The immensely popular Avatar begged for a sequel nearly from release, and after 13 years, it’s finally arrived. “Avatar: The Way of Water” landed in theaters, and I won’t make a secret of being a huge fan of the franchise. But what might the movie have to say about worldview? Quite a bit, actually. Here, I’ll take a look at the movie from a worldview perspective. There will be SPOILERS throughout this post.
It would be impossible to write about the film without reflecting on the way it discusses and represents family.
Jake seems obsessed with the notion of a father protecting his family. One of the later lines in the movie reflects this, and is a repeated comment: “A father protects his family.” The line, repeated near the end of the film, is somewhat ambiguous. Is James Cameron trying to put forward this line as a truism, or is he offering a subtle critique of Jake’s patriarchal tendencies, as with the critique of his militarism? I lean towards the latter. After all, Jake himself acknowledges his failure to protect his family, but still hangs together as a family and acknowledges the strength of that. Additionally, Neytiri did a huge amount of the protecting of family, especially in the final few scenes.
The importance of familial attachment is a major theme in the film. “Sullys stick together” is a recurring theme. But what does it mean? There are so many scenes that reflect on this. Neytiri tells Jake at one point that the family is not a squad–it’s not a military unit. It’s a unit based upon love, relationship, and bonds that go beyond those even of a squad. Jake’s attempted military style leadership isn’t working, and it is what causes some of the rifts in the family.
The loss of Neteyam was one of the most impactful scenes in the movie. When Jake and Neytiri bond with Eywa towards the end of the film, they see a younger Neteyam frolicking and playing with Jake years before. It’s both healing and unbelievably sad all at once. We know that we will see our loved ones again, but the time in between is one for healing and sorrow.
Colonialism and Peacemaking
The question of pacifism looms throughout the film. The people of the water aren’t involved in the conflict with the sky people (humans). They keep to themselves, living lives that remain tranquil despite conflict on the other parts of the planet. But can they ignore the plight of other peoples? Such a question must rank among the deepest in philosophy, and even the whale stand-ins, the tulkun. The tulkun shun even their own if they participate in a conflict, weighing the damage done by any conflict against those who decided to participate in it.
Colonialism from the sky people–the humans–is what drives the conflict. It’s impossible to miss the major themes here contrasting the peaceful nature of the people of Pandora with the militant, capital-driven humans. And as Christians, I wonder about lines like no one can serve God and money or what good is it to gain the world but lose one’s soul?
Seizures and Religious Experience
Kiri, the daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine’s Avatar, is imbued with unknown power and skills. She seems to commune with many aspects of Pandor’as natural world in ways no one else does–or even notices at times. Late in the film, she is able to bond with anemone-like things in the coral reefs and cause them to fight against a human incursion. Fish gather around her. Glowing sea creatures do her bidding even without a direct bond.
But in the midst of all this, she makes a bond with Eywa which leads to seizure-like symptoms no one else experiences. The human scientists are brought in to assess and help, but they are ultimately powerless to awaken the comatose Kiri. However, they do discern it was a seizure that caused her state and warn Jake that Kiri must not bond with Eywa in that fashion again, because she could have another seizure underwater and die. They also directly link seizures to the part of the brain that is active in religious experiences. I have an interest in religious experience and neuroscience, but certainly no expertise in it. With that caveat, I found this an extremely interesting and specific point for Cameron to raise in the film. As viewers, we have privileged access to Kiri that the scientists did not, and we also know there’s more going on than what seems a physicalist explanation. While it is true that activating certain parts of the brain can yield religious-like ecstasy and experience, that in itself does not demonstrate that no genuine religious experiences happen. Indeed, the later parts of the film with Kiri genuinely interacting with the world in seemingly unexplainable ways seems to show Cameron agrees here, and that something more will loom larger later. For now, though, we’re left not knowing where it’s going.
One last note on this, though. In the first film, we had the groundwork laid to see a kind of unity of science and religion. The “direct line to Eywa” of the tree, detected by scientific means in the roots and throughout Pandora and the clear way there is some kind of unifying intelligence on Pandora shows more is going on here. Is Eywa going to be depicted as deity? Or will there be some kind of unifying theory presented in the future? In our world, some try to unify science and religion quite a bit. There are many views about how to and even whether to do this (see my post on differing positions here). We know that God works in the world, but whether science can or even should detect that work is an open question.
The Way of Water and Eywa
The Way of Water itself is a central theme of the film, and certainly one of the driving aspects of its worldview.
“The way of water has no beginning, and no end.
“The sea is your home before your birth and after your death.
“The sea gives and the sea takes.
“Water connects all things. Life to death. Darkness to light.”
The way of water certainly seems connected to the previous film’s depictions of Eywa, the balance of all life, and the harmony and disharmony. It’s easy to contrast this with traditional Christianity, but parallels may also be found. Interestingly, the contrast can mostly be found with platonic views of the human soul, which hold that human souls are imbued with objective eternality after creation. In some Christian beliefs, all humans are eternal by virtue of creation, not by virtue of God granting immortality. The debate over this would go beyond what I’m trying to discuss here, but it’s interesting to see the parallels with eternality of the soul here. However, as depicted in both this film and the previous one, there’s not a sense of reincarnation or eternality of necessity here. The Way of Water, instead, is a kind of way of being, living in harmony with nature rather than attempting to dominate it. It’s acknowledgement that we all share commonalities. And that, I believe, is something Christians can embrace–the knowledge that we all, as God’s creation, share in the broader creation God has made. Thus, when we harm creation, we harm God’s good order and work against what God brought forth.
Interestingly, the humans who are hunting the tulkun are seeking immortality. A substance from the brain of the tulkun stops aging for humans, thus granting a kind of immortality that is seen as valued above all else. The disordered seeking of self-immortality is one aspect of humanity the film highlights very well.
Eywa is in the background throughout the movie, and I still wonder where James Cameron is going to go with this plotline. Above, I mentioned some more specific aspects of the religious and scientific aspects of the film. But we don’t learn much regarding where Cameron is taking this specific aspect of the plot beyond that. It will be interesting to see in the next several films what happens.
There is much more that could be discussed about “Avatar: The Way of Water.” I found it a deeply provocative film, reflecting the best science fiction which both enthralls with mesmerizing visuals and asks big questions about humanity. It feels to me like a kind of “Empire Strikes Back” middle movie, in which the “bad guys” have much more power than the “good guys,” and we’re left with a somewhat ambiguous ending. I cannot wait for the next one.
I’d love to read your own thoughts on the movie. Let me know what you think in the comments.
“Avatar” – A Christian reflection on the film– 7 years ago I wrote about worldview level issues in the original movie. Note that some of my views may have changed.
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Caring for Creation: A discussion among evangelicals– I write about creation care from a number of perspectives offered at a recent panel of prominent evangelical thinkers in this area.
Also see my other looks into movies (scroll down for more).
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I like your interpretation, it has given me some new ideas. I would have to watch the first film or parts of it again. But as yet I have gained the impression that this Eywa was too materialist a concept. The religion that is implied is more of the ‘world as deity’ (pantheistic) kind. Transcendence seems to lack. These kinds of ideas are vehiculated by the main modern ecologist movements and from a Christian point of view, they err in two points: the absence of God (Transcendence) and the negation of the unifying role of Man. – Perhaps I am wrong.
(I am an Orthorox Christian interested in the interface between theology and fiction)