Much like James Cameron’s earlier notable works, his sci-fi epic “Avatar” (2009) dealt with a love story subplot focused on the movie’s two leads, the human-turned-Avatar Jake Sully and the Na’vi warrior Neytiri. In a press conference about “The Way of Water,” Cameron mentioned he wanted the sequel to have strong family dynamics as part of a natural progression of the love story. He had also previously mentioned that he himself and the lead actors, Joe Saldana and Sam Worthington, being parents, wanted to explore the added sense of anxiety and responsibility they feel through the characters on screen. Hence, it can be said that a very personal touch was given in the continued journey of character-writing for the sequel as the movie explores familial relationships among sapient species of Humans, Avatars and Na’vis, and also goes beyond by adoring interspecies family relationships as a significant part of its lore. We will explore how the dynamic as a whole constituted the backbone of the movie and is regarded as a major improvement over the first installment.
The Sullys Stick Together
The events of “Avatar: The Way of Water” take place fifteen years after the great war was fought between humans and the combined force of the Na’vi and Pandora’s wildlife. In the aftermath, humans were driven out of the moon (except for a few loyalists), Jake Sully fully embraced his Na’vi life by renouncing his human body, accepting the role of Omaticaya clan leader, and Neytiri accepted him as her partner. Before the events of the sequels take place, Jake and Neytiri are shown to have found their bliss in a family of their own, as they have become parents of four—their two sons, Neteyam and Lo’ak, and their two daughters, Kiri and Tuktirey. Kiri is Grace Augustine’s biological daughter, who is adopted by the Sullys after her mother’s death. Her parentage is unknown as she is a natural-born Na’vi born out of the brain-dead catatonic Avatar of Grace. Aside from the quartet, the Sully family has also accepted a human boy named Spider as their adopted son. Spider is the son of the late colonel Miles Quaritch, the person responsible for the destruction of Omaticayan Hometree and much misery suffered by Na’vi and Pandoran wilderness. However, Spider has been brought up in Na’vi ways of life and identifies himself more with the natives instead of his birth heritage as a human.
The two oldest Sully siblings, Neteyam and Lo’ak, are mature enough to be initiated into the Iknimaya tradition, which is forming Tsaheylu to choose their own Ikrans. Judging from their colloquialism, it can be assumed that Sully’s children are raised in both Na’vi and human ways. In the opening montage, we see Neytiri and Jake introducing their firstborn, Neteyam, to the Omaticaya, in a scene that kind of resembles Simba being held up by Rafiki in “The Lion King.” According to Na’vi tradition, the children had their first communion with Eywa at a young age. Named after his mother, Neteyam takes after his father, Jake, and tries very hard to follow in his footsteps. Neteyam retains the wise, kind nature of his mother and has a confident, strong demeanor. His connection with Jake is shown in a flashback sequence, where father and son share a moment as Jake is teaching him to hunt fish. Being the elder sibling, Neteyam tries to act more responsibly and looks out for his brothers and sisters. However, his preoccupation with the clan has somewhat detached him from his siblings, as it is shown that his absence from the siblings’ group has spelled danger several times. He feels the added responsibility of taking care of his younger siblings and tries to follow his father’s dictates. In the movie, after the return of RDA, during Omaticaya’s supply train sabotage, Neteyam and his brother Lo’ak are assigned as spotters. Lo’ak, eager to prove himself, tries to get actively involved in the mission, and Neteyam tries to dissuade him, to no avail. During the mission, Neteyam gets injured, and as the brothers are reprimanded by Jake, Neteyam tries to cover for his brother by taking full responsibility for the incident. As the new life of the Sully family begins in Metkayina, the children are initially looked down upon for their mixed heritage, which results in physical traits that are different from Na’vi. As the elder brother, Neteyam defends his siblings from Aonung, and Rotxo after the latter tries to bully them. Neteyam later helps his brother save Payakan. After his brother and sisters get caught by Quaritch’s troops, Neteyam rescues them. During their escape, he covers for his siblings and gets fatally shot by RDA troops. In his last moments, Neteyam is reunited with his parents and is comforted by Jake as he takes his last breath in his father’s lap. Jake and Neytiri visit their most cherished memory of their eldest son by connecting themselves with Eywa. Jake weeps at the sight of the spirit of his son as they relive their hunting lesson through various stages of Neteyam’s life, as mother Neytiri watches them from the backdrop.
The younger son of Jake and Neytiri, Lo’ak retains the impulsive, stubborn nature of his father. Named after the Na’vi term for the Toruk Makto amulet, “lo’akur,” Lo’ak differs from the rest of his siblings in physical appearance as he has retained some Avatar-like features like eyebrows and five fingers (Na’vi have no brows and have four fingers). As a result, he often feels like an outcast, even among his own people, family and clan alike. Seeing his elder brother be almost a model child in their family, he tries too hard to prove himself and, as a result, often finds himself in jeopardy. Unlike Neteyam, Lo’ak could not tame his Ikran on his first attempt. Lo’ak has a rather adventurous and careless disposition and does not adhere to codes or rules as closely as his elder brother did. He is very protective of his family, as seen when he picks a fight with Metkayina teenagers who tried to bully Kiri. Lo’ak is also the first Omaticaya member to be offered friendship by a Tulkun. Lo’ak bonded with the outcast Tulkun named Payakan and looked inside his memories to know that he was not guilty. Alienated from his family, Lo’ak found solace in a brotherly relationship with Payakan, whose loneliness is something he too can relate to. He is often misunderstood as his honesty is not taken into consideration, even by the Metkayina Na’vi. However, he is enamored with Tsireya, the daughter of Metkayina leaders Tonowari and Ronal, and trusts her to share his problems with her. Lo’ak has a strained relationship with Jake initially, as his father is rather strict with him and he feels like a disappointment himself. He considers Spider his brother, and it is his repeated urge that makes Neteyam go back to the RDA vessel to save Spider. Lo’ak and Neteyam manage to save Spider, but a fatally wounded Neteyam passes away and a feeling of guilt has continued to haunt Lo’ak ever since. By the end of the movie, Lo’ak reconciles with his father and manages to save him from a sinking vessel with the help of Payakan. In the upcoming ventures, Lo’ak’s journey will be something to look forward to.
