Movies

Avatar 2’s Space Whales Are Part of a Rich Sci-Fi Tradition

The Way of Water’s alien cetaceans can be traced back to a very particular historical moment.

A stripey blue cat person who looks like he's straddling a surfboard in the water puts his left hand on an extraterrestrial whale whose two eyes look longingly up at him
Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and Payakan in Avatar: The Way of Water. 20th Century Studios

The moment when I knew I was all-in on Avatar: The Way of Water was when James Cameron subtitled a space whale. Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), the younger son of the Na’vi warrior Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), has been struggling for acceptance in the island village where his formerly jungle-dwelling family has taken refuge. As a dangerous, potentially deadly prank, the son of the village’s chieftain leads Lo’ak out beyond the reef that protects them from ocean predators, and Lo’ak is nearly killed by a terrifyingly vicious shark-like creature called an akula. He’s just about to either get eaten or drown when out of nowhere swims an even more massive sea beast, a tulkun, with four eyes and a bony crown with which it promptly crushes the akula to death. Lo’ak and the tulkun, a legendary, much feared creature the villagers call Payakan, strike up a friendship based on their mutual feelings of exclusion, the way a teenage boy in a movie that was set on earth in the now—and not on a distant moon more than a century in the future—might befriend a stray dog. When the tulkun makes noises and Lo’ak talks back, it seems as if he’s just extending the time-honored tradition of personifying animals, using a being without the ability to speak for itself as a means of externalizing his own problems. But then he asks Payakan how he came to be separated from herd, and this time when the tulkun responds with a sonorous wail, the movie throws up a sentence in the familiar Papyrus text: “It’s too painful.”

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Lots of movies present you with a moment where you can either assent to or reject the terms on which its story is being told, and if you’re going to do the latter, it’s often a good time to head for the exits. If you’re repelled rather than amused by a close-up of an elephant’s sphincter as it poops directly into the lens, you’re not going to have a good time at Babylon—and since it happens only a few minutes in, you might as well just save yourself the remaining three hours. But the in-or-out moment in The Way of Water isn’t just about believing that an alien whale can talk, or even that, as a human marine biologist explains later, the tulkun are not only as intelligent as humans but probably moreso, with their own forms of math, philosophy, and musical composition. The movie doesn’t just ask us to consider Payakan’s point of view. It lets us literally take it on, as the movie sometimes cuts to irised, amber-hued shots of Lo’ak that are seen as if through the tulkun’s actual eyes, in whalevision.

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Cameron and his co-writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, are picking up a science-fiction trope that first surfaced in the 1970s, as the national fascination with space exploration met the burgeoning environmental movement. Frank Herbert’s Dune, published in 1965, included a passing reference to the market for intergalactic “whale fur,” and by 1971, Philip José Farmer’s The Wind Whales of Ishmael plucked the narrator out of Moby-Dick and plopped him down on a future earth where both the whales and the ships that hunt them swim through the sky instead of the vanished oceans.

Until now, the sci-fi cetacean’s most prominent onscreen appearance was in 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which you may know better as “the one with the whales.” In that movie, the future earth is threatened by a mysterious probe that blasts the planet with a sonic signal that turns out to be identical the song of a humpback whale—a species that has been extinct for centuries. Captain Kirk and co. travel back in time to the year 1986 on a mission to, well, save the whales, and they join forces with a biologist who is caring for two captive humpbacks. As Kirk is figuring out how to explain to her that they need to take the whales to save earth 400 years in the future, Spock dives into the tank with them and presses his face up against the whale’s, melding their minds and proving they’re capable of intelligent thought. When the biologist makes a remark about wanting to protect her whales, Spock responds, “They like you very much, but they are not the hell ‘your whales.’”

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Eventually, the humpbacks are saved, rescued from a menacing whaling ship and taken to the future, where the probe hears their song and promptly departs, saving earth from destruction. “It’s ironic,” Kirk reflects, “when man was killing these creatures, he was destroying his own future.” Given that the two whales include a male and a pregnant female, there’s even a faint hope they’ll be able to revive the species.

