This article contains Avatar: The Way of Water spoilers.
James Cameron is the guy who quoted his own movie when he won the Best Director Oscar in 1998. More than that, he’s the guy who wrote that quote for the movie: “I’m the king of the world!” And on the evening Titanic won 11 Oscars, he really was. For the record, there is nothing wrong with a night of exuberance for the filmmaker. It just tells you a little bit about the guy who made Titanic. And Aliens. And True Lies. And the good Terminator. Both of them, in fact. Plus, Avatar.
You know what? Cameron should call himself the king of the world more often, because at least in the land of big Hollywood spectacle, there are few figures who loom larger. The above line-up of films is a murderer’s row of innovative action and melodramatic grandeur. Perhaps more importantly to the industry, too, they were all magnificent hits with Titanic and Avatar each spending a minimum of nine consecutive years at the top of the “Highest Grossing Movies of All Time” list.
So with Avatar: The Way of Water now finally arriving in theaters like a luxurious ocean liner, Cameron is practically looking directly into the camera to smile, bow, and say: “Guess what? I’m still King of the World.” Avatar 2 also has the finale to prove it.
In terms of narrative, the premise of Avatar: The Way of Water’s ending is so simple that it’s almost elemental: the Na’vi-cloned copy of Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has slaughtered the gentle whale-like creatures of Pandora’s deep seas in order to bring the coastal Na’vi out for a fight—and to lure Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to his death. When that goes sideways though, and the sci-fi whaling ship Quaritch has commandeered literally capsizes over, the rapscallion falls back on an old reliable Plan B: He kidnaps the adopted daughter of Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and holds poor Kiri (a de-aged and Na’vi-ized Sigourney Weaver) at gunpoint.
The Sully clan is drawn toward the sinking ship where a series of breathless fights and escape scenes ensue; the ship falls beneath the waves, and everyone seems to get away except for poor Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) who was murdered before this final showdown by the evil humans.
The plot mechanics are straightforward—basic, one might even say— but they also provide context for a meta-textual, self-aware celebration of most of Cameron’s previous catalog. Because don’t be fooled, the ending of Avatar: The Way of Water is a visceral callback to nearly every other movie Cameron ever made. Here’s how.
Aliens and Terminator 2
The reasons the heroes are lured into facing Quaritch one more time is to save young Kiri, yes, but it’s also to exact a terrible vengeance. Before Jake and Neytiri learn of Kiri’s kidnapping, they have already entered the deepest shadow of grief; they have suffered the death of a child. Kiri might be in the hands of the villain, but Jake and Neytiri’s firstborn child, Neteyam, has exited this mortal coil forever.
While Cameron has never previously killed the proverbial kid in his movies, he has explored a parent’s grief… and their rage. The one to embody this in Avatar: The Way of Water is unsurprisingly Neytiri. As bitter as it is losing Neteyam, it’s a bit of a gift for Saldaña who was mostly relegated to the background of Avatar 2 as the next generation of Na’vi took centerstage. But prized perhaps more than any of those children in his parents eyes was Neteyam, the oldest and most sensible child. The one whom Quaritch took from her.
Jake might fully be assimilated now into this species’ cultures and customs, but Neytiri will always be the fiery true born Na’vi. Prior to learning he killed her son, she already was calling Quaritch “the demon.” Upon learning that he murdered her child, she is consumed by a feral wrath that harkens toward the Na’vi’s warlike culture. It also allows Saldana’s Neytiri to join the ranks of the vengeful mama bears we saw Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor become in their own sequel films, Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2 (1992). While Neytiri doesn’t get a line as good as “get away from her you bitch!” there is something thrillingly bloodthirsty about Neytiri screaming to the colonel, “I’ll kill you, demon, as many times as it takes for you to not come back!”
Throughout the climax, Neytiri echoes the maternal ferocity of Cameron’s best protagonists, even if she never gets a moment quite as satisfying as Ripley in a mech suit or Sarah wielding a shotgun with one hand.
Of course the most obvious easter egg in the Avatar 2 finale is how so much of it resembles Titanic. Like Cameron’s Best Picture winner, this all comes down to a sinking ship. Cameron seems to want even the most casual viewers to catch the callbacks in shots of Neytiri and her younger daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) running down hallways of the sinking whaling vessel, water rushing beneath their feet.
As the water begins to rise, and the ship turns vertical under the waves, Cameron also wants to highlight the differences between human characters and Na’vi as Neytiri and her child are able to climb catlike through the perpendicular structure as it makes its way down to the ocean floor. There, with Neytiri exhausted and Jake injured, both parents even seem to quote Leonardo DiCaprio’s unforgettable Jack Dawson by saying, “You’ve got to let me go.”
