless without something to fight over. As with the first film, The Way Of Water is a glorious spectacle, with the creative team embracing new visual effects toys, like higher frame rates*, underwater motion capture, and better 3D cameras. (* It’s worth noting that the film is not exclusively at 48 fps, but the frame rate is used throughout to fix certain 3D technical issues). However, while it’s easy to suggest that this spectacle overshadows the character, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as the beauty of Panodra is not at the expense of character, but instead both reveals the nature of the characters, and is a character in and of itself.
When the Sullys arrive at the Metkayina reef clan, the kids go for a swim with some Metkayina teenagers, and almost immediately the distinctions in culture and character are established. The Sully kids marvel at the underwater life, but they can’t marvel for very long, as they haven’t been trained to hold their breath the way the Metkayina have. The Metkayina also have their own sign language, something the Sullys don’t, providing another cultural barrier. What’s interesting about this scene is that, as some of the Sully kids try to follow the other Metkayina teens, Kiri explores on her own. While the other Sully and Metkayina teens have a veneration for their world, Kiri has a distinct, greater love for the world around her. Sure, she’s beholden to these physical and cultural distinctions from which she and the Sullys suffer, but she has a curiosity that goes beyond them.
Kiri’s greater curiosity for Pandora comes from somewhere—somewhere mysterious. Not only are the circumstances of her birth a mystery (Grace’s avatar gave birth to her while in preservation), no one knows who her father is. The Way of Water leaves this and other questions open for sequels, it doesn’t dwell on the questions being unanswered. Without spoiling, there’s a very tense conflict between two heroic characters that’s unresolved, with plenty of room for discovery in Avatar 3 (and, I personally hope, Avatar 4 and 5), but this sequel doesn’t treat them as outright cliffhangers. Take The Phantom Menace, where Qui-Gon and Yoda ominously talk about an unidentified Sith lord. There are no ominous close-ups of these two conflicting characters glaring at each other, nor is there a scene of Kiri looking off into the sunset as she says to someone “I still wonder who my father is….” right before The Way Of Water’s last scene.
Because of this, the film feels like proper serialized storytelling. By the end, these open wounds haven’t healed yet, but they’re being tended to, and without an explicit reminder that more needs to be done. In this sense, Avatar: The Way of Water feels like breakfast. It’s not the only meal of the day, but it is a satisfying meal in and of itself.