Home » The Most Important Scene in ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is All About the Tulkun

The Most Important Scene in ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ is All About the Tulkun

by Andrew J. Salazar
Lo'ak meets Payakan the exiled young Tulkun male bull whale for the first time and sees that he has a missing fin cut off from human amrita hunters in AVATAR:THE WAY OF WATER.

Spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water follow!

Avatar: The Way of Water was always destined to cause tidal waves of discourse. In the 13 years it took filmmaker James Cameron to craft his latest epic blockbuster sequel, debates over the first film’s cultural relevance swarmed the internet – popularizing the ill-advised concept that Avatar only became the highest-grossing film of all time because of its groundbreaking 3D and visual effects, not because audiences unsurprisingly also bought into its vital story. With the sequel now becoming the official highest-grossing film of 2022, people have proven they do, in fact, care about Avatar. Yet, where the naysayers would still have you believe this is all thanks to the technology on display, there is actually one scene in Avatar: The Way of Water that dispels this shallow criticism once and for all, and it’s all about the Tulkun. 

An Environmentalist Space Opera

If James Cameron couldn’t make it any more clear as day, the Avatar series is building itself up as an environmentalist space opera with each film diving deeper into its political and sociocultural themes. Much of this is reflected in Cameron’s worldbuilding on the planet of Pandora, however, don’t believe for a second that this undercuts the characters at the center of our story. While the visual spectacle of Pandora is obviously a huge selling point, it wouldn’t work without empathetic characters like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) acting as our accessible guides into the unknown. Here, character and spectacle are intrinsically tied. This may be a hard pill to swallow for some, but it harkens back to when folks online tried to outsmart Mad Max: Fury Road for pointing out its simple plot structure. Yeah, we know. And that’s why it rocks. 

The Avatar: The Way of Water Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus reads, “Narratively, it might be fairly standard stuff.” Again, this goes back to the misreading of the first film. Yes, 2009’s Avatar is essentially Dances with Wolves in space, although James Cameron has gone on record to say he intentionally used a straightforward plot to reel moviegoers in. In doing so, he was able to make a simple phrase like “I see you” carry immense weight. Environmentalist themes on deforestation and conservation drove this drama – seeing the ultimate consequences of our own real-life devastations on Earth mirrored in one of the most jaw-dropping locales ever put to screen. These messages may not be revolutionary by themselves, but seeing them so prioritized and unfiltered at that kind of a blockbuster level was. Now, we see that unabashed environmentalism carried on with the Tulkun in Avatar: The Way of Water.

The Tulkun Way

The Tulkun are a species of whale-like creatures native to the oceans of Pandora. They don’t appear in Avatar: The Way of Water until the second act, when Jake Sully, Neytiri, and their 4 kids – Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – have all found refuge from the freshly revived Quaritch clone and his Avatar squadron in the islands of the Metkayina, an oceanic Na’vi clan. Abiding by their family code, “Sullys stick together,” the group trades the vines and branches of Eywa’s forests for her reefs and oceans in an effort to spare their original clan from Quaritch, who is holding their unofficial fifth human child Spider (Jake Champion) hostage for intel. The Sullys must adapt to an aquatic lifestyle if they are to survive, and one of the Metkayina’s biggest lessons comes with respecting and honoring the Tulkun.

Similar to our own cetaceans, the Tulkun are interconnected by their own language and rich family histories. However, in true Avatar fashion, these whales are far more” spiritual” and “emotional” than humans as Jemaine Clement’s Dr. Ian Garvin points out in the film. Their aquatic culture includes poetry, mathematics, and more. The Tulkun are the spiritual brothers and sisters of the Metkayina, each Na’vi clan member engaging in a lifelong bond with an individual whale. The Metkayina and the Tulkun celebrate life and death in unity. As such, the Metkayina know how to communicate with these whales and stand by their ancient doctrine, the “Tulkun Way,” which states their rules for maintaining peace in Pandora’s oceans. The Tulkun are Pandora’s largest fauna to be reckoned with (that we’ve seen at least), but not even their might can stand a chance against the sky people’s colonialist wrath. 

Lo'ak the youngest Sully son greets Payakan the lone Tulkun outsider whale  in the middle of Pandora's oceans in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER.
‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ courtesy of 20th Century Studios

When Quaritch starts to sweep the island clans in search of the Sullys, he realizes that making an example of the Tulkun is the only thing that can draw them out. He knows the Na’vi will bend to his will when their ecosystem is at stake, and the whales have become the new primary target for human exploitation on Pandora since their re-invasion. Until now, the sky people have found a way to get the resources they want from the Tulkun without Na’vi interference. This all changes in what is certainly the most important scene in Avatar: The Way of Water – a sequence that so vividly represents our connection to this franchise and how it’s managed to resonate so deeply with audiences worldwide. Yes, we’re talking about the tragic whaling of a Tulkun mother and the subsequent death of her newborn calf. 