… Luckily, their fates wind up being less grim than Jack’s (more on how they escape below). Still, there is more subtle rhyming in Avatar 2’s denouement. Titanic attained its now infamous level of operatic tragedy when Kate Winslet’s Rose is forced to physically let go of Jack, surviving while his body sinks to the abyss beneath the North Atlantic’s waters. About 80 years later, she returns as an old woman to tell their story to the public… and seemingly to pass away peacefully in her sleep. The final scene of Titanic is either a dream or (more likely) a lovely afterlife in which Rose’s soul joins all those who died on that cold April night in 1912.
At the bottom of the sea, the Titanic comes alive again and its ghosts dance, cheering for Rose as she’s at last reunited with Jack, the love of her life.
Avatar 2 repeats this melancholy yet cathartic (some might say manipulative) closing scene, but now with a science fiction pretext. As you may recall, the planet of Pandora is like an enormous digital supercomputer cloud for all its living species, allowing any who die to live forever within its ecological memory. So in The Way of Water’s final moments, Jake and Neytiri are able to visit and commune with Neteyam’s spirit in an afterlife they know they’ll all one day share.
By digitally uploading their consciousnesses to a veritable cloud, they can reunite with their dead son like Rose does with Jack, but still gracefully exit the organic matrix in order to carry on for the sequels. They never will have to let go.
The reason Jake and Neytiri, and for that matter the remainder of their biological children, are alive at the very end though is more of a nod to another movie: The Abyss (1989). In the one box office disappointment in Cameron’s career, a group of civilian scientists are enlisted by the military to search for a nuclear submarine. However, what they find at the bottom of the ocean is something altogether more powerful: a sentient godlike race of aliens that the film’s scientists call NTIs (non-terrestrial intelligence). They can control the water and seas of the deep and share a collective memory of everything their alien species has experienced.
The concept of Pandora seems itself an extension of this, with now an entire planet’s ecology sharing a near-hive mind collective memory. The NTIs of The Abyss also glow with translucent bioluminescence.
Weaver’s Kiri also steals a line from the NTIs’ playbook when she taps into Pandora’s collective consciousness at the bottom of the sea to save the day in Avatar: The Way of Water. When the rest of the Sullys go down with the ship, with the parents resigning themselves to a watery grave just as Ed Harris did in The Abyss, an almost otherworldly force of nature is summoned and a glowing sentience is manifested by Kiri. The love of a family member, now a child instead of a wife, inspires higher aquatic power to aid the protagonists at the last minute. The sea life, and perhaps water itself, seems to come alive and rescue Jake, Neytiri, and all the rest from a darker fate.
Even Cameron’s most lighthearted and silly movie, the action/comedy/romance hybrid, True Lies (1994), is referenced in Avatar: The Way of Water—or at least repeated. For in both True Lies and Avatar 2, it all comes down to the baddie kidnapping the hero’s little girl.
In True Lies, this occurs when sweet little Dana (Eliza Dushku) is abducted by the cruel terrorist Aziz (Art Malik) and dangled from a crane above a skyscraper. In Avatar: The Way of Water, Weaver’s innocent Kiri is likewise hostaged by Col. Quaritch to lure Sully into a showdown. Yet times have changed since the ’90s. Back in the heyday of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays True Lies’ unlikely everyman suburban husband/dad, one-liners were king. And few were as good as the sendoff Schwarzenegger’s Harry gives the supervillain Aziz. He looks the fiend dead in the eye, all as Aziz dangles from a missile on the wing of the AV-8B Harrier jet that Harry showed up to work in, and smirks, “You’re fired.”
Alas, upon hearing Quaritch promise he’ll come back again and again to murder Jake’s entire family unless they settle this right now, the best Sully can come up with is to shrug, “Let’s get it done.”
Maybe they’re saving the true final one-liner in the one where Quaritch dies for good? (Or maybe they’re just saving Quaritch for a redemptive turn to anti-hero status, just like Cameron turned Alien’s company robots and The Terminator’s T-800 into redeemed heroes in sequels down the road? Before you laugh, recall that the T-800 became a good guy with less justification than Quaritch, whose son has gone Na’vi native.)
Either way, like True Lies, Avatar 2 is ultimately a film about a domestic family finally seeing the potential and competence in each other, albeit more parents and children than husbands and wives. Like all Cameron protagonists though, they refuse to leave anything on the table.