Given what the pandemic has done to how we understand time, I can’t blame anyone for not remembering what they did last week, last month, or the last year. Asking someone to remember what happened in James Cameron’s Avatar, which came out roughly 13 years ago? A Herculean task. Movies were different back then! The world was different back then! How many things does one really remember about 2009?
Even though Avatar is still the biggest movie of all time (grossing $2.9 billion worldwide), it’s completely normal not to remember all the details after more than a decade.
Its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, comes out this week, and some of the movie requires a basic working knowledge of its predecessor — multiple characters, many themes, and some of the central conflict carries over into The Way of Water.
Of course, watching the original between now and the release date would be the ideal thing to do, but maybe you don’t have the time for the two hour and 41-minute behemoth of a movie, or perhaps you’re a purist who won’t feel right watching Avatar on your non-3D TV, computer, or, heaven forbid, your phone. So here’s the next best thing: a brief refresher on the three or so main things you need to know about Avatar for The Way of Water to make sense — and the two new things that you might feel like you should know but that don’t actually appear in the original film.
Where are we? And what are we mad about?
The first Avatar is set on Pandora, a moon where flora and fauna are in abundance, home to the indigenous race of beings known as the Na’vi, big blue cat-like humanoids. The Na’vi have their own language and spiritual connection to Pandora. Every animal, plant, and element, the Na’vi believe, is connected to the mother goddess Eywa.
But in 2154, when the movie is largely set, Earth is slowly becoming uninhabitable. More than 20 billion people live on the planet, and resources are low. As Earth faces desperate times, humans begin staking out other places to find resources, and Pandora has huge deposits of a natural mineral called unobtanium, an extremely valuable resource on Earth.
The diametrically opposing worldviews between the resource-burning humans and the nature-loving Na’vi clash when the humans find a large unobtanium deposit in what’s known as the “Hometree,” a place where the Omaticaya tribe of the Na’vi live. The conflict between humans and the Na’vi then represents greed versus altruism, destruction versus birth, survival versus death, and touches on themes of imperialism and colonialism.
In Avatar, Cameron didn’t necessarily break new ground. One of the common refrains is that the Titanic director basically retold Pocahontas or Fern Gully with alien life forms and copious amounts of CGI.
If there’s a lesson in Avatar, it’s that the humans (whom the Na’vi refer to as “Sky People”) won’t ever learn from their mistakes. They are destined to destroy. They keep coming back for more. And the only thing that will stop them from coming, it seems, is their own elimination.
What’s an avatar?
The main thing standing between humanity and its desire for interstellar resource plundering is that planets and moons like Pandora are physically hostile to human beings — the atmosphere is toxic to humans. Humans need filtered oxygen masks to breathe the air. Also, the flora and fauna on Pandora — in Avatar: The Way of Water especially — react with extreme hostility toward human beings.
In order to get around this, a human organization called the Resources Development Administration (RDA), which handles space exploration and transportation (and is responsible for said resource plundering), creates what’s known as the Avatar Program. The project allows humans to control a synthetic, genetically engineered human/Na’vi hybrid creature through a link to their brain. That creature, the human’s avatar, looks similar to a Na’vi, sharing their agility, size (Na’vi are around 9 to 10 feet tall), and ability to breathe on Pandora.
The first film paints avatar creation as an extremely time-consuming and expensive process. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human protagonist, is chosen to be a part of the Avatar Program because his identical twin brother, Tom, a brilliant and highly trained scientist, died before mission time. Because Jake and Tom share the same genetics and because Tom was neuro-linked to his avatar, Jake — a Marine — is the RDA’s best option to salvage their investment.
Humans at first used these hybrid avatars to broker peace with the indigenous Na’vi. Characters like Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) are altruistic scientists who study the Na’vi language, fauna, and culture through their avatar selves. But others within RDA, primarily Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), see the Na’vi as a means to an end. Quaritch, who heads the security force at RDA, uses Jake as a double agent to gather strategic intel on the Na’vi and to get them to abandon their unobtanium deposits.
This doesn’t work out as Quaritch planned. By the end of Avatar, Sully is taken in and develops an unbreakable bond with the Omaticaya clan of Na’vi, having fallen in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). He helps defend his new tribe from the human onslaught. After defeating the Sky People and sending them back, the Omaticaya attempt to perform a spiritual transfer in which Sully’s consciousness is transferred to his avatar body (thereby nullifying any need for a computerized neural link). The last moment of the film shows that it’s successful, and Sully’s new life as a full-fledged human/Na’vi hybrid is where the second movie begins.
Okay, but why do I care about Avatar?
Avatar was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects. That’s a great haul for an action movie! When it comes to critics’ reviews, Avatar stands at 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 83 percent on Metacritic. Those are good scores! Avatar is also the biggest movie of all time, topping the chart of the biggest worldwide gross in history at $2.9 billion. That’s an enormous amount of money!
But the knock on Avatar is that, despite it being both celebrated and history-making, it’s also somehow also largely inconsequential. The common refrain is that “no one remembers” Avatar. Avatar doesn’t have the same kind of clout as a Marvel, Harry Potter, or Star Wars movie (other entries in the list of biggest movies of all time). While someone can easily name three Avengers, it’s exponentially more difficult to remember three Avatar characters’ names. And I bet that if you ask people on the street what a Jedi is versus an Omaticaya tribe member, more would be familiar with the former.
I don’t think that’s entirely Avatar and Cameron’s fault, though.
