[Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers of the movie Avatar: The Way of Water and references scenes (spoilers) from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever]
After 13 years in the making, Avatar 2 has finally come out. Will it surpass its predecessor, or will it fumble like many other movie sequels? That is up to the people to decide. As a sequel, Avatar 2 is set 16 years after Avatar, where Jake Sully is now married to Neytiri and has three biological children, Neteyam, Lo’ak and Tuktirey, and two adopted children, Kiri and Spider. Similar to Avatar, the plot of Avatar 2 revolves around the war between humans and the Na’vi. In Avatar 2, humans returned to Pandora with new soldiers called Recombinants – Na’vi avatars implanted with the memories of deceased human soldiers. One of the Recombinants has the memory of Colonel Miles Quaritch, who has a grudge against Jake Sully and wants to take revenge. To oversimplify the plot, the Sully family are being chased by Quaritch and his Recombinants soldiers, so they decide to run away to the Metkayina Clan (Na’vi clan of the ocean) to seek refuge. During their stay, they learn the Metkayina clan’s way of life and culture. However, Quaritch and his soldiers soon were closing in on them, so they decided to fight this time because running away would only cause suffering and damage to the Metkayina clan. This movie mainly focuses their attention on Sully’s children rather than Sully himself.
Themes of Tradition & Culture
In the opening scene of Avatar 2, Neytiri, Jake Sully’s wife, immediately lures the audience in with her harmonious singing as she holds a songcord. With mysterious lyrics in her native language and its soothing melody, the song reveals that she is singing praises to Eywa, the All-Mother, for the life of her family and to welcome Kiri into the family.
Starting the three-hour film from the deep roots of the Na’vi’s culture and tradition, it sets the tone for the rest of the movie where strong cultural elements not only of the Sully’s original clan, Omaticaya, but also the Metkayina clan, where the Sully’s later seek refuge in, emerge as important pillars of the movie.
After comfortably settling down with a healthy family as Toruk Makto of the Omaticaya clan, Jake Sully and his family are abruptly forced to flee to the Metkayina clan in order to hide from the Quaritch and his soldiers. During the meeting of the Na’vi’s from two different clans, the similarities of the clans’ cultures became clear. Despite the obvious differences between the clans such as their skin colour, habitat and skills, there are surprisingly many parallels between the both of them. Similar to how Na’vi’s of the Omaticaya clan use ikran’s, a dragon-like beast, to hunt and travel in the air, the Na’vi’s of the Metkayina clan too have a beast-like sea creature they share an intimate bond with, called the tulkun, to travel in the Pandoran seas. Interestingly, they consider their respective tulkun’s as spiritual siblings and are deeply connected with them. This is why, when a whaler killed the tulkun of Ronal, the Metakayina leader’s mate, she let out a piercing cry of agony, shattered by the death of her spiritual sister. This tear-jerking scene effectively magnified the close-knit relationship between a Na’vi and its tulkun, enabling the audience to sympathise with Ronal’s loss. From this, it is evident that the lives of the Na’vi’s are heavily intertwined with nature, from their habitats and rituals to their closest companions.
Other than that, the Na’vi’s of the Metkayina clan deem the Cove of the Ancestors a spiritual place where the Spirit Tree sits, similar to the Tree of Souls for the Omaticaya clan. Na’vi’s treasure and protect these spiritual places, be it on land or under the sea, because it is of great importance for them to connect and communicate spiritually with Eywa. Other than these spiritual places, this spiritual belief of the Na’vi’s is also portrayed in many other scenes of the movie, showing their reliance, loyalty and faith in Eywa. For example, during the life-or-death scene when the Sully’s were trapped in the sinking ship, with water levels rising by the second, it almost seemed like all hope was lost. The burning flame of a candle shrinking smaller and smaller, as if it could be extinguished any moment. At this very crucial moment, Kiri, who sought and connected with Eywa for guidance, comes to the rescue;bringing the light to the darkness with luminescent fish that act as a guide to point the way to escape. In situations beyond their control, Eywa demonstrates her love and mercy by extending guidance to the Na’vi’s.
The movie ends just like it begins, with Neytiri’s singing. However, this time, instead of welcoming a member into the family, they are bidding farewell to the oldest son, Neteyam who died from a wound inflicted by a bullet. Despite the sorrow of his passing, there is a sense of comfort during the funeral and burial because the Sully’s are assured that Neteyam is returned to Eywa, the All-Mother as his body descends into the algae on the seabed. Once again, the significance of the Na’vi’s tradition is portrayed . In this case, the Sully’s cope with the loss of a member of the family with the aid of their beliefs and the funeral, which was attended by Na’vi’s from the Metkayina clan.
The way this entirely fictitious world was brought to life so realistically by James Cameron is commendable. In addition to the advanced technology used to film the movie, the great attention to detail on the information about the clans and their culture helps to successfully develop this world of fantasy into a believable and true story which is the ultimate goal, so that the audience can have a memorable viewing experience.
