Avatar: The Way Of Water casually drops a pretty big bombshell during its first hour, and James Cameron never really comes back to it, despite the fact that it may be the defining fact behind the entire franchise narrative:
“Earth is dying.” That comes straight from General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco), as she brings in new troops from Earth to Pandora and proceeds to burn down a massive chunk of the rainforest in order to build settlements. This makes the conflict between humans and Pandora’s native Na’vi existential—humans can’t breathe the atmosphere as is, for one thing. If this is their only hope for survival in the known universe, they’re going to have to terraform, and that will not sit well with either the Na’vi or the planetary consciousness goddess, Eywa.
Yet almost the entirety of The Way Of Water simply focuses on the grudge rematch between Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the latter now reborn into an avatar Na’vi/human hybrid to even the odds. Quaritch’s mission, in theory, is to kill Sully to stop his raids on human transportation and construction, but once he hits back hard enough to make Jake flee into hiding and abandon the fight, Quaritch continues anyway. Paradoxically, by doing so he ends up convincing Jake that the fight cannot be avoided. But by then the movie’s over, and Jake and Ardmore haven’t even met.
Unlike many other second installments of franchises with larger arcs—think The Matrix Reloaded or The Empire Strikes Back—The Way Of Water doesn’t end on any major cliffhanger. The battle between the Metkayina clan and their immediate human aggressors is done. Ardmore’s fight to make Pandora into the new Earth, however, is a much bigger arc that seems like it’s only just begun. It’s also one that will have to lead to harder moral choices than whether or not whaling is acceptable on a world where space whales, called Tulkuns, are definitively more intelligent than humans and can communicate with them.
Plus, let’s be real: you don’t cast Edie Falco in your movie and only give her a couple of scenes. With the third film and bits of the fourth already in the can, the odds seem pretty high that she’s got more to do. While we’re on that topic, ditto Jemaine Clement. The Flight Of The Conchords alumnus and Taika Waititi ensemble regular usually gets hired for his ability to be funny, menacing, or both. In The Way Of Water, however, he’s generic. Any competent actor could have stood around saying the lines he’s given, to which he adds neither humor nor hubris. Dr. Ian Garvin is just a marine biologist, who reluctantly assists with Tulkun-killing because it allows him to study aquatic aliens on a planet where most of the humans present are pure profit-seekers. Nobody in their right mind casts Clement to just act normal, which is why he has to have something more to do later on.
But there’s an even bigger plot strand yet to be resolved, and it involves another fact we’re given upfront. Kiri, the teen played by Sigourney Weaver, is somehow the child of Dr. Grace Augustine’s avatar body, presumably born after the real Augustine’s death ... or somebody would have mentioned it in the last film. Characters within The Way Of Water offer up an idea that feels like classic slash fiction—the father, they guess, must be Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), who appears in most of her old video journals, and who also had an avatar body, arguably suitable for mating with hers.
In the original script for the first Avatar, Norm was romantically linked to Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), which goes a long way toward explaining her disobeying orders on his behalf. That’s not considered canon anymore, so sure, he might have gotten with Grace instead. The thought of casual sex between avatar bodies had to occur at some point, and if it’s not their human bodies doing it, does it even “count”?
But that’s not the only possibility. Kiri exhibits unique powers, like the apparent ability to survive underwater without breathing, and control over wildlife and plants. She claims to hear the heartbeat of Eywa, the living planet, and calls it “mighty.” This all points to her being some sort of savior figure; the kind of character often spawned from a virgin birth. (Don’t forget: the entire concept of the avatar is originally a religious one.) When Kiri tries to actually ask Eywa who her father was, she gets shut down swiftly. So either there isn’t one, or the possible answer isn’t good for her to know.
Which brings us to option three. In one sequence, Kiri is surrounded by Woodsprites, the seed of the sacred tree. It’s significant because the same seeds marked Jake as a chosen one, staying Neytiri’s bow and persuading her to help him, long before he developed any of the skills necessary to save anyone on Pandora. So what if Jake is Kiri’s actual father? Maybe he was chosen not for himself, but who he would raise?
Jake would never cheat on Neytiri, of course, and Grace didn’t even like him that much. But she was relentless in the pursuit of science. What if she sampled some DNA from his avatar body to impregnate her own? She knew everything he did, so he must have told her about the Woodsprites. Like Dune’s Lady Jessica, she may have used that knowledge to take it upon herself to birth a savior. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Avatar borrowed from the classics—Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter Of Mars is an acknowledged inspiration.
Kiri’s parentage is brought up so early that the average cineaste, mindful of the principles of planting and payoff, surely expects the movie will fully address it by the end. But while her power proves important during the climax, it remains unexplained. There’s a lot more for the sequels to reveal, and if she turns out to be the real chosen one rather than Jake, well, it wouldn’t be the first time Sigourney Weaver had to bail out a meathead Marine in a James Cameron sequel.
Parentage also remains an issue between the reincarnated Quaritch and his son Miles, a.k.a. Spider (Jack Champion). The new Quaritch claims he isn’t the real father, biologically, which is true. But in all meaningful ways, he is, having his exact personality and memories. It’s a bit like Darth Vader, in his cyborg body, claiming he’s not Anakin Skywalker, and indeed, when Spider drags Miles’ body out of the water to save him, it’s not a little reminiscent of Luke pulling Vader to a safer space after the Emperor’s death. Nu-Quaritch clearly cares somewhat for Spider, and it’s reciprocal enough that the kid won’t leave him to drown. They remain, however, on opposite sides, and a reckoning will have to happen.
Will Spider ultimately strike his own father down? Classical narrative structure suggests it would have to be Jake to do so. Unless Quaritch, unlike Vader, turns to the light side before death forces it. Or, more likely, dies saving Spider.
The bigger question remains: with a minimum of five movies planned, when will we get any of these answers? Only Eywa, and James Cameron, know for sure. But we’ll have plenty of time to speculate.