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Space whales are the best part of Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Path of Water takes audiences back to the splendorous alien world of Pandora, and spends even more time than the 2009 original Avatar into exploration and characters just hanging out. But this time, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his family leave the jungle and go to sea. It’s no secret at this point that director James Cameron loves the ocean. Long sequences of the new film are devoted to a panoramic tour of this alien sea, with its magnificent coral reefs and all the creatures that live in them. There are all sorts of new life forms, from agile flying fish steeds to fairy-like jellyfish that allow for underwater respiration. 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.]

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A lanky, blue-skinned teenage Na'vi on the back of a space whale in Avatar: The Way of Water

Image: 20th Century Studies

Tulkun look a lot like normal whales, except that their jaws are larger, their fins are a little weird, and they have four eyes. Great with soul. And oh, also, apparently they are sentient, intelligent, and able to communicate with the Na’vi. I love them.

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We first meet the tulkun when an outcast whale saves rebellious teen Na’vi Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) from being baited by an alien shark. At this time, we have no idea that the Na’vi can communicate directly with these whales. Oh sure, you can do all your psychic vibration check of connecting the braid to most of life on Pandora, but this is on another level. Lo’ak communicates with the tulkun through sign language and the whale reply.

More specifically, Lo’ak asks Payakan (that’s 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 Papyrus-style Avatar font. That makes it even better. There is something so enchanting about seeing non-human beings (animals, aliens, or robots) communicate through noises or beeps, and the people on the screen can still understand them. I call it the R2-D2 Effect.

The Lo’ak and Payakan link is not exclusive to the Na’vi reef culture. The Tulkun and the Na’vi are so intertwined that they form deep spiritual bonds with each other. When the tulkun herds return from the migration, it becomes one big event where all the Na’vi swim and reconnect with their godbrothers. They share stories and updates.

a space whale leaping out of the water against a majestic sunset in avatar: the way of water

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Image: 20th Century Studies

“The presumption is that the Tulkun culture and the Na’vi culture come together with music, song and dance,” Cameron explains in the film’s production notes. “The Metkaina [the reef-dwelling Na’vi clan], for example, would make tattoo patterns on the tulkun that would express their family history. Adult tulkun who have gone through their coming-of-age ceremony have tattooed bodies and tattooed fins, just like the Metkayina, when they are teenagers, also get their first tattoos.”

In the film, we learn from human whale hunters that tulkun are even more intelligent than humans, capable of art and reason. Also, they have a fluid in their brains that stops human aging, making them tragic heroes, because humans want to kill them for profit. They are strong, gentle and wise creatures that we must protect, and I love them very much.

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What makes the tulkun even more compelling is their strong sense of ethics. Payakan is exiled from his pack because he led a charge of young tulkun to ambush the human hunters who killed his mother. Although he did not directly kill the tulkun that followed him, they died trying, and his pack still holds 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 come together: Lo’ak also feels like an outcast for not living up to his father’s expectations.

Lo'ak the Na'vi touches a new whale-like aquatic creature in Pandora's Sea in Avatar: The Way of Water

THEY ARE BEST FRIENDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Image: 20th Century Studies
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The trope of a misfit boy connecting with a misunderstood animal is tried and true – check out all the horse girl stories. 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) is a alien whale; and (3) she is a super-intelligent alien whale capable of holding her part of a conversation. Combine Set Willy free with How to Train Your Dragon and throw it in the middle of the ocean on a distant planet, and you get something a little close to the wonder of Lo’ak and Payakan’s relationship. All the friendship bolsters the Lo’ak arc, and it’s truly sublime.

There are many good things aboutt Avatar: The Path of Water. The beautiful landscape! The new Na’vi clan! The tight action scenes! The whole last act, which is basically James Cameron saying, “What if I recreated scenes from my movie? Titanic where the ship is sinking, except this time they’re all blue aliens, and they’re also fighting to the death? But the best part is the tulkun, which not only fleshes out this new aquatic world that the Sully family finds itself in, but also helps highlight the coming-of-age narrative. What does growing up and finding yourself say more than connecting with a mystical and misunderstood animal?

Tragic backstories and complex emotional storylines are compelling in any medium, and the characters who connect through their tragic backstories and complex emotional arcs are a rich part of any film. In this particular case, one of the characters turns out to be a space whale. And any story in which the space whale society is sophisticated enough to produce a tragic backstory about revenge, isolation, and healing is a story worth watching, at least in my book.

Avatar: The Path of Water it’s in theaters now.

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