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What is Avatar: The Way of Water about?
Avatar: The Way of Water has a number of themes. The most obvious being family. Not just the importance of family but also the stresses. The way in which family can be a source of power but also cause fear and pain. It also looks at adopted family and what it means to be an outsider and how your tribe can transcend blood and species. We see this with the Sullys adopting Kiri and Spider. How the Metkayina adopt the Sullys. And the connection between Na’vi and tulkuns. Less obvious themes involve coming of age, the passing of the torch, and ultimately the cost of hoping a problem goes away rather than tackling it head on. It also feels like James Cameron wants people to understand how amazing whales are. Maybe he hopes the tulkuns will inspire people to care more deeply about the plight of whales and the ocean itself.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Jake Sully – Sam Worthington
- Neytiri – Zoe Saldaña
- Lo’ak – Britain Dalton
- Neteyam – Jamie Flatters
- Kiri – Sigourney Weaver
- Tuktirey – Trinity Jo-Li Bliss
- Miles “Spider” Socorro – Jack Champion
- Colonel Miles Quaritch – Stephen Lang
- Corporal Lyle Wainfleet – Matt Gerald
- General Frances Ardmore – Edie Falco
- Captain Mick Scoresby – Brendan Cowell
- Dr. Ian Garvin – Jermaine Clement
- Tonowari – Cliff Curtis
- Ronal – Kate Winslet
- Tsireya – Bailey Bass
- Aonung – Filip Geljo
- Rotxo – Duane Evans Jr.
- Written By – James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
- Directed By – James Cameron
The ending of Avatar: The Way of Water explained
The ending of Avatar: The Way of Water begins in the aftermath of the battle between Jake Sully and Colonel Miles Quaritch. The ship everyone had been fighting on has sunk, tapping Jake off on his own and Neytiri and Tuk in a separate area. Lo’ak finds his father and is ready to lead Jake out but Jake doesn’t believe he can hold his breath long enough to swim out of the shipwreck. Lo’ak recites the “way of water” mantra and inspires Jake. Together, they make the swim. Meanwhile, Kiri has used her connection to Eywa, Pandora’s life force, to summon a swarm of fish that lead her to Neytiri and Tuk. Then Spider saves his “father”, Colonel Quaritch, from drowning after the fight with Jake.
The Sullys and Spider reunite. They return to the Metkayina tribe and have a funeral for Neteyam. The ceremony concludes with a bed of Eywa-looking fronds gathering the oldest Sully child. Afterwards, Jake tells the Metkayina chief that the Sullys will depart the village to spare them further trouble with the humans. But Tonowari dismisses the idea. Jake has buried a child with the Metkayina ancestors. That makes them family. So Jake and Neytiri undergo a ceremony where they attach their neural tendrils to the underwater spirit tree. This is their formal conversion from being of the jungle to the way of water. They have their new home.
While attached to the tree, Jake has a vision of him and Neteyam, back in the jungle, when Neteyam was a young boy. The last thing Jake says is, “I see now. I can’t save my family by running. This is our home. This is our fortress. This is where we make our stand.”
There are a number of interesting aspects here. First and foremost, is what Jake says at the end. In the first Avatar, Jake claimed the mantle of Toruk Makto, “Rider of the Last Shadow.” His warrior-spirit was an inspiration to the Na’vi and what allowed him to unite the clans and defeat the humans in battle. But it’s been over a decade. He’s a husband and father of four. His first instinct isn’t to go to war but to do what’s necessary to protect his family. And so early in Way of Water he decides to run. By escaping from the forest, he hopes to be left alone. Except the battle comes to him. And it costs Neteyam’s life.
Maybe if Jake had stayed and fought the results would have been worse? Maybe he, his family, and the rest of his tribe would perish. There’s no way of knowing if he made the right decision. What’s certain, though, is Neteyam’s gone. Running didn’t protect anyone.By the end, Jake’s prepared to bring back that Toruk Makto spirit. He’s ready to fight. The implication being the next movie is the climactic battle. It’s victory or defeat. Nothing in-between.
Beyond that, the end also continues to develop the mystery and presence of Eywa. In both films, there’s the implication of a planetary sentience. In Way of Water, it seems Eywa actively guides Kiri to Neytiri and Tuk and provides an oxygen fish for Neytiri’s safe escape. Then when Jake and Neytiri tendril to the spirit tree, Eywa connects them with the consciousness of Neteyam after claiming Neteyam’s body in the burial ceremony. This also may implicate that Pandora has a kind of neural afterlife, that the minds of the Na’vi live on in Eywa.
Regarding Spider. He saved Quaritch because Quaritch had saved him during the stand-off with Neytiri. That’s a decision that will probably come back to haunt him. But he felt it was the moral thing to do at that time. He’s also accepted into the Sully family, with Neytiri saying, “A son for a son.” A nice twist on her earlier threat of taking Spider’s life since Quaritch’s man had killed Neteyam.
