What is Avatar: The Way of Water really about?

5 mins
15 Dec 2022
What is Avatar: The Way of Water really about?

Like all great blockbusters, James Cameron’s Avatar has a deeper meaning…

image Avatar / 20th Century Studios

words Rhys Thomas

Avatar: The Way of Water is set to be projected in wonderful 3D at cinemas across the world. The second of five in James Cameron’s Avatar universe, it’s expected to become the highest grossing movie of all time. Like all huge cinematic blockbusters (especially those set in another universe, or planet) the story on the surface is exactly that – a story on the surface.

In this film the plot continues where the first film, simply named Avatar, left off, but with the evil people being even more evil. The humans are back on planet Pandora, but they’re less concerned with the mining of precious minerals. They want Jake Sully, dead or alive. This is all made clear at the very beginning (we will never do spoilers) of the film.

We know this because Jake Sully and his immediate family (partner Neytiri, their sons Neteyam and Lo'ak, their daughter Tuktirey, and adopted son and daughter Miles and Kiri) are being hunted by the humans, who kick off the film by invading and causing widespread fires.The family therefore elect to leave the forest where their Na’vi tribe are based, in order to reach safety and keep their tribe away from danger. They arrive at a set of islands far away, where a water tribe of Na’vi live, and hope to settle there.

The film begins to deal with not only whopping great CGI budgets and underwater stunts but themes of migration, asylum seeking, and adapting to a new culture. The Sullys have effectively sought asylum, after all.

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The people who occupy the new island are Na’vi too, but they are water people. The Sullys are forest people. They are different, and they are anatomically slightly different too: the queen of the water people, Ronal (played by Kate Winslet) points out the “weak” tails of the forest Na’vi. The water people use those tails to swim effectively, which is implied to be a massive aspect of water Na’vi life, the way of water, as the film title mentions. Winslet’s character also points out that much of the family is half-human (noted through their hands having four fingers rather than the more weblike hands Na’vi generally have) and this is stigmatised.

These differences (complete with the idea that the Sullys are escaping the forest and want to live there, without notice) leads to the Na’vi water people having to strongly consider the idea of letting them stay and seek refuge. It is pointed out that even though he is the king of the forest tribe, Jake Sully and his family are pretty useless within the context of water people society, and if they want to be there, they need to learn local ways of living and engaging with the world. The Sullys accept their new low-skilled position and promise to learn.

This is a film full of tensions between outsiders and insiders and reckonings of strengths and weaknesses. This is mostly carried out in interactions between the children of the Sullys and the water people, including Tsireya (Bailey Bass) the daughter of Tonowari, the king of the water people, The Sully family, including the perfect eldest child (Jamie Flatters) struggle to learn the basics of the land (their equivalents of walking and riding a bike are pretty difficult for the newcomers to manage). There are fights, there are romances. At the end, there is acceptance. A sense of, we are different but we are the same and we should help each other. The Sullys are told they can stay, and that they are welcome.

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There are other outsiders, in a different sense. My favourite character in the film is Kiri, played by Sigourney Weaver. She’s the adopted daughter of the Sully family and represents being an outsider not just from the perspective of being different to the rest of the family. She is also “the weird” child on the island. Often, she is caught (in the eyes of the others) daydreaming or being strange, and often struggles to accept who she is and her place in any world

But it is hinted that she actually possesses some otherworldly, almost deity-like powers. They’re initially dismissed as epilepsy, and we won’t spoil what happens next, but this shows a story of someone who is out of the ordinary being exceptional rather than just weird. It pushes the message of staying true to who you are, and believing in the things you can do, and both of these things having merit.

As this all shows, a real point of genius within massive blockbuster films is being able to let the narrative flow based on simple, conventional tales, while weaving in an undercurrent full of substance. Avatar is also being shown worldwide, across many languages, cultures, and political belief systems. Many many people will see the film, and so these undertones will let many people consider their relationship with the idea of seeking asylum, and of cultural integration.The film provides the entire world with a talking point. Of course, James Cameron’s Avatar is a spectacle to behold visually too, but he accomplishes far more within the film than just making something pretty.

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