By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Happiness is simple,” says Jake Sully. The problem with happiness, and Pandora, the planet where James Cameron’s “Avatar” and now “Avatar: The Way of Water” take place, is that if you “love it too much,” you can also lose it.
“The Way of Water” hits home in a way that “Avatar” did not—because now we can all relate much better that threats to our happiness are constant. We can also relate much better now that some people are indeed permanent a-holes. Some people will always be out for profit and gain—to rape the planet, like RDA in the movie. Some people, like Colonel Quaritch in the movie, will always be blind to compassion and acceptance.
To take you back, “Avatar” came out in 2009. It chronicled the transformation of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) from a quadriplegic Marine in the service of the heartless a-holes from off-planet, who wantonly destroy everything in sight, to one of the Na’vi, the indigenous 12-foot-tall humanoids from Pandora (more than a little similar to Earth’s indigenous peoples), who want only to live in harmony with the planet and, in fact, have special ways of communing with Pandora (through their hair—you remember, we couldn’t decide if that was kinky or not). Most of the same cast is here, with a few additions, but now it’s a decade later and the baddies are back. This time, they also want revenge for being killed the last time.
Yeah, I don’t understand all the science. Quaritch, who was shot through DEAD with one of Neytiri’s arrows in “Avatar” (Neytiri is Jake’s badass, beautiful Na’vi wife played by Zoe Saldana), has transferred his memories (just some, though!) into an “avatar.” That’s what those are in this context: Na’vi bodies—which they never say where they came from—that have a human’s consciousness put into them so they can infiltrate and take down the actual Na’vi. In “Avatar,” you could do this only while you were sleeping, thus Quaritch’s famous line in the first round: “You think you’re one of them? Wake up!” Now, it can be round-the-clock. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has done this as a clone (?), and also Gracie (Sigourney Weaver) from the first movie. Somehow her avatar is still “alive” (?) in a capsule and she has produced a hybrid child (asexually?) named Kiri (also Sigourney Weaver, and I’m sorry but it never got okay hearing Weaver’s adult female voice coming out of this precious child’s face).
One of the most pleasing additions to the cast was Jemaine Clement (full name, Jemaine Atea Mahana Clement). A New Zealander famous for his role as “himself” in the TV series “Flight of the Conchords,” Clement was raised almost entirely by the Maori side of his family. He plays Dr. Garvin, a scientist (marine biologist?) along for the ride with a crew of nasty invaders, the only one with a conscience, and the only one in the movie to get a laugh out of the audience.
Jake and Neytiri have kids now. (How? If he is just a consciousness in a body? Oh, forget it.) Another addition to the brood is “Spider,” the son of Quaritch—we again don’t know when, how, or with whom—who couldn’t leave when the Na’vi kicked all the invaders out prior because he was just a babe—see, you learned something, babies cannot travel frozen in space. Huh. “The Way of Water” is equally as stunningly beautiful as the first film, and has just as successfully harnessed something I think Cameron has done better so far than anyone else. That is that a great deal of humans have this desire for total connection with Mother Nature that we suppose indigenous people have, yet I dare to suggest we’ve never had it to this extent. The best example in the new movie, of which there are multiple, is when Kiri lies down in the “grass” and goes into this altered state where she thoroughly communes with all of the life around here, until everything is swaying together with her breath or vice versa, she is swaying with everything.
It is breathtaking. All of the flora and fauna on Pandora are breathtaking. Add now the element of water, and the ocean’s majestic creatures, such as the whale-like tulkun, who the ocean clans of Pandora consider like brothers and sisters (as Polynesian people do), and who those cold-blooded profiteers from off-world are hunting for a gland that “stops” human aging. The underwater world gave Cameron ample opportunity to exploit the grace and beauty of Nature. It also provided an opportunity for pathos which I have not experienced since I was a child and was traumatized for life by a movie that told of the death by human hands of an entire orca family.
This was legit painful. I’m not sure it’s even okay for kids, to be honest. Cameron builds up your love for Pandora and its creatures—a love that the first movie has already established—and then literally takes down one of these amazing creatures in what feels like real time and lasts FOREVER (PS the whole movie is longer than three hours, so make sure you go to the bathroom). But you know what? This time, I sat and I absorbed it. You know why? Because after the pandemic, and the anti-Asian violence, and the invasion of the capital, after all the haters, this is what I’ve started to do, I realized. I couldn’t do it in the first “Avatar” because at that time, I thought the two sides of the conflict were sooooo exaggerated, the evil military and the perfect Na’vi. Didn’t fly for me and I didn’t like the movie at all apart from the visuals (and yes, the Na’vi are weirdly attractive, feral, fit, love the stripes. PS why do we all like it when humanoids are blue?). In contrast, and in part, definitely, because the first “Avatar” already prepped us, I had a much easier time (even though it was hard) accepting that, yep, some humans are this horrible.
In “The Way of Water,” Jake and his family have to abandon their forest home and seek sanctuary with the ocean clans of Metkayina. Jake falsely believes this will protect the rest of the Na’vi, but of course it just leads Quaritch and his evildoers to plow through everything in their path to get to him. Meantime, we get to know Jake and Neytiri’s kids: the obedient older son, the rebellious younger son, the specially attuned Kiri, the sprite-ish Tuk (played charmingly by Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and Spider, who must decide which side he’s on (there’s no contest, is there?). By the end, the audience was clapping and sobbing in a way I hadn’t experienced since “Saving Private Ryan.” In fact, there was a phenomenon documented with the first “Avatar”—that it depressed everyone SO MUCH because apparently, a lot of us want to be Na’vi.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.