Lastly, the film sets up a bit of a passing-of-the-torch-dynamic that’s similar to Lion King’s emphasis on the circle of life. In Avatar, Jake and Neytiri were young and strong. In Way of Water, they’re probably around 15 years older. The story isn’t so much about them as it is their family and what they’re doing to protect their family. And much of the film is about Lo’ak and Kiri coming into their own. Which is why they’re the ones who save Jake and Neytiri. That foreshadows the increased role they’ll have in the battle ahead. It’s a sign that the parents are doing their job and raising children who are, despite flaws, smart, strong, and capable.Which has me really worried about the fate of Jake and Neytiri in Avatar 3.
The themes and meaning of Avatar: The Way of Water
There are two primary, semi-overlapping themes: water and family. Sub-themes involve life and death, adopted family, and fear.
Water as a outlook on life
The Way of Water wouldn’t be the movie’s subtitle if it wasn’t an important theme. It’s also one of those titles that’s spoken in the movie. Meaning we have specific dialogue we can look at that helps with primary interpretation. In this case, it’s a mantra of the Metkayina Na’vi. We first hear the Metkayina chieftain’s daughter, Reya, speak the words to Lo’ak.
Quote: The way of water has no beginning and no end. The sea is around you and in you. The sea is your home, before your birth and after your death. Our hearts beat in the womb of the world. Our breath burns in the shadows of the deep. The sea gives and the sea takes. Water connects all things. Life to death. Darkness to light.
It’s a somber lesson about the realities of life. Similar to the philosophy in The Lion King regarding the circle of life. We’re all part of this giant system. Sometimes we benefit from it, sometimes we’re the victims of it. But the system is larger than all of us. Undeniable. And the more we can embrace its truths, the more we can find peace and acceptance in both the good and the bad.
Family as strength and weakness
Family is an emphasis throughout the film. In both Jake Sully’s narration and the in-world action. The beginning of Way of Water introduces us to Jake and Neytiri’s family. From her pregnancy, to the birth of Neteyam, Lo’ak, and Tuk. Plus the adoptions of Kiri and Spider. They go from children to young adults. It’s a decade of peace and wonder. Until the sky people return. Then things become complicated.
Over and over again, the kids put the family into compromising situations. Whether it’s Lo’ak convincing Neteyan to abandon their scout position. Or going down to a forbidden area where they encounter the Na’vi-fied Colonel Miles Quartich and become hostages. Or fighting with the sons of the Metkayina chief. Or getting captured by Miles multiple other times. There’s a reason Jake has a moment of narration where he says: “Sullys stick together. It was our greatest weakness and our great strength.”
Most of Way of Water, Jake and Neytiri are at their wits end because their kids keep stirring up trouble and ending up in life threatening situations. But it’s also their children that give them hope and joy and purpose. And at the very end, both are stuck in the sunken ship and think it’s impossible to escape. But Lo’ak comes and saves Jake. Kiri comes and saves Neytiri and Tuk. Spider was essential in the defeat of Quaritch. And if Lo’ak hadn’t befriended the tulkun Payakan, then it’s unlikely the Na’vi would have won a fight against the humans.
As much trouble as the kids caused, they were also the difference makers. Which is the natural cycle of things. Parents have kids, raise kids, protect the kids. But, eventually, the kids start contributing. And the family is better off for it, even if there are complications along the way.
This also ties back to the way of water. In the mantra, you can replace “water” with “family” and it works.
The cost of fear
It’s not really explored explicitly, but, at the very end of Way of Water, Jake reveals that he’s been acting out of fear. Through narration, he says, “I can’t save my family by running.” What we saw in the original Avatar was a Jake Sully who was motivated to fight and lead. But more than 10 years later, he’s less inclined to direct conflict. That’s because of his family. He doesn’t want anything to happen to them. Because of that fear, he removes himself from conflict. Opting to take the family and retreat from the forests of Pandora to the far off shores.
Except the fight comes to him anyway. And he loses his son because of it. Sure, maybe if he had stayed he would have lost everything. But that’s not something anyone can ever know. What we do know is that his fear allowed Quaritch and the humans to grow in power. And it cost Na’vi lives. It cost Neteyam’s life.
By the end, Jake has rediscovered his conviction. His sense of action. Because the seal has been broken. Running didn’t save his family. It’s no longer the best option. Meaning all that’s left is to fight. And win.
Why is the movie called Avatar: The Way of Water?
In Avatar 2, Tsireya, aka Reya, the daughter of the Metkayina chieftain, educates Lo’ak in the teachings of her oceanic people. Part of this education involves a mantra. Reya says: The way of water has no beginning and no end. The sea is around you and in you. The sea is your home, before your birth and after your death. Our hearts beat in the womb of the world. Our breath burns in the shadows of the deep. The sea gives and the sea takes. Water connects all things. Life to death. Darkness to light.
The original Avatar was highly focused on its jungle setting and emphasized the Na’vi connection to everything in the forest. The trees, the plants, the other animals. So a shift in location is a major deal and changes a lot of the dynamic and zeitgeist. The coastal Na’vi maintain an engaged connection to their environment but it’s a different lifestyle. Something the entire Sully family has to learn about. This is the way of water. It’s similar to what they’ve known but still unique.
