Avatar: The Way of the Water takes audiences back to the fantastical alien world of Pandora, spending even more time than the 2009 original Avatar on exploration and characters that just hang together. But this time, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his family leave the jungle and head to the ocean. It’s no secret at this point that director James Cameron love the sea. Long sequences in the new film are devoted to a panoramic tour of this alien sea, with its beautiful coral reefs and all the creatures that live in them. There are all kinds of new life forms, from gnashing flying fish horses to fairy-like jellyfish that allow you to breathe underwater. But the underwater creatures that are by far the stars of the film are the space whales – the tulkun!
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water.]
Tulkuns look a lot like regular whales, except their maws are bigger, their fins are a bit funky, and they have four eyes. Big soulful. And oh, also, apparently they are sentient, intelligent and able to communicate with the Na’vi. I love them.
We first meet the tulkun when an outcast whale saves rebellious Na’vi teenager Lo’ak (UK Dalton) from being alien shark bait. Until now, we have no idea that the Na’vi can communicate directly with these cetacean creatures. Sure, they can do their whole psychic vibe check with most of their lives on Pandora, but this is on another level. Lo’ak communicates with the tulkun via sign language, and the whale answers.
More specifically, Lo’ak asks Payakan (that’s the whale’s name, because, yes, they have names) what happened to Payakan’s severed fin. And the interpreter replies that the story is too painful to tell. He doesn’t speak Na’vi – he makes melodic whale noises, with a subtitled translation in the distinctive Papyrus-esque Avatar font. It just makes it even better. There’s just something so damn endearing about seeing non-human beings—animals, aliens, or robots—communicate through sounds or beeps, and the people on the screen can still understand them. I call it the R2-D2 effect.
Lo’ak and Payakan’s bond is not unique to reef Na’vi culture. Tulkun and Na’vi are so intertwined that they form deep, spiritual bonds with each other. When the tulkun pods return from migration, there is a big event where all the navi swim out and connect with their spirit siblings. They share stories and updates.
“The conceit is that the Tulkun culture and the Na’vi culture are connected by music, by song, by dance,” Cameron explains in the film’s production notes. “The Metkayina [the reef-dwelling Na’vi clan], for example, wild tattoo patterns on the tulkun that will express their family history. Adult tulkuns who have gone through their growing ceremony have tattooed bodies and tattooed fins, just like the Metkayina, as teenagers, get their first tattoos too.”
In the film, we learn from whaling people that the tulkuns are even more intelligent than humans, and that they are capable of art and reason. Also, they have a fluid in their brains that stops human aging, making them tragic heroes, because humans want to slaughter them for profit. They are strong, gentle, wise creatures that we need to protect and I love them very much.
What makes the tulkun even more compelling is their strong sense of ethics. Payakan is banished from his pod for leading the charge against young tulkun to ambush the hunters who killed his mother. Although he did not outright kill the tulkun accompanying him, they died in the attempt, and his pod still holds him responsible. As an exile, he must live with the double burden of his guilt and their judgment. That’s why he and Lo’ak bond – Lo’ak similarly feels like an outcast because he hasn’t met his father’s expectations.
The belief of a misfit child bonding with a misunderstood animal is tried and true: See every horse girl story ever. But there’s an added vibe here because (1) it’s a whale, a creature more elusive, rare and powerful than a horse; (2) there is one alien whale; and (3) it’s a super-intelligent alien whale capable of holding up its end of a conversation. Combine Set Willy free with The dragon trainer and throw it in the middle of the ocean on a distant planet and you get something close to the wonder that is Lo’ak and Payakan’s relationship. The whole friendship strengthens Lo’ak’s arc, and it’s truly sublime.
There are many good things about itt Avatar: The Way of Water. The beautiful nature! The new Na’vi clan! The tight action scenes! The whole last act, which is basically James Cameron saying, “What if I recreated the scenes from my movie Titanic where the boat sinks, except this time everyone’s a blue alien, and they’re also fighting to the death?” But the absolute best part is the interpreter, who not only reinforces this new watery world the Sully family finds themselves in, but also helps accentuate the coming-of-age narrative. What says growing up and finding yourself more than connecting with a mysterious, misunderstood animal?
Tragic backstories and complex emotional stories are appealing in any medium, and characters who bond over their tragic backstories and complex emotional arcs are a rich part of any film. In this particular case, one of the characters happens to be a space whale. And any story where space whale society is sophisticated enough to produce a tragic backstory of revenge and isolation and healing from it is a story worth seeing, at least in my book.
Avatar: The Way of the Water is at the cinema now.