In this section of the Colossus Movie Guide for Avatar: The Way of Water, we will discuss the meaning behind the movie’s title.
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.
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