Avatar: The Way of Water takes audiences back to the splendorous alien world of Pandora, and spends even more time than the original 2009 Avatar on exploration and characters just hanging out. But this time, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his family leave the jungles and take to the seas. It’s no secret at this point that director James Cameron loves the ocean. Long sequences in the new movie are devoted to a panoramic tour of this alien sea, with its gorgeous coral reefs and all the creatures that live within them. There are all sorts of new lifeforms, from snappy flying-fish steeds to fairy-like jellyfish that enable underwater breathing. But the underwater creatures that are by far the stars of the movie are the space whales — the tulkun!
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water.]
The tulkun look a lot like regular whales, except their maws are bigger, their fins are a little funky, and they have four eyes. Big soulful ones. And oh, also, apparently they’re sentient, intelligent, and capable of communicating with the Na’vi. I love them.
We first meet the tulkun when an outcast whale saves rebellious Na’vi teenager Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) from being alien-shark bait. Up until this point, we have no idea that the Na’vi can directly communicate with these whale creatures. Oh sure, they can do their whole connect-the-braid psychic vibe check with most of the life on Pandora, but this is on another level. Lo’ak communicates with the tulkun via sign language, and the whale responds.
More specifically, Lo’ak asks Payakan (that is the whale’s name, because, yes, they have names) what happened to Payakan’s severed fin. And the tulkun 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 that signature Papyrus-esque Avatar font. That just makes it even better. There’s just something so damn endearing about seeing nonhuman beings — animals, aliens, or robots — communicate through noises or beeps, and the people on screen being able to understand them still. I call it the R2-D2 Effect.
Lo’ak and Payakan’s bond isn’t unique to the reef Na’vi culture. The tulkun and Na’vi are so intertwined that they form deep, spiritual bonds with one another. When the tulkun pods return from migration, it turns into a big event where all the Na’vi swim out and reconnect with their spirit siblings. They share stories and updates.
“The conceit is that the tulkun culture and the Na’vi culture are joined together with music, with singing, with dance,” Cameron explains in the film’s production notes. “The Metkayina [the reef-dwelling Na’vi clan], for example, would do tattoo patterns on the tulkun that will express their family story. Adult tulkun who have gone through their coming-of-age ceremony have tattooed bodies and tattooed fins, just as the Metkayina, as teenagers, get their first tattoos as well.”
In the movie, we learn from the whale-hunting humans that the tulkun are even more intelligent than humans, and that they’re capable of art and reason. Also, they have a fluid in their brains that stops human aging, which turns them into tragic heroes, because the humans want to slaughter them for profit. They’re 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 exiled from his pod because he led a charge of young tulkun to ambush the human hunters who killed his mother. Though he didn’t directly kill the tulkun who followed him, they died in the attempt, and his pod still deems 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 for not meeting his father’s expectations.
The trope of a misfit kid connecting with a misunderstood animal is tried and true: See every horse girl story ever. But there’s an extra oomph here because (1) it’s a whale, a creature that’s more elusive, rare, and powerful than a horse; (2) it’s an alien whale; and (3) it’s a super-intelligent alien whale capable of holding up its end of a conversation. Combine Free Willy with How to Train Your Dragon and toss it in the middle of the ocean on a distant planet, and you get something a little bit close to the wonder that is Lo’ak and Payakan’s relationship. The entire friendship bolsters Lo’ak’s arc, and it’s just truly sublime.
There are many good things about Avatar: The Way of Water. The gorgeous scenery! The new Na’vi clan! The tight action scenes! The entire last act, which is basically James Cameron saying, “What if I re-created the scenes from my movie Titanic where the boat is sinking, except this time everyone is a blue alien, and also they’re fighting to the death?” But the absolute best part is the tulkun, which not only flesh out this new watery world the Sully family finds themselves in, but also help highlight the coming-of-age narrative. What says growing up and finding yourself more than connecting with a mystical, misunderstood animal?
Tragic backstories and complex emotional stories are appealing in any medium, and characters connecting over their tragic backstories and complex emotional arcs is a rich part of any movie. In this particular case, one of the characters just happens to be a space whale. And any story where space-whale society is sophisticated enough to produce a tragic backstory about revenge and isolation and healing from that is a story worth watching, at least in my book.
Avatar: The Way of Water is in theaters now.