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Na’vi warriors Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) face each other in front of a landscape on fire in Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios

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Everyone in Avatar: The Way of Water is fighting the exact same battle

And it isn’t about nature and the environment — it’s about history

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

There’s a major conflict at work in Avatar: The Way of Water, and it isn’t the face-off between humanity and the tall blue alien cat-people called the Na’vi, or the tension between the characters who want to commune with the planet of Pandora and the ones who want to tear it apart to exploit its resources. Those two battles are major parts of the story. So are the tensions between fathers and sons, and between different ways of life among different Na’vi clans. Individual characters are also torn, as they try to navigate between their immediate desires and what’s best for their families, communities, or futures.

But there’s one conflict that connects all of these threads, thematically and conceptually. It’s more abstract than most of them, and harder to see than the obvious battles fought with words and weapons. But it crops up in many ways throughout the three-plus-hour story, and it’s underlined most heavily at the end of the film, as director James Cameron and his co-writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, bring it directly to the foreground. What really connects the movie’s many plot threads is the tension between respecting the past and letting it go.

[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for Avatar: The Way of Water.]

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) looks desperately at someone offscreen in a very dark space in Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios

The first Avatar put that idea squarely at the center of the story. Early on, human Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), wounded in combat, says an initially temporary goodbye to his original body. His consciousness is shunted into an avatar form, a Na’vi body created with the DNA of his twin brother, Tom. (He has to say goodbye to his brother at the same time — he’s brought into the avatar program when Tom dies.) As Jake bonds with the local Na’vi and finds freedom and companionship on the planet Pandora, he questions his loyalties and has to let go of his sense of duty to his planet and his employers, abandoning his military service and human connections in order to fully become a Pandoran native. His crisis of conscience over what his people are doing to Pandora is at the center of Avatar, but his decision to let go of the past and embrace his future as a Na’vi ultimately feels fulfilling and final.

The Way of Water makes the relationship between past and future much more complicated. First there’s Jake, hunted by his former employers, who are obsessed with killing him — which endangers his Na’vi mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), their children, and anyone who shelters them. Jake left his humanity behind willingly in the first movie, but throughout the sequel, he’s haunted by his human past and the way it dogs him. More than any other character in the film, he’s certain about his relationship to his former life — he wants to escape it entirely, but he finds that isn’t an option. That link between his human life and his Na’vi life crops up in subtler ways as well, like the way he treats his family like a small military unit under his command, dispensing orders to them, expecting his kids to call him “sir,” and focusing on military discipline and protocol in their upbringing, to the point where one relative finally complains that they’re his family, not his squad.

The theme is much more pronounced in his most direct enemy, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a cloned version of the adversary Neytiri killed in the first Avatar. Original Quaritch informs his clone descendant gruffly via a recorded video message that they aren’t the same person — but Clone Quaritch, who has Original Quaritch’s personality and almost all his memories, visibly struggles with that idea throughout the story. He’s taken aback when he comes across the remains of his original human body, and he obsesses over avenging himself. He crushes his past self’s skull in a showy public statement for his own squad, showing them that he doesn’t feel any attachment to his former human body — but then he spends the entire movie compromising his mission on behalf of Original Quaritch’s son, Spider (Jack Champion).

The link between Clone Quaritch and Spider is the most visible expression of the past-versus-future theme throughout The Way of Water. Spider — a human kid who wants to be Na’vi so badly that he paints his body with Na’vi stripes and hisses like a wet cat when he’s angry or defensive — insists he doesn’t have any connection to or feeling for Clone Quaritch. And clone-dad similarly shouldn’t be beholden to his original self’s son, and tries to pretend he isn’t. But both of them are at war with themselves over the connection they feel, and both of them go against their better judgment and sell out their own safety and their own futures in order to help each other. Neither of them can fully let go of the past they never had together, or the link between them.