Nevertheless, this strategy of developing strong themes of fictitious traditions and culture in movies is not a rare one. In fact, the latest blockbuster released by Marvel which became the sixth highest grossing film of 2022, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever also revolves around the deep-rooted traditions and culture of Wakanda. Despite its rich culture and traditions which it preserves and takes pride in, Wakanda is one of the most technologically-advanced nations in the world because they have built their technology using the strongest and most precious material on Earth, Vibranium, which only the people of Wakanda have access to. For this reason, Wakanda has isolated itself from the rest of the world by shielding themselves with a cloaking field. With the harmonious co-existence of unique traditions that have been passed from one generation to the next and the advanced, futuristic technology that has been used for the nation’s best interest such as military defence, infrastructure and research development, there is no doubt why the audience and fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) easily fall in love and root for this nation and its people. Already at the pinnacle of modern civilization, Wakanda’s distinct culture gives it character as well.
In the early parts of the movie, a funeral is held for the late King T’Challa who died from an incurable illness. Similar to the funeral of Neteyam, there are specific rituals performed during the funeral of the King. From the traditional ritual of dancing and the beating of drums as the royal family walk through the city with the coffin, to the modern ritual of the coffin being elevated and raised above the ground as citizens of Wakanda salute with the Wakanda Forever sign; all of these have symbolic meanings of great significance that make King T’Challa’s funeral very meaningful. To illustrate, a stark contrast can be seen between Tony Stark’s funeral, where all the mourners present are dressed in black, and the late King of Wakanda’s funeral, where all the citizens are dressed in white for the funeral. The belief behind wearing white is, instead of mourning and grieving over his death, more emphasis is placed on celebrating his life and all that he brought to the world.
Family and Community Aspects
One phrase that was mentioned over and over again in the movie was “Sullys stick together.” This phrase emphasises how important Jake’s family is to him because he wants to create a very close bond between their family, where each member of the family will help each other no matter what happens. Furthermore, the phrase was said multiple times to emphasise the importance of family to his children, so they will also help each other. Thankfully, Jake’s teaching was ingrained in his children’s minds, as shown by the multiple occasions where the children helped each other. For instance, when some of the Metkayina clan children are bullying Kiri, her older brothers, Neteyam and Lo’ak, come to protect Kiri and fight off the Metkayina clan children.
Another notable scene is during the final battle, where each of Sully’s children keeps risking their lives to save their families that are taken captive by Quaritch. In these scenes, each family member is essential in saving the other’s life. At the beginning of the final battle, Jake Sully was fighting Quaritch while Neytiri and the other children were trying to sneak in and free Lo’ak, Tuk, and Tsireya, the daughter of Tonowari. On the other hand, during the end of the final battle, Jake Sully, Neytiri, and Tuk were trapped inside an upside-down ship, and with the help of Kiri and Lo’ak, they were able to guide both their parents and one of their siblings out of the way of the upside-down ship.
The Sully family portrays traditional family structures and values, where there is a husband, wife and their children, whether biological or adopted. Furthermore, like a traditional family, Jake Sully is portrayed as a strong, respected father and leader, making the character even more alive and exciting. Neytiri, as the mother, plays a role that supports Jake Sully as a wife. Like those stereotypical families, the father tends to be harder on the children while the mother tends to be softer. Indeed, the Sully family sets an excellent example of a good traditional family. It is not without flaws, but the family is genuinely loving, although sometimes are misunderstood among themselves.
For instance, Lo’ak sometimes feels overshadowed by his “perfect”’ big brother Neteyam and can’t properly convey this feeling to anyone. On the other hand, Kiri feels uneasy because she feels different as an adopted child of the family and has a unique fascination for the ocean compared to the other Na’vi. Nevertheless, with all the individual problems the children have, they could communicate it to their parents, and their parents could acknowledge their feelings. At the movie’s end, Kiri’s unique fascination with the ocean helped free Neytiri from the ship. Meanwhile, after Jake Sully is saved by Lo’ak, he says, “I see you”, in a very emotional manner which symbolises that Jake truly acknowledges Lo’ak.
The Metkayina clan plays a significant part in the story. Initially, there was a debate about whether the Metkayina clan should take in Sully’s family because they could bring trouble to their clan. In the end, the chief of the Metkayina clan, Tonowari, accepted them into the clan and asked all the clan members to treat them as guests and teach them the way of life as Metkayina Na’vi. However, not all of the Metkayina clan members are very welcoming. Some of the Metkayina children made fun of the looks of Jack Sully’s children because of the physical differences between the two tribes, while others tried to bully and put them in danger. As part of a fishing tribe, the Sully family needs to learn how to breathe and swim efficiently underwater, which was a struggle for them at the start. As a result, they were sometimes made fun of, especially by Ao’nung (son of Tonowari) and his friends, due to the lack of skills that they portray. On the flip side, Tsireya was very accepting of them and only giggled when Sully’s children made a blunder during their training.
However, as time passed and they spent more time together, both tribes started to respect each other and build a good friendship because they recognized each other’s skills and attitudes. As a result, when the Na’vi are presented with a common threat, the Recombinants, both tribes fight together to defeat the common threat. The unique interaction between both tribes shows that you can earn respect and friendship from other people with the proper skills and attitude, regardless of your physical differences.