Star Trek IV was a major hit, finishing ahead of Cameron’s own Aliens at the worldwide box office for 1986, and it has even been credited with spurring an increase in donations to Greenpeace. So as Cameron became increasingly preoccupied with both environmentalism and ocean explanation, he might have remembered the power of whales, in all their mystery and majesty, to connect audiences with a sense of awe for the natural world and the imminent possibility of extinction.

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Payakan gets The Way of Water’s most dramatic entrance, and it’s the tulkun, and not any of the humans or Na’vi who perish in its many battles, whose deaths register as the most cataclysmic. The longest stretch we spend away from the movie’s protagonists is a sequence where a herd of tulkun are attacked by human tulkun hunters, who kill them for a substance called amrita that, once extracted from their bodies, has the power to halt human aging entirely. The movie’s perspective shifts back and forth between the whalers, led by a brash Australian captain, and the tulkun, especially a female elder with a young calf, whom the hunters decide to target because caring for her offspring will slow the mother down. (Like most of the tactics employed by the tulkun hunters, this is inspired by historical whaling practices, and amrita is clearly a Pandoran analog for ambergris, which was also harvested in tiny quantities from the whales who were killed for it.)

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Cameron stages the tulkun hunt as he would any action sequence, and he gives the hunters the same kind of brash, slangy dialogue as the marines in Aliens—but this time, we’re on the aliens’ side. The death of the mother tulkun is treated as a slow-motion horror, the equivalent of the destruction of the sacred Hometree in the first Avatar. It’s not just a tragedy; it’s an abomination.

You could fairly accuse The Way of Water of caring more about the tulkun than it does about its humanoid characters. (I know I’m not the only person who had trouble telling the difference between Jake’s two grown sons at an especially critical moment.) But that’s a feature and not a bug. Just as the entire plot of the Avatar series is in some ways a pretext to let audiences luxuriate in the eye-popping paradise of Pandora, so the story of the second movie is an elaborate device to let Cameron do what he really wants to do, which is hang out with space whales. Both times I’ve seen the movie, there were scattered chuckles when Payakan’s first subtitle popped up, but the audience clapped and cheered, more than at any other point, when Payakan got his revenge on the whalers in the final battle sequence. (I, too, may have let out a yell when Payakan threw himself onto the ship’s deck and squished an evil human with his flipper.) Even in the movie itself, humans cheer on the tulkun’s victory. Despite the fact that he’s literally in the same boat with the whaling captain Payakan is trying to kill, Jemaine Clement’s marine biologist takes a moment to gloat as the roles of predator and prey are reversed: “Who’s got the harpoon now?”

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Last year, Cameron executive-produced a National Geographic miniseries called Secrets of the Whales, which does for orcas and sperm whales what The Way of Water does for its alien analogues. Breathlessly narrated by Sigourney Weaver, the series underlines the ways in which whales are just like us, possessing not just intelligence but cultures and traditions. Elder orcas pass on hunting techniques to the young, patiently teaching them how to snatch a seal off of a beach and then wiggle back into the water, and humpbacks craft new songs for each mating season and pass them on to others. In the context of a nature documentary, the narration’s relentless anthropomorphism often feels over the top: Weaver not only refers to mother whales as “Mom” but calls the humpback songs their “new No. 1 hit.” But in The Way of Water, he’s free to run with the idea, as far as his imagination and his lack of shame can take him.

In a flashback to the period of the first movie, Weaver’s scientist, Grace Augustine, hems and haws over what to call the apparent psychic connection linking all of Pandora’s flora and fauna. If she calls it intelligence, she frets, the scientific community will simply scoff, so she settles on “awareness.” But James Cameron isn’t a scientist. He wants us to feel more than to think, and he’s expended so much effort creating Pandora’s astonishing surfaces that he doesn’t much care if we look beneath them.

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