A Review of the Oscar Winning-Avatar: the Way of Water-The Way of Family in Avatar: the Way of Water


Cole Burgett

Article ID:



Mar 15, 2023


Jan 25, 2023

Avatar: The Way of Water

Directed by James Cameron

Screenplay by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver

Story by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno

Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau

Distributed by 20th Century Studios

(PG-13, 2022)

**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water .**


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When James Cameron’s Avatar hit theaters in 2009, few could have predicted the new, CGI-laden intellectual property would enjoy such a staggering box office return, becoming the first film in history to gross two billion dollars.1 The film would be nominated for a whopping nine Academy Awards, and end up winning in three categories, all of them related to the film’s stunning visuals. Given Hollywood’s propensity to capitalize on success, a sequel was inevitable and long discussed by Cameron. That sequel finally arrived in December of 2022 with Avatar: The Way of Water.

Boasting one of the largest budgets for any motion picture and a stunning new array of underwater motion capture technology pioneered by Wētā FX (formerly Weta Digital, of The Lord of the Rings fame), Avatar: The Way of Water carries audiences once again to the mid-22nd century moon of Pandora for another adventure. With more films on the way, Cameron’s series is here to stay.2 But despite the fantastical subject matter, the story that he is crafting throughout the Avatar films is very quickly shaping up to focus on something surprisingly domestic: the nuclear family.

Time Marches On. Avatar: The Way of Water finds Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), having transferred his consciousness into his avatar body, living among the Na’vi, Pandora’s native species. He has started a family with his mate, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), consisting of their oldest son, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), second son, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and adopted daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). As chief of the Omaticaya clan, Jake is known and revered for his heroic efforts at the climax of the first film, leading the Na’vi in a rebellious uprising against humanity’s Resources Development Administration (RDA). As both father and tribal chief, Jake struggles to connect with his teenage children while remaining a stalwart leader for his people.

But trouble rears its head when the RDA returns to Pandora in force. The first film’s deceased antagonist, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is back in a recombinant avatar body with the memories of the original Quaritch, leading a team of similar recombinant avatars in a hunt for Sully. Their relentless pursuit and the overwhelming firepower that mankind brings to bear upon the Na’vi force Jake to make a difficult decision, leaving the clan behind and taking his family into hiding. The Sully family flees to the island tribes, populated by Na’vi who are a slightly different shade of blue and have webbing better suited for water traversal.

The interplay between the Sully family, who are primarily forest dwellers, and the islandic Metkayina clan forms much of the middle act of the film. The family struggles to adjust to the culture and customs of the Metkayina while struggling to work through their own morphing dynamics. Jake and Neytiri argue over their choices as parents and how best to connect with their children. Meanwhile, Neteyam and Lo’ak find it difficult to live in the towering shadow of their father, especially among the new faces of the Metkayina, who are quick to point out that the traditional forest-dwellers are far outside of their element in the watery world of the islands. Kiri, the adopted daughter, wrestles with the fact that not only is she not a biological member of the Sully family, but that she is also quite different altogether from her siblings due to her heightened connection to the natural world. The cinematic scope of Cameron’s epic vision might lend itself to dazzling vistas and impressive action set pieces, but the story’s emotional core lies in the familiar and the mundane: the loving but frictional interplay between parents and children, the difficulties of childhood, and the facing and accepting of one’s own mortality in the process of growing up.

The Way of Family. It is no secret that the breakdown of the nuclear family is one of the hallmarks of the twenty-first century; indeed, it is one of the great crises of the times we live in. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged (and somewhat ironically, as that was a period in which families were closer in terms of proximity than many of them had been in years), political commentator David Brooks published an article in The Atlantic titled, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” In his article, Brooks writes: “This is the story of our times — the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.” He goes on to summarize the breakdown of the traditional family unit as the result of a culture interested in making life “freer” for the individual, but more “unstable” for families.3

Pew Research statistics bear out the very ideas Brooks discusses and have been for a while now. In 2015, the Center published a survey on “Parenting in America” that concluded the following: “Family life is changing. Two-parent households are on the decline in the United States as divorce, remarriage and cohabitation are on the rise.”4 Many in the modern church have (rightly) expressed concern at these fluctuating family dynamics, pointing to God’s original creation mandate in Scripture that the man and the woman “be fruitful and multiply,” as evidence of the Creator’s intention regarding the family structure (Gen. 1:28 NASB).

Peter Jon Mitchell writes on the subject for Christianity Today: “Christian critics of that [nuclear family] unit may have valid observations, but they need to be careful not to confuse a distorted version of family (or bad practice) with the basic principle of family (the idea itself).”5 Mitchell’s article also helpfully demonstrates that the nuclear family unit (a committed husband, a committed wife, and their children) relies on the support of other traditional institutes (namely, the church) in order to thrive. The undoing of the nuclear family is, in one sense, just another victim of a Western Protestant church that is quickly losing its focus and doctrinal distinctives, being “tossed about by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” to borrow the expression used by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church (4:14 NASB).