CGI and Visual Effects
Diving in on the technical aspects of the movie, there is no doubt that Avatar 2 has a couple of visual effects improvements compared to Avatar. For viewers that have watched the movie, we can all agree that the visual effects of the water look very realistic, although it is animated with CGI. To create a very realistic water simulation, James Cameron, the director of Avatar: Way of Water, and his team worked together with WETA FX, a visual effects company. WETA FX has also worked with Cameron on the first Avatar movie, but the first movie didn’t have to deal with such complex water physics. As such, both parties tested multiple interactions between certain items with water, such as water’s effect on curly hair, how the waves disperse when hitting a rock, and many others. Overall, WETA FX created over 1,600 water simulations for the movie and has filed for several patents for new water simulations they created during the movie’s production.
The stage for the photorealistic ocean and water effects is now set. The next thing that needs to be completed is to create the most realistic water interactions with the characters, such as swimming, floating, or drowning. The standard way to create a swimming motion is called a “dry-for-wet” technique, where actors will be suspended in the air using wires to replicate the weightlessness of the ocean, with the addition of filters and lighting effects to create realism. However, James Cameron applied a rather unconventional yet unique technique called “wet-for-wet”, where the actors are actually submerged underwater in a tank to create realism. For Avatar: Way of Water, a 900,000-gallon tank equipped to simulate waves and currents was used to shoot the film, creating an even photorealistic underwater CGI. Besides the photorealistic water simulations, WETA FX also improved their lighting effects to create the Pandora Jungle and general land in a more realistic manner and created a new system to capture the facial expression of the actors and actresses with higher accuracy and details.
Besides the new methods incorporated to make Avatar: Way of Water even more realistic, there has also been improvements to the Avatar characters themself. With the better facial expression capturing system, the skin of the Avatars can be seen in greater detail. As such, viewers can see the skin creases, crinkles under the eye, and individual hair follicles of the eyebrows, which were previously not as visible in the first Avatar movie. Other significant improvements include the eye, where the eyes are now shown in greater detail to the point where people can clearly see the pattern of the iris.
Element of Nostalgia: The “Top Gun” of Generation Z
In this digital era where advanced technology such as Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has played a vital role in improving the quality of movies in the 21st century, the release of Top Gun: Maverick in May of 2022 was indeed, a breath of fresh air. Although there was minimal use of CGI in the making of the movie, most of the stunts performed in this action-packed fighter jet movie were executed by the cast themselves, including the flying of fighter jets. By relying on making an impact through its simple yet exciting storyline that centres around events that unfold in the top flight school in the U.S and training the cast themselves to perform their own stunts;this sequel stays true to the simplicity of the first Top Gun movie released in 1986, bringing back waves of nostalgia for our parents who were once our age when they watched the first Top Gun movie. Whether it was keeping Tom Cruise as the star of the show after more than three decades or maintaining the accessibility of a naval aviator-centred show for the general public to enjoy, Top Gun: Maverick certainly satisfied the audience who had seen the first movie back in ‘86 by bringing them back to a simpler time.
In this way, Avatar: The Way of Water was like the “Top Gun” for Generation Z. Reviving the childhood movie of Generation Z from 2009 with enhanced features not just of the Na’Vi’s, but the overall quality of the film, this movie was a warm blanket of comfort for growing teenagers transitioning into adulthood, allowing them to reminisce pieces of their childhood. This sequel, released 14 years after the original, is a testament to the impressive technological advancement and development of the film industry within the span of slightly more than a decade.
Nevertheless, it is notable that it has become increasingly common for the revival of old movies because it guarantees a large audience which have already developed a connection with the first movie and are curious to find out what is in store for the sequel. This anticipation by the audience is definitely good news for filmmaking companies because it eliminates the fear and uncertainty of unpredictable reactions from the audience. With reference to an Echo article, Beer and Skittles: A 2023 Watchlist published earlier this year, there is a repeating similarity in some of the movies being released in 2023, that is, many of them are sequels or rather, modernised versions of movies of the past. For example, The Little Mermaid, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny, which will be released later this year, all raise a sense of familiarity among the audience.
After delving into the depths of Avatar: The Way of Water from several aspects and comparing its themes to that of other recently-released movies, there is no doubt that this movie surpassed all the expectations of the audience with its stunning visuals and incredible storyline which explores themes of survival, family and love. From tear-jerking scenes to suspenseful moments that pull you to the edge of your seat, to wholesome scenes that fill your heart with warmth, this film brings the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions – enabling viewers to emotionally connect and empathise with the characters of diverse personalities. This three-hour-long film leaves you with strong feelings and emotions in your heart, watery eyes and a brain with actively turning gears, thinking about the whirlwind of events that occurred throughout the movie and possibly pondering about the following sequels. And this is how you know, it is indeed, a movie to remember, because it left an impact on you and made you feel like you had just travelled to Maldives, met a few Na’Vi’s and saved the day. You need not wait another 14 years for the next sequel, because it has been announced that Avatar 3, 4 and 5 will be released in the years to come. In the meantime, let us appreciate the beauty of this masterpiece and try to predict what will happen in the following sequels!
Written by: Daniel and Caitlin
Edited by: Poorani