Pandora’s a nice place to visit. But you wouldn’t want to plunder there.
Humankind should’ve learned that lesson back in the first Avatar movie. With our own planet nearly exhausted and humans greedy for the Pandora-based metal of unobtanium, we homo sapiens set up shop on Pandora and quickly discovered the planet didn’t want us there. Lots of people died. Most of the rest were expelled. A few scientists remained (as long as they promised to be very, very nice), and a couple of them actually kinda transferred souls—telling their human bodies goodbye and becoming one of the blue, 10-foot-tall Na’vi.
But humans are a stubborn lot. Like heroes in a moderately creepy 1980s romcom, they take Pandora’s firm “no” as the planet just playing hard to get. And if Pandora’s complex ecosystems get in the way? Well, just set ‘em on fire. Burn a nice large area for humanity to mine and pave and build parking garages on in their quest to bring the whole of this lush, green land to heel.
But before that work can truly begin, the invading humans need to take care of one big blue thorn: Jake Sully.
Sully was one of folks who decided being Na’vi was preferable to being human, and that a life in Pandora was just too good to pass up. He’s got a wife now—the fierce, loving Neytiri—and a minivan’s worth of kids (though the minivan would certainly need some extra headroom). He’s also been leading a guerilla war against humankind’s latest efforts at exploitation.
Who better to lead the charge against pesky Jake than his one-time boss, Colonel Miles Quartich?
OK, so technically, the colonel died in the last movie. But before Quartich was killed, he saved (essentially) his brain on (essentially) a thumb drive, allowing to plug in his own essence into a Na’vi avatar.
Yep, that’s right: Sully might’ve gotten the best of the colonel last time around. But now, Quartich is just as big as Jake. Just as blue. Just as able to plug his braided hair into Pandora’s planetary hard drive as Jake is.
And this time, it’s personal.
Sullys stick together. Such is the mantra that Jake has passed on to his four kids, and we see it play out time after time.
Jake feels the weight of fatherhood particularly heavily. “A father protects,” he tells us. “It’s what gives him meaning.” So when Jake learns that Quartich and his squad of human-brained Na’vi are after him and his family, he makes the difficult decision to move—to escape to a more watery realm on Pandora. It’s a painful uprooting, but Jake insists, “Wherever we go, this family is our fortress.” And when the Sullys do settle into an unfamiliar village that operates in unfamiliar ways, The Sully kids have each other’s backs—sometimes at huge personal risk.
An example of the family’s cohesive camaraderie: When some local teens pick on Kiri—Jake and Neytiri’s dreamy, adopted daughter—brothers Neteyam and Lo’ak fly to her defense. And while neither Jake nor Plugged In condone the violent way that defense is made, we still applaud that sort of loyalty.
But eventually—and through a lot of hard work—Jake, Neytiri and their children become integral parts of their new community, too. The entire village shows a willingness to fight and sacrifice for each of its members (including its non-Na’vi members). And even neighboring villages do their best to protect Jake and his family at great personal and communal cost.
We should note that most of Jake’s kids—in the early stages of adolescence, it seems—are processing their own roles within the family and community. Lo’ak, Jake’s second-oldest son, often feels like a disappointment to his ever-demanding father. Kiri feels like an outcast. But in many ways, these two characters form the bedrock on which The Way of Water is built, with each bringing special skills and moxie to the narrative party. The message the movie seems to be sending: Not fitting the norm can be a pretty good thing. All of us are different, and those differences can make us stronger.
Pandora’s culture is deeply spiritual—but it’s not at all Christian. Rather, the planet’s inhabitants worship and sometimes pray to Eywa, a sort of an environmentally based goddess (think of it almost like Mother Nature on spiritual steroids). Neytiri, for instance, thanks the “Great Mother” when her son avoids a fate that could’ve been a catastrophe. Others pray in life-threatening situations. Pandora’s whole religious system feels pantheistic: Everything on the planet is connected to Pandora’s central spiritual heart, simultaneously separate and part of a whole spiritual being. The Na’vi literally plug into Pandora’s environmental motherboard to connect more closely with its creatures and even experience memories and visions.