The theme reaches through the movie in a variety of small ways. When Neytiri learns she has to leave her people behind in order to keep her kids safe, she furiously rebels, and gives a speech about the impossibility of abandoning her traditions and her extended family in order to start a new life elsewhere. Her adopted teenage daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), comes from mysterious origins, and spends the movie fending off inquiries about her parentage and musing over it in private. Then the past forcefully catches up with Kiri, and even communicates with her directly. Jake and Neytiri’s troubled son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is so burdened by the ways he feels he’s failed Jake that he veers off from the family, giving up on any possible future as the model son he thinks Jake wants. But those perceived failures keep nagging at him until he isn’t moving forward in his own direction, he’s just relitigating the past.

And when Lo’ak finds a companion he can feel comfortable with, it’s a tulkun — a sapient Pandoran whale — who’s burdened with his own past and unable to see a future. The tulkun, Payakan, is an exile among his people for reasons that have left him guilty and lonely. His history colors the Na’vi perception of him so thoroughly that they can’t see who he actually is, only what they’ve decided his history says about him. Payakan is weighted down because of his past choices. The Na’vi can’t let it go, so they allow it to endanger his future.

Dealing with history and internal conflict is a common enough theme in any story with complicated characters — it’s a relatable idea, since we all have to navigate our own histories as we figure out who we are, who we want to be, and whether we can find a way to get there. But it’s particularly notable as a theme in The Way of Water because so many of these characters are in denial about who they were, who they are, or what they want. And so many of them spend the movie veering back and forth between choices, taking action and then either second-guessing or retracting it, or just holding back on choosing altogether. Clone Quaritch is the most visible face for that theme, with his “I’m not really your father, except I am, except I don’t care, except I do” throughline. Spider is a close second, mirroring his dad’s inner debate.

Human kid Spider (Jack Champion) yells as he aims an arrow offscreen, and teenage Na’vi kid Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) yells behind him in Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios

All of The Way of Water’s characters are fighting similar internal battles, and it feels like a particularly appropriate top-level theme for a movie that is itself so expressly about moving from the past to the future, and from a completed story to an open-ended one. It’s fairly clear that the Avatar movies are going to follow in the footsteps of so many other recent film franchises, and gradually hand the story over from the original generation to the up-and-coming younger one. That idea has been a cultural obsession for American long-form storytelling for more than a decade now, with everyone from Captain America to the original Ghostbusters to the third Star Wars trilogy transferring narrative duties from legacy characters to the newbies. As the plans for Avatar 3 — and possibly Avatar 4 and 5, depending on box-office returns — become clearer, it seems more and more like Jake and Neytiri are going to step back and let their kids run the show. (How Spider works into it remains to be seen — whether he turns into the series’ Kylo Ren by aping the villain or tries to turn his dad to the light side of the Force, like Luke Skywalker.)

For the moment, it’s enough that The Way of Water foregrounds the need to accept change, whether that means letting go of the burdens of the past or embracing them and finding a way forward that respects them. The movie doesn’t have a hard-and-fast message urging people either to ditch their personal histories or to fully embrace them. Different characters find their paths forward in different ways, depending on what they most need to hang onto to feel complete. For some, that means accepting difficult family ties. For others, it means letting them go.

And in the movie’s final scenes, Jake and Neytiri let go of someone they loved, but find a kind of momentary peace with their grief, in a culmination of the idea that’s connected all the major characters. In voice-over, Jake talks about how Eywa, the spirit of the planet Pandora, remembers all her children, and nothing is really lost. There’s a funeral, and a ceremony where the body of the dead is returned to Pandora.

But while it’s a solemn and sad occasion, the writers lay out the message that the past is always with us, as long as we choose to remember who we loved. Jake taps into Eywa’s memory, reexperiences a meaningful moment with the dead, and takes comfort from it. He can’t escape what’s happened, but he can at least take steps to find emotional balance in the middle of it. And while Avatar 3 will certainly return to him trying to leave the past behind and Quaritch trying to make him suffer for it, they’ve all taken steps toward resolving their internal battles by the end. Different characters in Avatar 2 take different messages from their history, and battle with it in different ways, with different degrees of success. But they all find ways to move forward — and that becomes more of a central focus for the film than any other battle being fought on screen.