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Re-VIEW: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ – A Miraculous Vision

In his triumphant return to the exotic world of Pandora, director James Cameron once again employs the most vibrant and stunning visual artistry to share with audiences his central theme of diversity.

In James Cameron’s epic science fiction sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña reprise their roles as Jake Sully and Neytiri, the young lovers who defied all odds to be together, even though they were literally from different worlds. Their passionate affair crossed not only cultural divides, but also the boundary between two species – human and Na’vi – and in doing so positioned the theme of diversity in the middle of Avatar’s beautiful beating heart.

In this triumphant return to the exotic world of Pandora, Cameron once again puts the same theme front and center. Set 14 years after the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water begins with a montage introducing Jake and Neytiri’s family, which is unashamedly diverse. In addition to their three mixed-race children – Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – they have also adopted Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the teenage daughter of the avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine, Weaver’s character in the original film. Completing the ensemble is the human boy Spider (Jack Champion), son of the villainous Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who accompanies Jake and Neytiri’s kids wherever they go.

Life is good for the family in their jungle idyll. But all too soon a new human invasion forces them to flee their home. They eventually join the reef dwelling Metkayina clan, only to meet with undisguised prejudice. As a human in a Na’vi body, Jake is regarded with suspicion and hostility, despite his status as “Toruk Makto,” the noble warrior who led the Omaticaya clan to victory in the first film. His children are reviled as half-breeds.

But the prejudice goes deeper. They are all different here – even Neytiri, despite the fact she is a true native of Pandora. Their Omaticaya skin is deep blue, not the pale aquamarine of the Metkayina. They lack the deep chests, broad tails and fin-like limb extensions that allow the reef-dwellers to swim freely in Pandora’s ocean. They are different. They do not fit in. They are other.

The fugitive family confronts these prejudices head-on and gradually finds acceptance in their new home, although the journey is not without its difficulties. As this particular strand of the story unfolds, the film’s multi-layered approach to discrimination – human/Na’vi, Omaticaya/Metkayina – brings a creditable complexity and depth to the narrative.

Integration into the Metkayina clan brings new stability to the lives of Jake and his family. But the peace does not last. Resurrected into an avatar body, the ruthless Quaritch is determined to track down Jake and kill him. In order to do so, he requisitions one of the huge ocean vessels used by the humans to hunt Tulkun – intelligent ocean-dwelling giants resembling terrestrial whales.

Ultimately, we learn the reason why the Tulkun are hunted – they have glands that secrete a liquid called “amrita,” which is said to stop human aging in its tracks. Amrita is highly prized – more precious than the gravity-defying “unobtainium” mineral that drove humans to ravage Pandora in the original Avatar. Having abandoned their unobtainium mines, the human invaders now have no qualms in slaughtering the majestic Tulkun simply to secure a few tiny vials of the priceless liquid.

In narrative terms, replacing unobtainium with amrita is a masterful move by Cameron. Exotic though it is, unobtainium is just an inert mineral. By harvesting amrita, the human antagonists of the new film are committing an act of violence against a sentient species, and Cameron pulls no punches as he shows us their ruthless methods in dreadful, bloody detail. This brings a profoundly emotional dimension to another of the film’s central themes: exploitation of the natural world.

Once more, this theme is multi-layered. To dial up the emotion still further, the Metkayina clan share a deep bond with the Tulkun – every individual in the clan has a Tulkun “spirit-sibling.” When Jake’s son Lo’ak befriends an outcast Tulkun called Payakan, the dreadful plight of these ocean giants becomes deeply personal to him and his family – and therefore to us, the audience.

The timely ecological message of Avatar: The Way of Water continues with glimpses of Kiri’s growing bond with Eywa, the planet-spanning consciousness that connects all life on Pandora. Eywa brings to mind the Greek myth of Gaia, the Earth Mother, herself a variant of more primitive deities representing creation, fertility, and the bounty of nature. Through Eywa, the Avatar films transport the most ancient of Earthly myths far out into the depths of space, where they find new life and meaning.

The third principal theme of Avatar: The Way of Water is family. Through the first half of the film, Cameron devotes himself to portraying the complex dynamics within Jake and Neytiri’s family. All parents of teenagers will recognize the constant ebb and flow of devotion, rebellion and sibling rivalry that accompany these turbulent years. Jake’s parenting is authoritative, no doubt shaped by his military background, but moderated by Neytiri’s more rounded philosophies. Even the bad guy, Quaritch gets to explore the challenges of parenthood as he gradually gets to know his forgotten son, Spider.

Setting these underlying themes aside, Avatar: The Way of Water benefits from a simple narrative to drive the action – a narrative that recalls many of Cameron’s most successful films. In his obsessive pursuit of Jake, Quaritch is as unstoppable as a T-1000 Terminator. The unrelenting action of the movie’s spectacular third act pays homage to both The Abyss and Titanic. However, at no time does Cameron simply fall back on his playbook. Instead, the nods and homages establish a recognizable frame within which the filmmaker is free to paint the most extraordinary pictures. Let there be no doubt – Avatar: The Way of Water is truly gorgeous to behold.

Cameron begins work on his canvas by presenting the world of Pandora with deceptively simple broad strokes, before immersing the audience in this fully realized alien realm. The establishing scenes are slow and lyrical, with each shot revealing yet another glorious vista. The ocean sequences are dazzling and filled with endless detail, so that by the time we reach the spectacle of the final battle we feel that we are literally swimming in the waters of Pandora. Thanks to the innovative virtual production techniques, and the extraordinary talent of the visual effects team at Wētā FX, Pandora and its inhabitants are never less than utterly convincing and filled with true emotion.

As with the first film, audiences will undoubtedly leave the cinema with their minds and hearts filled with color. James Cameron’s imaginary universe is so vibrant, so convincing, and so unforgettable, that we are reluctant to leave it behind and re-enter the drab reality of the real world.

Yet, the real triumph of Avatar: The Way of Water is that the film reminds us that our world is not drab. In fact, the reverse is true. The forests and oceans of our own planet Earth are filled with just as many wonders as those of Pandora. Perhaps more. We live in a miracle, and the miracle is right in front of us. It has been here all the time. All we need to do is open our eyes and embrace our world with the Na’vi phrase of welcome and love: “I see you.”


Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez is the CEO and executive director of VIEW Conference, Italy’s premiere annual digital media conference. She holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University and a BA from the University of California Santa Cruz. VIEW Conference is committed to bringing a diversity of voices to the forefront in animation, visual effects, and games. For more information about the VIEW Conference, visit the official website:

Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez's picture
Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez is the CEO and executive director of VIEW Conference, Italy’s premiere annual digital media conference: