james cameron spent $250 million and took nine years to complete Avatar: The Way of the Water, a dazzling and deeply immersive spectacle that blasts the senses and tugs at the heartstrings. He forced us to spend three hours and twelve minutes with 3D glasses confronting us with existential questions about our relationship to family, the natural environment and militarized capitalism. Namely: Could I befriend a whale?
A quick recap: the sci-fi blockbuster takes place 15 years after the first episode, in which Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed veteran, was deployed for a mission to the planet pandora. He fell in love with a three-meter-tall, beautiful, blue-skinned Na’vi woman named Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). After helping the Na’vi resist their human colonizers, he himself permanently adopted the Na’vi form.
By the time we arrive in The Way of the Water, Jake and Neytiri have a family that includes their biological children Neteyam, Lo’ak, Tuk, and their adopted daughter Kiri. Somehow, their last names are still Sully (there’s also a kid with white dreads always hanging around). After Jake is attacked by their old enemies, they must flee their sweet home in the forest to take refuge with an ocean people.
Lo’ak, the youngest child in the family, struggles to adjust to these changes, until he encounters Payakan, a Tulkun, a whale-like species, on Pandora. In the New York Times, Cameron was “adamant” they weren’t whales. Tulkun groups have a close connection with the Na’vi of the ocean and even communicate directly with them – through a telepathic language, subtitled in Papyrus script – although Payakan was exiled from rest of his group.
This particular plotline resonated with me. That’s partly because it’s the most emotional experience you can have while wearing 3D glasses in a Midtown Manhattan multiplex. But above all, it’s because I’ve always had the illusory confidence to believe that, if I ever met a whale in the wild, it would recognize me as a kindred spirit and a good companion. After having watched Grizzly Man of Werner HerzogI also thought, “Yeah, I understand how this kind of thing happens”, so do what you want with it.
But could I really do it? After thinking about this question for more than a month, the time The Way of the Water exceeds $2 billion at the box office, and after it was announced that Payakan would appear in the sequels ofAvatar (give me the name of his agent), I needed my answer. So I contacted Dr. Carl Safina, renowned ecologist and author of the book Beyond Words : What Animals Think and Feel.