Since the movie’s release, pop culture consumption has shifted and studios have really invested in successful action-driven franchises, pumping out sequel after sequel. Unless you’re living under a rock, it’s impossible not to be familiar with the big, upcoming Marvel movie of the moment, and intellectual property is king. Familiar characters and the fandoms that grow up around them are central to blockbuster filmmaking in a way that simply wasn’t true in 2009. The initial film wasn’t built for those expectations (more on what it was built for in just a moment). That said, hypothetically, if Avatar had a sequel that was released two or three years after the first movie, it might have much more pop culture clout.
Another factor worth considering is what Avatar has always done well: look cool as hell. Its emphasis on spectacle was strangely prescient.
The debate in moviegoing today is that the rise of franchises coupled with the advent of streaming has made the moviegoing audience reluctant to see non-blockbusters at the theater. People go to movie theaters primarily to see big-budget, gigantic action movies.
Avatar, with its next-level effects, lush cinematography, and masterful use of 3D, is made to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Avatar and its sequel are the quintessential “go to the theater, buy a big popcorn and soda, maybe pop an edible depending on what state you live in, and enjoy” movies. There is no movie that needs to be seen in a theater more than Avatar.
That said, determining the worth or relevance of anything — Avatar, sushi, V-neck T-shirts — is a subjective and extremely personal exercise. But I feel like if you’re into big action scenes and charismatic megafauna, you’re probably inclined to like Avatar.
That’s what you need to remember from the first Avatar. Here are a couple of things The Way of Water might have you scrambling to remember, even though there’s no reason you should.
Who is Spider?
Avatar: The Way Of Water is a movie that doesn’t really rely on its predecessor and doesn’t really have too many “WTF” moments — except for when it does. Cameron engages in a medium amount of retconning, i.e., when a fictional work includes new information that changes what we knew about the previous work.
First, there’s a “feral child” named “Spider” in Way of Water, the son of human settlers who was raised on Pandora and was unable to return home with his parents. He tells invading Avatars that his last name is Socorro. What? Who?
Thinking I missed something, I went over the characters in the first movie, did some rewatching, and perused the internet a bit, but did not find any kind of human child in the previous movie, or even character with the last name Socorro in the first film.
What I did find is that the character seems to be based on one that appears in the Avatar: High Ground comic book, which is based on James Cameron’s original screenplay for the sequel. In the comic, Spider is the son of Paz Socorro, an RDA pilot on Pandora killed in the battle for the Tree of Souls, but his father is unknown. In this new film, Spider’s origin story is a little hazier. We don’t know who his parents are — they were likely killed during the attempted invasion — but he has the same last name.
Spider was just a baby during the humans’ defeat in the first movie, and therefore too small to fit in the returning spaceship’s cryopreservation chambers. (Avatar has very specific rules about space travel when it wants to.) Since he can’t go back to Earth, he is raised between the Sullys, the Na’vi, and the remaining science department members on Pandora. And because he’s human, Spider needs to have an oxygen mask to survive on the planet.
Spider, now a teen, dresses like the Na’vi, with long blond dreads, and speaks the language fluently — two factors which make the RDA-affiliated humans look down on him and call him “feral.” This demeaning term reflects more about human attitudes about the Na’vi than it does Spider himself.
Spider’s not the only child of mysterious origin in the movie, and the other teen — Kiri — is played by a somewhat unexpected actor.
What happened to Sigourney Weaver’s character?
Kiri, Jake Sully and Neytiri’s older, adopted, Na’vi/human hybrid daughter is played by none other than Sigourney Weaver. Kiri is the biological daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine — also played by Weaver — who died at the end of the first film. Or rather, Kiri is the biological daughter of Dr. Augustine’s avatar, who gave birth in suspended animation after her own death. I didn’t know avatars could do that, but I also am, admittedly, not very well-versed when it comes to the rules and restrictions of avatar mating. Perhaps even more confounding, Kiri’s father is unknown (although the kids have some guesses, including scientist Norm).
The Way of Water doesn’t go to great lengths to explain it, and it builds the mystery around Kiri’s conception. But we can look to the first movie for clues!
Introduced as an accomplished botanist, Augustine was a prominent figure in the first movie. She was one of the “good” human characters who tried to forge peace with the Na’vi. She learned their culture and customs, taught their children, and forged relationships with them. She was also very suspicious of Sully and Quaritch’s motives. Quaritch turned out to be a war-mongering, nature-hating asshole, so her intuition was right!
Augustine opposed Quaritch, his attempted invasion, and Na’vi slaughter. In doing so, she was mortally wounded, but not before Sully and the Omaticaya tribe tried to save her. They believed that if they placed Augustine’s body on the Tree of Souls, a spiritual beacon for the Na’vi, they could transfer her consciousness to her avatar form, essentially switch bodies, and save her life (it’s the same ritual that the Omaticaya perform on Sully at the end of Avatar). The ritual isn’t successful, but before she dies, Augustine tells Sully that she was with Eywa, the goddess of life that the Na’vi worship. Her consciousness is absorbed by the tree and Pandora’s neural network.
Granted, none of this spells out exactly how Kiri was born from an unconscious avatar body, but there’s a sense that she’s a special being. Augustine had a connection with and compassion for the Na’vi, respect for the planet, and a love of nature. She was the rare human who cherished life in all forms, and thus she formed a unique bond with Eywa and Pandora itself. If there’s any sort of divinity on Pandora, Augustine would be one of the people who could tap into it — possibly through her avatar form.
With humans returning to Pandora for round two, Spider and Kiri, the movie’s two mystery children, as well as the entire Sully family, are going to figure into things in important ways. Expect them to tell a story about what it means to be accepted, to be family, and to fight for the future of where you belong. It’s a continuation of a story that Cameron began telling more than a decade ago.