We first hear Reya say the mantra to Lo’ak. At the end, when Jake Sully thinks he’s done for, Lo’ak speaks the words to Jake. It’s particularly meaningful because father and son are trapped in a sunken ship. Jake doesn’t believe he can hold his breath long enough to escape. He hasn’t been acclimating to the water as thoroughly as his children. But Lo’ak has bought in. He’s become part of the Metkayina culture. So the son inspires the father with the philosophy of their new home.
In the final scene, we see Jake and Neytiri bond with the Metkayina spirit tree, confirming their full conversion to the way of water. This also coincides with Jake rediscovering his will to be a leader and a fighter.
Of course, the phrase “the way of water” will probably make people think of martial artist Bruce Lee’s famous “be like water” philosophy.
Bruce Lee: Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
It also recalls an infamous parable “This is Water” by the author David Foster Wallace.
DFW: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish, swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” … The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. … The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep remind ourselves over and over: “This is water. This is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliche turns out to be true: your education really is the job of a lifetime.
In all three perspectives—Metkayina’s, Lee’s, and DFW’s—water is something we are. It’s life and death. It’s calmness and chaos. We can float on it or be swallowed by it. The stronger our awareness of water, the stronger our awareness of life itself. We’re in it, whether we realize it or not. And the more you become like it, become it, the better. The way of water is nothing less than everything.
Important motifs in Avatar: The Way of Water
This is an obvious one but the first Avatar emphasized the land, specifically the jungle. And Way of Water transitions us from the forests of Pandora to the ocean. Through the Metkayina culture, water becomes infused with concepts relating to life and death, darkness and light, and the connection between all things. It’s similar to the forest but unique in its own way.
Neytiri’s bow is something given to her by her father. A family heirloom representing generations and legacy. It’s crafted from wood of the Omaticaya Hometree. As Neytiri starts this new, strange adventure, the bow is her connection to the life she had known for so long and the tribe she left behind. But by the end of Way of Water, the bow breaks. It’s not a dramatic moment but it does occur close to the death of Neteyam. Both losses indicate a crossing of the threshold. Things can never go back to how they were. Neteyam can’t be revived. The bow won’t ever be the same.
As sad as that is, it’s part of the theme of next chapters. And sets up the total conversion of Jake and Neytiri to the Metkayina culture, to the way of water. We’ll see if she gets some sort of hybrid weapon in the third Avatar or a completely new bow or something.
Technology is once again presented as a terrifying thing. The spaceships that bring the humans burn away miles of forest and incinerate countless animals. The only way the whalers can poach tulkun is because of advanced technology. The reason the humans can’t get close to the Omaticaya hiding in the Hallelujah Mountains is because the ikran (the mountain banshees) swarm the human ships and rip them apart. It’s only when the humans turn some of their own into Na’vi that they make any progress. And part of the progress only happens because Quaritch has his team go “full Na’vi” and abandon some of their technology.
Of note, is that early in Way of Water, Lo’ak tries to get Neteyam to raid a cache of human weapons. They’re prevented from doing so. Then at the very end, they finally pick up a gun and use it. The exchange of fire results in Neteyam’s death. To be fair, Jake often uses a human weapon. But he was originally human. It’s a bigger deal for his children to cross the threshold and begin using human tech.
Questions & answers about Avatar: The Way of Water
Why did Spider save Quaritch? Is Spider working with Quaritch?
Before Spider saves Quaritch, there’s the stand off where Quaritch has Kiri as a hostage and Neytiri takes Spider hostage. Spider is the son of the original Colonel Miles Quaritch. So the new Na’vi Quaritch has memories of Spider as a baby. Despite them being technically unrelated, something still draws Quaritch to Spider. Probably because he is a clone, an echo of the original, he cares more about Spider than the original ever did. Which is why Na’vi Quaritch gives up Kiri to save Spider from Neytiri.
That moment is a clear declaration that Quaritch cares about Spider. And it’s likely that Neytiri would have hurt Spider because she was never as keen on him as the rest of the Sully clan. Plus, she’s pissed about Neteyam’s death. So Quaritch really did save Spider’s life. So when Spider has the opportunity to return the favor, he does. He carries Quaritch to the surface. But that doesn’t mean Spider wants to be friends. Or father and son. They’re even. And with that, Spider goes back to the Sullys, who he considers his real family.
Did Jake actually talk to Neteyam or was that a dream?
In the first Avatar, the Omaticaya use the concept of Eywa and the interconnectivity of the forest to transfer Jake’s consciousness from his human body to his Na’vi body. They attempt the same with Grace. And we see during Neteyam’s burial the way the ocean floor embraced the body. I would imagine there’s some concept of an afterlife being introduced where Eywa essentially collects the consciousness of the Na’vi and they become part of the collective whole.
So in that moment when Jake and Neytiri connect with the Metkayina spirit tree, I imagine it’s Ewya gifting Jake and Neytiri a last moment with Neteyam’s consciousness.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Avatar: The Way of Water? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!