Kiri And Tuk
In the enigmatic world of Pandora, Kiri appears to be an even more mystifying presence. She shares her mother Grace’s curiosity about all things of nature. Jake and Neytiri are very protective of their adopted daughter Kiri, and she shares her experiences with them. As a Na’vi child having physical traits of Avatar (As she was born out of Grace’s catatonic Avatar body) Kiri, much like Lo’ak, often feels alienated in her community. Kiri looks up to her mother as she frequents the human (loyalist) campsite to visit Grace’s Avatar and learns about the past through video logs and documents. She also has a deep spiritual connection with Eywa to the point where she can communicate with and form a bond with creatures of Pandora even without a Tsaheylu—something that makes her extremely special even among the Na’vi. She did not have to undergo the Ikran taming ritual and merely asked one to be her friend. As she tells Jake, she can feel the mighty presence of Eywa around her, and when Kiri bonds with the Metkayina tree of life to connect with Eywa, she suffers from seizures underwater, further solidifying the speculation that her parentage might be somehow connected with Eywa. In her vision during the connection with Eywa, she visits her biological mother Grace and asks her about her parentage—during which the connection snaps. It is through Kiri’s eyes that we are amazed at the resplendent marine world of Metkayina, and her connection with Pandora’s natural world represents the connection of all living things with Eywa as a whole. As a character, she might be the key to much of Pandora’s future and past, but in essence, she is an extension of Cameron’s environmentalist and nature-loving self.
Tuktirey is the youngest child of the Sully family, and shares a close bond with her sister Kiri, her mother Neytiri and her grandmother Mo’at. She is too young to participate in the Ikran taming ritual and experiences the world around her with child-like glee. Kiri takes it upon herself to teach Tuk the ways of life and keeps her close.
Spider Aka Miles Socorro
Miles Socorro is the son of Colonel Quaritch and the only human character with a significant role in the movie. As a child, he could not be sent back to Earth (as children can’t endure cryosleep) so he was raised by the Sully family. Due to his father, Quaritch, being a murderer of Na’vi, Spider is ashamed of his heritage and feels pangs of guilt. He has a strained relationship with Neytiri, who sees Spider as an alien, and his heritage further detaches her. Jake sees Spider going through a somewhat similar predicament to the one he himself went through earlier, trying to fit in as a human in the world of aliens. However, Spider has always felt himself to be an outsider and addresses his adoptive parents as Mr. and Mrs. Sully. Spider shares a strong bond with Lo’ak and Kiri, who consider him their own brother. After being captured by the RDA, Spider shares moments with the avatar of his biological father, Miles Quaritch. Disgusted at him initially, the father-son bond relationship grows closer as Spider teaches Quaritch’s troops the Na’vi ways of life. Spider is soon awakened from his disillusionment about Quaritch being redeemable when the latter mercilessly tortures the Na’vi populace, kills their Ilu companion, slaughters Tulkuns, and threatens Jake by holding his children at gunpoint. Miles’ strained relationship with Neytiri is highlighted when he is afraid to face her in her trauma-tranced state and later when Neytiri holds him hostage to blackmail Quaritch. Later, as the RDA vessel sinks, Spider searches for Jake and instead finds Quaritch in a near-death situation. Hesitant at first, Spider can’t feel it in himself to let even someone like Quaritch die and rescue him. However, he spits at Quaritch’s proposal of joining the humans and goes back to the Sully family, where he is embraced by Jake and Lo’ak. Spider’s inner turmoil regarding his father and Na’vi situation, along with his own identity crisis, has been well displayed by actor Jack Champion. The character will be of seminal importance in upcoming sequels.
Jake and Neytiri struggle with the responsibility of parenthood. No longer can they be carefree and headstrong as the weight of family keeps them rechecking their every decision. Neytiri is as loving a mother and as fierce as she is a warrior. She acts as a voice of reason to her partner Jake Sully who is at a loss and has too much on his plate, trying to maintain a balance of his role as a protector of his clan and his family. However, his military background keeps getting the better of him as he tightens his grip too tightly around his sons, which ends up alienating Lo’ak. His insistence on delaying the conflict and seeking refuge elsewhere results in disaster too, as he ends up losing his elder son, all the while causing the mass slaughter of Tulkuns. It is only at the end that he realizes that the only way to keep his family safe is by taking a stand and holding his family close like a fortress.
Director James Cameron also managed to highlight that family values can go beyond biological relations and even beyond similar species. The spiritual relationship between Tulkuns and Metkayina clan members is a powerful allegory of animal-human relationships known through the ages. James Cameron is no stranger to integrating family relations in movies and his notable work on “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” and “True Lies” holds testament to the fact that he does so while elevating the story itself. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is no exception in this regard, as the family dynamic adds much more substance to the existing characters, all the while introducing new interesting aspects with a bigger cast. This contributes by adding to the relatability quotient and making the story’s tone even more universal.