The craziest thing that happens in 2009’s Avatar is probably a Na’vi yanking a human marine from his helicopter — it’s shocking, it’s thrilling, and it’s over in a flash. James Cameron’s long-delayed sequel, The Way of Water, though, is fully committed to bonkers cinematic maximalism, making it a must-see-with-a-crowd experience. This becomes especially clear during a climactic eight-minute sequence bookended with two enormous action beats seemingly plucked from a Saturday-morning cartoon — except gnarlier and, somehow, much more moving, too.
Folks. We need to talk about Payakan.
An outcast member of the intelligent, whalelike Tulkun species (or “the Tulkun people”), Payakan is a surprisingly significant character in the movie and is responsible for two of the most righteous cinematic ass-kickings in recent Hollywood memory. They’re moments of cheer-out-loud catharsis appearing on either side of a steadily unfolding action climax involving everyone in the film. Better yet, they’re imbued with genuine emotional heft thanks to the way they’re framed within the story.
After the Tulkun bull befriends Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) — the younger, moodier son of Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) — he opens up to the wannabe Na’vi warrior about how he lost one fin and why he was expelled from his tribe. He swallows Lo’ak whole and, using a tentaclelike protrusion from his brain, forms a “Tsaheylu” bond with the boy’s ponytail to show him snippets of a mournful flashback. Here, we bear witness to the time Payakan was hunted by a human whaling ship and many Na’vi and Tulkun were killed when he chose to retaliate, leading him to a life of guilt and exile.
Later, in the present day, we witness this same private, militarized whaling vessel in action, captained by the most cartoonishly uncouth Australian man you’ve ever seen: Mick “Let’s make some money” Scoresby (Brendan Cowell). But cartoonish evil is evil nonetheless in Cameron’s world. Scoresby’s hovercraft joins forces with a team of human marines in Avatar bodies, led by Stephen Lang’s resurrected Colonel Quaritch. Their goal? To hunt down Tulkun and provoke the Metkayina — a tribe of reef-dwelling Na’vi who have been protecting Jake and his family. When the whalers catch up to the herd, they set their sights on a Tulkun cow who recently gave birth; they know she’ll slow down to protect her calf, making her an easier target.
The following sequence is propulsive and emotionally brutal with both Tulkun mother and child crying out in anguish as a smaller hunting boat launches an explosive harpoon into the mother’s abdomen, anchoring her with its cable. The whalers and soldiers celebrate while Spider (Jack Champion) — a human raised with Na’vi values — looks on in horror. All this carnage is wrought upon the Tulkun for only a tiny vial of liquid plasma, a priceless substance extracted from the brains of the whalelike creatures, which can prevent humans from aging. The rest of the mother’s body is not only wasted but dumped mercilessly at sea for the Metkayina to find. (The scene is scored with the same musical composition the late James Horner used to signal the destruction of the Na’vi home tree in the 2009 original.) “She was a composer of songs,” mourns Ronal (Kate Winslet), the dead Tulkun’s “spirit sister,” with whom she bonded over stories of motherhood.
With the villains at their most detestable but before the film gets mournfully serious, Cameron sets up an exciting standoff between the whaling vessel — where Quaritch and the marines have captured several Na’vi children, including Lo’ak — and Jake, Neytiri, and the Metkayina, each astride their various avian and amphibian compatriots. It’s a stalemate at first. Should the Na’vi advance, Quaritch will most certainly kill their kids, but help comes to them from below the surface. Payakan, angered by the murder of a fellow Tulkun and the capture of Lo’ak and the other children who had been helping him evade the whalers just minutes prior, whips himself into a Hulk-like frenzy and begins smashing nearby rocks and corals before charging upward toward the vessel.
And then … chaos!
Payakan Free Willy–leaps his way onto the ship and straight-up flattens, like, a dozen soldiers with just his torso. He takes gunfire but whips even more marines (Avatars and humans alike) into oblivion with his tail and one good fin. The distraction catalyzes all the other characters into action, resulting in a swiftly cross-cut sequence that lasts about eight fantastic minutes before the furious Tulkun reenters the spotlight. Neytiri, armed with her father’s bow, attacks from the air, taking out chopper pilots with laser precision. Aboard the ship, Spider begins knocking out soldiers with a fire extinguisher. Jake and the Metkayina advance in formation; they spear soldiers left and right, striking powerful poses atop their steeds while skimming the water’s surface. Beneath it, the Na’vi children attempt to evade submarine units; during this fluidly shot chase, teenager Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) finally taps into her telekinetic abilities, going full Jedi and commanding enormous sea anemones to capture and crush the undersea units in pursuit.
All of it builds steadily to a wild crescendo when Scoresby, aboard the smaller hunting boat that so viciously killed the Tulkun mother, fires his harpoon once more, this time at Payakan. But not only does Payakan evade the projectile, he uses its momentum to wrap its metal cable around his two-horned skull, proceeding to lash the boat against floating rocks and running it aground. This hyperintelligent creature then uses his apparent physics degree to create a makeshift guillotine, leaping over the boat and wrapping the cable around it, crunching it to pieces.
Here, the edit takes a breath for the briefest of moments, drawing our attention to the way the cable has now trapped Scoresby’s right arm against the debris. Anticipation sets in. Payakan gives the cable one final, powerful yank, launching Scoresby in one direction and his disembodied arm in another. A victorious dismemberment and long-brewing revenge for Payakan’s own missing fin.
To watch the humanlike Na’vi take out “Sky People” is one thing, but to see one of Pandora’s creatures do it, with such style and ruthless precision, is entirely another. It’s like watching the fury of nature itself being channeled into vengeance. Cameron’s two greatest cinematic instincts — his affinity for violence and his conservationist spirit — collide harmoniously in what is sure to be one of the most memorable action sequences from an American studio for some time (or at least until the next Avatar sequel).
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