Nevertheless, there are still pockets within the culture upholding the values of the traditional family unit. Ironically, one of the largest pockets can be found in Hollywood. Many large-scale movies, especially those produced by Disney, affirm the necessity and even the emotional integrity of the traditional family, even if their stories mine dramatic effect from the fracturing of that family. Consider classics like E. T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), or more recent films like The Lion King (1994) and Lilo & Stitch (2002), or the sprawling Harry Potter films (2001–2011). Indeed, there is even a theory that many fledgling screenwriters come to understand: that most every story told is in some way, shape, or form about family, either a celebration of it, or a reckoning with it.

The fact that James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water remains a resounding success indicates that American culture, by-and-large, might be breaking apart old-fashioned family values, the popular imagination is nonetheless haunted by the image of a functioning, well-intentioned traditional household.

Who’s to Blame? Perhaps the one question that every writer investigating the breakdown of the nuclear family unit is interested in is, “Who’s to blame?” What caused the shift in the thinking of the general public’s minds that began the downward spiral and the fragmenting of families? Brooks, in his aforementioned article, argues that the sexual revolution is largely to blame for upending the societal norms governing family life. Mitchell doubles down on Brooks’s assertion, broadening the net to suggest that the same revolution damaged far more than just the family, but also the notion of friendship, and the concept of community altogether.

There is merit to what both Brooks and Mitchell argue, but then, of course, the question arises: what was the impetus behind the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s? What was the force that gave rise to the thing that led to the unmooring in the first place? And these questions lead to more ink spilled, and more conjecture. But at the risk of sounding preachy and hand-wavey, these conjectures are just that — conjecture. Back tracks the researcher or writer to the values of the Enlightenment and shifts in epistemology, the emphasis on high-order individualistic thinking over the community, on and on it goes.

The simple fact of the matter is this: sin is to blame, and not in the broad, catch-all way that sin is sometimes applied in these conversations. But sin is literally the cause of the First Family’s disruption. The man and the woman in the garden first encounter problems when the woman is deceived and her silent husband (who was with her, according to Genesis 3:6) does nothing to prevent the deception. Very quickly thereafter, their nuclear family is shattered when their eldest son takes the life of his younger brother out of anger and jealousy. The traditional family unit has, in a sense, always been in danger, always facing disruption due to the crisis of sin and evil in the world.

Harriet Connor, writing for The Gospel Coalition, argues that churches are best suited for bringing together and helping to maintain traditional families. Though the family of God is certainly one in which all can participate by faith, the “natural” family (her term) provides a “model for relationships within the family of God.” Her conclusion is that the church and the traditional family should not compete, but collaborate, one building up the other in a kind of symbiosis.6

The discussion is much broader than this, and the examples touched upon here have done nothing to incorporate the studies in psychology that demonstrate the emotional and psychological stability that the traditional home affords. One could spend hours upon hours reading those studies, or one could just go and spend three hours watching Avatar: The Way of Water.

There is no coincidence that the film’s finale culminates with the Sully family together, broken, but nonetheless affirming what Mitchell calls the “basic principle” of the family unit. “The Sullys stick together” becomes the mantra of the main characters throughout the course of the story, the thing that made them most vulnerable (“our greatest weakness”), but also the source of their “great strength.”7 For the cultural apologist interested in engaging in the discussion about the traditional family unit, Avatar: The Way of Water is a major cultural artifact that presents the opportunity to do just that.

Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in systematic theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.


  1. Jake Coyle, “‘Avatar’ Wins Box Office, Nears Domestic Record,” ABC News, January 3, 2010, (archived), https://web.archive.org/web/20100203052551/http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory?id=9711561.
  2. Mike Fleming, Jr. “Weta Digital Underway On James Cameron’s Four ‘Avatar’ Sequels,” Deadline, July 31, 2017, https://deadline.com/2017/07/avatar-sequels-james-cameron-weta-digital-visual-effects-new-zealand-1202139097/.
  3. David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” The Atlantic, March 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/03/the-nuclear-family-was-a-mistake/605536/.
  4. “1. The American Family Today,” in Parenting in America, Pew Research Center, December 17, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2015/12/17/1-the-american-family-today/.
  5. Peter Jon Mitchell, “We Still Need the Nuclear Family,” Christianity Today, September 22, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/september-web-only/marriage-parenting-sociology-still-need-nuclear-family.html.
  6.  Harriet Connor, “Nuclear Family or Church Family? Yes,” The Gospel Coalition, June 8, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/biological-family-church-family-yes/.
  7. Avatar: The Way of Water [Film], directed by James Cameron, written by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver (Century City, CA: 20th Century Studios, 2022).
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