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How 'The Way of Water's complex ending sets the stage for the future of 'Avatar'

Let's take a closer look at where The Way of Water leaves the Sully family, and Pandora at large.

By Matthew Jackson
(L-R): Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in 20th Century Studios' AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a lot. You can tell that James Cameron and his cast and crew spent over a decade putting it together, and that Cameron just kept pouring more and more ideas into it along the way. From new creature designs to new wrinkles in the Na'vi culture to plenty of new characters who add depth and complexity to the narrative, there's a lot to unpack in the three-plus hours of this theatrical experience.

And of course, because The Way of Water is meant to kick off a string of at least one more sequel (and ideally two more after that, to start) in the Avatar universe, that's especially true of the film's ending, which leaves multiple loose ends for the next film to pick up in what could be some extremely interesting ways. So, now that we've all seen Cameron's latest sci-fi epic, let's take a closer look at the film's ending and the path it paves for the future of Pandora.

Warning: There are spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water below.

If there's a single, unifying arc in The Way of Water, it's Jake Sully's (Sam Worthington) attempt to preserve the "fortress" that is his family, including his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their four children, by taking them out of their forest home and out into the reefs of Pandora, where they hope to outlast the conflict with the "Sky People" and avoid the long reach of the new avatar-ed Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Unfortunately for Jake, it doesn't work out that way, and Quaritch finds the family with the help of some Pandora game hunters and the captive human friend of the Sully family, Spider (Jack Champion). 

The fight that ensues costs the Na'vi dearly, as the Metkayina reef clan loses many of its citizens and the magnificent, superintelligent whales known as tulkun are slaughtered in an effort to draw the Sullys out. Eventually, the Metkayina clan tries to bring the fight directly to Quaritch and his men, and Jake reluctantly joins in when his own children are taken. They prevail in the short term, but at the cost of Jake and Neytiri's son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters). 

Reeling with grief, Jake and Neytiri finish the fight, save their remaining children, and prepare to leave for yet another corner of Pandora, only to be told that they are officially members of the Metkayina family. In preserving their fortress, their family, despite losing one of their own, they have found a new extended family among the reefs of Pandora. This sense of acceptance is both a heartening bolster to Jake and Neytiri, and an interesting overall launching pad for the third installment in the series, as there's now a new home to defend, and a new way to live.

But defending their new home won't be easy, because we now know that humankind is after much more than unobtainium on Pandora. After years of relative peace, the "Sky People" are back with what General Ardmore (Edie Falco) describes as a full-on colonization mission, pacifying every pocket of Na'vi resistance so humans can eventually settle and permanently live on Pandora. This makes sense as a logical, more savage offshoot from the mission in the first film, and it's particularly apparent why humanity is undertaking this mission when we learn that things like tulkun glandular fluid can literally stop human aging, but of course it presents an even darker potential future for the Na'vi. Last time around, they beat back the humans, lived alongside the survivors, and adapted to the changes on their world. This time, the Sky People will return again and again with much more savagery, because they want a new home, and they're clearly willing to go to dramatic lengths to take it. 

As for Quaritch, he only very narrowly survived the battle this time around thanks to Spider — who learns that he's the Colonel's secret son — and his efforts to pay his own survival forward. That means he gets to return for yet another battle with Jake, but exactly how he'll do that is an open question. Is his allegiance still to Earth? Is he still trying to fight as part of a larger mission, or will he opt to go entirely rogue in favor of revenge at all costs? Right now, he feels like a fascinating wild card that will make the third chapter that much more dangerous.

And speaking of wild cards, there's... well, whatever is going on with Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the biological Na'vi daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine who was adopted and raised by Jake and Neytiri. We get the sense that Kiri has always had something of a reputation as a weird kid, but when we meet her in The Way of Water she's taking on more depth to the way she sees the world. She's always felt particularly connected to, and even lost in, the world around her, but as she tells Jake, lately it seems like she can actually hear and feel the presence of Eywa, the Na'vi mother goddess. Jake's human allies worry that she might have epilepsy, which is triggering a false state of religious ecstasy, but by the end of the film Kiri is showing off abilities that no other Na'vi seems to have. Through her connections with the world around her, she seems able to actually, actively influence Pandoran wildlife, bending creatures to her will in a benevolent, yet still powerful way.

So, why is Kiri standing out from the other Na'vi in this way? We know that her mother is Grace, but as a visit to the Tree of Souls shows in the film, Kiri doesn't actually know who her father is, and we as an audience don't know how or when Grace managed to get pregnant. What we do know is that Grace's last moments of consciousness in Avatar are tied to a Tree of Souls. She seemingly died during that ritual, but she also said that she was "with" Eywa, and we now know that while Grace might not be fully alive anymore, something of her essence was preserved in her Na'vi avatar. It's all still a little metaphysical and unexplained, but the closest conclusion to draw for the moment is that Kiri could be some kind of immaculate conception, a gift from Eywa herself to carry on Grace's essence. Whether or not that's true, and Kiri turns out to be some kind of Pandoran messiah, will have to wait for the next installment. 

For now, though, there's so much more to unpack, both visually and narratively, in The Way of Water that we'll have to watch all three hours of it a few more times, just to be sure.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now in theaters

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