here kiri kiri

In Praise of Sigourney Weaver’s Teen Angst in Avatar: The Way of Water

Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Spoilers follow for Avatar: The Way of Water. 

Avatar: The Way of Water plays out like a greatest-hits compilation of James Cameron’s filmography, with the underwater world-building of this sequel evoking the jungle immersion Cameron pulled off with the first Avatar, a third-act sinking ship that brings to mind Titanic, and the Marines’ AMP suits looking quite similar to the bright-yellow power loader Ripley wielded while fighting the xenomorph queen (and, as importantly, flirting with Hicks) in Aliens. Cameron paying homage to Sigourney Weaver with that little production-design detail is a nice wink, as is the fact that Weaver returns to Pandora for The Way of Water, despite her character, Dr. Grace Augustine, seemingly dying in the first film. The circumstances of Weaver’s return are one of the film’s greatest, weirdest, most endearingly odd aspects: The actress plays Grace’s teen daughter Kiri, who vibes with Pandora’s interconnected biosphere by plugging into the Great Mother’s heartbeat, moodily pouts whenever her family gets on her nerves, and has a potentially Luke-Leia-like romance with a kid who might be her half-sibling. You’re wild for this one, Jim!

In The Way of Water’s first few minutes, Cameron establishes this film’s multigenerational narrative through protagonist and hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who now has a family with his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). Their four children include eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), second son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), youngest daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and their adopted teen daughter Kiri (Weaver). (This is where I admit that during the film I thought this character’s name was “Kitty,” a tongue-in-cheek joke about Na’vi anatomy; I wish I hadn’t been wrong.) Kiri’s “conception was a total mystery,” Jake explains; though she’s clearly Grace’s daughter, no one knows who her father is. That gives Kiri a wandering quality that the other Sully children, secure in themselves and in their parenthood, don’t have, but Weaver digs into Kiri’s wistfulness with relish and believability.

Weaver’s approach is an appreciable change of pace after she played Grace so straight in the first Avatar — yes, her Na’vi body was incongruously dressed in a Stanford crop top and had beaded braids, but Grace’s demeanor was somewhat at odds with that college-student explorer look. She was mostly matter-of-fact, pragmatic, and principled, urging Jake to understand that the Na’vi were more than just an Indigenous population to control. Kiri, meanwhile, is a dreamer and an empath, and Weaver plays up that whimsicality and lack of artifice with wide grins, eager hugs, and sincere line readings. Kiri is warm and loose with Spider (Jack Champion), the son Miles left behind on Pandora when his human form died at the end of Avatar; the two of them bond over their complicated relationships with their absent parents, fueling their shared crush. After the Sullys leave the forest and relocate to the Metkayina reef community, Kiri is hilariously unimpressed by the bullies who call her a “freak,” rolling her eyes and sticking her tongue out at their predictable mockery of her half-Na’vi parentage. And whenever she taps into Pandora’s neural-network interconnectivity, Weaver does well reflecting Kiri’s wondrous expressions in response to all the splendor around her.

The motion-capture performances are uneven across The Way of Water, but Weaver exudes calmness and serenity, whether she’s dancing with luminescent insects, caressing the underside of a ray, or watching light flickering on sand underwater while among the Metkayina. When Spider is captured and Kiri blames her parents for not trying to free him, Weaver becomes moody and petulant, all irritated sighs and disinterested glares at Jake’s “Sullys stick together” motto. While Kiri is not trained to be a warrior like her brothers Neteyam and Lo’ak and is often put in charge of looking after her younger sister Tuk, she has a strong and transformational connection to Pandora. In fact, The Way of Water arguably underuses Kiri, who becomes an active defender of her family in the third act — she uses her bond with plants to direct them into attacking the humans pursuing them — and overanticipates our interest in the rivalry between brothers Neteyam and Lo’ak, who mostly race to reach Jake’s high expectations.

Cameron’s filmography is dotted with tweens and teens whose coming of age is crucial to the story he’s telling about overcoming insurmountable odds: Newt in Aliens, who survived the xenomorphs with only her own wits long before Ripley set foot on her overrun moon colony; John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, whose mother Sarah trained him to stay alive in the face of the coming apocalypse; Rose in Titanic, whose love affair with Jack emboldened her to survive a catastrophe and, after his death, pursue an adventurous life. Like those characters, Kiri is more resourceful and capable than the adults in her life give her credit for. “Why can’t I just be like everyone else?” she asks Jake in a moment of understandable angst: Spider (who the film heavily hints might be her half-brother) is still missing, she keeps experiencing the Great Mother in a way no one else in her family does, and she’s basically going to a new high school where she doesn’t have any friends. That The Way of Water validates Kiri’s strangeness by using her skills and selflessness to save Tuk and Neytiri from drowning is an incredibly on-brand moment for Cameron as a storyteller, and Weaver’s light touch with the character helps the moment land emotionally, too.

Admittedly, some of Grace’s characterization doesn’t make sense, and Weaver’s performance can’t answer the questions that will surely come up again in the Avatar sequels Cameron has planned. Is Kiri Grace’s daughter or more so her clone? During the scene in which Kiri confronts Grace about who her father is, who or what rips Grace out of that otherworldly plane before she can answer Kiri’s question? And after Kiri has a seizure while connected to the Metkayina’s underwater spirit tree, human scientist Norm says that the “religious ecstasy” she experiences while communing with Pandora is actually “classic frontal lobe epilepsy” and Kiri has not been experiencing the Great Mother at all. Worse, he tells us that connecting to the spirit tree again might kill her. Metkayina chieftess and healer Ronal (Kate Winslet) performs some kind of acupuncture on Kiri and awakens her from unconsciousness. But did that only heal her for the time being or forever? And does Kiri actually have a neurological condition, or was this just a way to put Kiri briefly in danger?

Most importantly: Is Kiri’s “epilepsy” just a way for the movie to force her to stop connecting to the spirit tree, at least until a sequel requires her to do so at great sacrifice to herself? Possibly. But killing Kiri off would be a bummer: Weaver is clearly having a fun time playing a teen, which she never got to do earlier in her career (her first movie role was in Annie Hall in her late 20s). If Kate Winslet can play a character who is heavily implied to be analogous to the Māori, then why can’t Weaver’s Kiri stick around? Give her a pair of glow sticks to go with those jellyfish-like lungs that let her breathe underwater — and let her live!


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