We also hear some vaguely spiritual talk predicated on water, repeated almost like a mantra. “The way of water has no beginning and has no end,” it begins. The planet’s water gives and receives, it is “before birth” and “after death.” A scientist tells us that some of Pandora’s biggest inhabitants—whale-like creatures called tulkun—are said to have huge spiritual centers in their brains (to go along with their superior intelligence).
The movie also hints at some sort of divine or immaculate conception. Kiri, Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter, was the birth daughter of (and I realize this sounds a bit confusing) the avatar of Dr. Grace Augustine, who kinda-sorta died in the last movie and whose Na’vi avatar still floats floating in a capsule of liquid. That avatar got pregnant—no one’s sure how. Now, Kiri seems to have an extra-special connection with Pandora, manipulating creatures in ways that no one else can do.
We hear references to Sully and his kin as having “demon blood.” The closing song makes reference to sin.
As mentioned, Grace’s avatar is floating in what looks like a capsule of water, and at one juncture we see her breasts (including a bit of nipple).
But let’s be honest: The Na’vi are not known for their modesty, and there’s a lot of blue skin on display. Critical bits are mostly covered by tiny bits of fabric or leather or hair (or strategic camera angles, since tiny kids sometimes wear nothing at all), but viewers will be exposed to an unrelenting stream of blue CGI buttocks throughout.
Also of note: One character, Spider, is a human teen boy living the Na’vi lifestyle. He wears, essentially, a loincloth throughout the entire movie.
When the Sullys move to their watery new home, Lo’ak develops a crush on Reya, the village chieftain’s daughter. When Reya’s trying to teach Lo’ak and his siblings how to slow their heartbeats (in order to breathe underwater longer), she places her hand on his stomach to help calm him. It has just the opposite effect: “Your heart is beating fast,” Reya says, as Lo’ak’s brother and sister look at each other knowingly.
When a bad guy captures, Kiri and tells her to “move along, buttercup,” Kiri responds by saying, “I’m not your buttercup, perv.”
Sully and Neytiri enjoy a brief moment of canoodling together sans kids on a “date night,” as they call it—until, that is, the arrival of human spacecraft interrupts them. Elsewhere, a grown female Na’vi is very pregnant, though that hardly slows her down or keeps her from fighting when the time comes.
The Way of Water, like the first Avatar movie, is essentially a war flick, and we see plenty of violence. Indeed, the last hour of the film is one constant battle.
Bullets rattle out of machine guns and sometimes find their mark, leading to bloody injuries and painful deaths. While the Na’vi use these more modern-day weapons, many use more indigenous tools: Neytiri’s favorite is her bow, from which she shoots arrows with distinctive, telltale fletching. Several find their mark—sometimes the heads of opponents, sometimes through vehicle windshields on the way to the chest. Knives and axe-like weapons are also favorite implements: One man suffers a spike-blow to the head. Several characters are impaled by spears.
Various machines and vehicles explode, sometimes killing or injuring others in the process. People might fly up and out of said vehicles, surely pulled by gravity to their dooms. (One man is thrown from a boat and has his arm severed for good measure: We see both fly.) A number of people drown or nearly drown, and at least one man is crushed by what appears to be a gigantic anemone. Someone has what appears to be an epileptic seizure underwater and nearly dies.
But perhaps the movie’s most jarring death isn’t that of a human or Na’vi at all, but rather a whale-like tulkun. Hunters pierce the animal’s hide with skewers carrying fast-inflating balloons, which bring the animal to the surface. Then it’s smacked in the chest with a massive explosive harpoon. The tulkun tries to flee, but eventually exhausts itself and dies. The hunters later go inside the beast’s cavernous maw and drill into its brain, draining a valuable liquid from the creature. (The rest of the carcass is apparently wasted.) Later, we discover that the tulkun’s calf also died.
The tulkun are assaulted with sonic cannons and depth charges. (We’re told that the creatures have never “even lifted a fin” against their attackers, but one tulkun decides to go against the species’ pacifistic ethos with devastating consequences.)
Sully’s kids fight with other teens. Fists are thrown and tails are pulled. The fight leaves Lo’ak and Neteyam bloodied, but the other teens (a Sully boy insists) suffered much worse. (When Sully later makes Lo’ak apologize to the other teen leader, he does, after a fashion: “I’m sorry I hit you—so many times,” he says.)
An animal is shot and killed; we see its carcass floating in the water. Countless more die on the humans’ return to Pandora, caught in an overwhelming inferno. Knives cut into the chests of a couple of people—ceremonial deaths, it would seem (even though the flesh wounds aren’t particularly serious).
Village buildings are set on fire. The lives of several people and Na’vi are threatened. Someone is strapped into a sort of torture device, leaving him with a bloody nose after the ordeal. A gigantic fish-like monster tries to gobble up a swimmer before it is killed itself. A tulkun sports a metallic hook of sorts in its fin, which a Na’vi friend kindly removes. A shark-like undersea creature relentlessly hunts one of the Na’vi.
One f-word and about 15 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “crap,” “g-dd–n,” “d–n,” “h—” and the British profanities “bloody” and “bugger.” Jesus’ name is abused once. We hear some name-calling, too, including one sibling calling another “penis face.”
A tulkun hunter tells a marine biologist on the team that his hunting pays for the scientist’s research. “That’s why I drink,” the scientist tells him. Someone makes a quip about someone else owing her a beer.
Colonel Quaritch, the movie’s most notable big bad, is a proud and fierce U.S. Marine, as is the rest of his team. They do some pretty despicable things during this movie and form the spear point of humankind’s desire to plunder and colonize Pandora. And while the colonel’s character takes on some subtler shades as the movie goes on, The Way of Water certainly casts the military in a poor light.
Whatever else you think of James Cameron, let’s acknowledge at least this: The guy knows how to make a buzz-worthy movie.
His greatest strength lies in world-building—bringing moviegoers into exotic realms and making them feel as though they’re there. Be it the long-lost elegance of the Titanic or the gritty confines of a blue-collar spaceship in Aliens, Cameron invites you in—making it all feel so real. (In the case of the Avatar movies, the 3D doesn’t hurt.)
But while Cameron is a first-class tour guide in his own made-up worlds, those worlds are not necessarily ones that should be visited.
Avatar: The Way of Water swims into its PG-13 rating by the skin of its oddly pronounced incisors. Language alone pushes the envelope. The occasional blood spatter or flying limb doesn’t do the film any favors, either. And then, of course, there’s all that CGI skin. Yes, it’s all fake, but I hesitate to think of all the Rule 34 Na’vi GIFs that might be floating out on the internet. Nor would I be that surprised if the impossibly lithe, impossibly thin Na’vi (who, after all, make their human counterparts look like clumsy Minecraft figures) might unintentionally inspire an eating disorder or two.
But even if all that’s navigable, I’d encourage you to consider two more points before toting the whole family to watch. One, the tulkun hunt—a jarring scene for any young animal lover (especially one with a love of whales). And two, Pandora’s spiritual system that pushes away Christianity and hugs a nature-based pantheism. Forget the biblical model of stewardship: It sidesteps the Creator and instead worships the creation. And that is pretty much the definition of idolatry.
Cameron has a way of upending Hollywood expectations. The original Avatar is still the highest-grossing movie worldwide of all time—and it is said that The Way of Water will have to exceed that to make a profit. It could do just that.
But while Pandora is as beautiful as ever, The Way of Water might not be the way that many families would care to go.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.