“I’ve got quotas to meet!” 

The Tulkun whaling scene in Avatar: The Way of Water is undeniably hard to watch. After spending our sweet time exploring Pandora’s waters, mostly through endearing moments with the Sully children, and learning about its whales, especially with Lo’ak who befriends a peculiar young Tulkun bull named Payakan (more on this fella soon), James Cameron takes a dark turn by depicting a brutal reality. Now through Quaritch, we’re given a front-row seat to the sky people’s latest exploitative agenda: hunting Tulkun. Captain Mick Scoresby (Brendan Cowell) enters the picture as our enthusiastic master hunter, and guides us step by step on how to kill the most majestic creatures in the ocean in real-time. But it’s not just any Tulkun we see die, it’s the elder mother Roa, the spiritual sister of the Metkayina Tsahìk Ronal (Kate Winslet), who is easily targeted for swimming slower due to her newborn calf. 

The film’s most imaginative human tech is purposefully shown off in this scene. From crab-like mech suits and beyond, James Cameron conveys a state of astonishment as all these pieces come together to kill a helpless animal. It’s a great irony that only Cameron could pull off, exhibiting his ocean-obsessed mind with these gnarly sci-fi creations but at the cost of an innocent life being lost. It’s a not-so-subtle statement that the advancements of man will go as far as it benefits their own greed. The cinematography of the Tulkun hunt amplifies this idea, often putting us right in the cockpit of these machines to witness the killing in a first-person POV – it’s both impressive and horrifying. This viewing experience is pushed to the extreme limits when viewed in IMAX or HFR 3D. Despite the atrocity unfolding on screen, you can’t keep your eyes from looking away. 

James Cameron getting away with what is possibly the vilest depiction of whaling at the crux of a four-quadrant blockbuster is even more commendable when you pause to acknowledge just how unceremonious all the human dialogue is throughout. Brendan Cowell puts in an incredibly tongue-in-cheek performance, spewing the most sinister lines with all the ego he can muster. The humans yelling gruff phrases like “booyah” while they separate the Tulkun mother and her calf from the pod and eventually disable her frankly speaks for itself. Still, Cameron knows no bounds in his dialogue, giving Cowell lines like “She takes an explosive harpoon to the chest and she’s still running… beautiful” after he delivers the killing blow. By the time we’re shown a crowd of humans clapping and cheering at the sight of a dead whale, there’s nothing left to say. 

New Gold 

All of these elements combined will make plenty of viewers see the Tulkun hunt as the most forced scene from Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron shoving a “Save the Whales” campaign late into the plot to get an easy reaction from the audience. The scene itself can be equated to the burning of Home Tree in Avatar, which also incites the conflict leading into the third act. Additionally, we learn that the sky people are whaling Tulkun to extract a valuable gold liquid from their skull glands called amrita that can conveniently stop human aging. Exactly like the bluntly named “unobtanium” mineral compound in the first film, amrita (meaning immortality in Sanskrit and often referred to as an elixir in ancient texts) is the cause of all destruction. It’s now the most profitable source on Pandora as one Tulkun can produce millions of dollars worth of amrita. 

Up until this point, many have criticized the second act of Avatar: The Way of Water for either repeating too much from its predecessor or pausing the plot to turn into a National Geographic underwater special. In terms of repetition, we do see our heroes (and villains this time around) adapt to new cultures like before. This includes tuning into nature, learning native languages, and bonding with wildlife. Sure, you could say the second acts of both films function similarly, yet that critique fails to recognize that all of this environmental worldbuilding is crucial to setting up a worthy climax, and is ultimately what hooks us so deeply into the story. The slight repetition works here as Quaritch’s arc, in particular, serves as an effective parallel to the path Jake chose in Avatar, and the documentary feel of the water scenes further drives home the authenticity of the Tulkun hunt.

The whaling of a Tulkun wouldn’t be so hard to watch if we didn’t just get lost in the endless blue of Pandora’s oceans alongside the Sully children. Not a cheap ploy, but a necessary and candid portrayal of corporate evil. The same goes for the on-the-nose dialogue from the human hunters. When it comes to environmental cruelty, there is zero room for redemption. Humans will always find a new natural resource to make a profit from, and the more we explore Pandora the more the sky people will try to claim as their own. Don’t take it from me though, nothing else speaks more to the power of the Tulkun whaling sequence in Avatar: The Way of Water than one specific crowd-cheering moment that comes later during the grand finale. 

Jake Sully slowly approaches the sky people's giant Tulkun hunting ship by himself on a skimwing on the water in the final epic battle of AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER.
‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Payakan’s Revenge

Prior to the whaling of a Tulkun mother, we’re introduced to an adolescent bull named Payakan through the eyes of Jake Sully’s youngest son Lo’ak. The Na’vi boy’s life is saved by the lone whale in a classic “there’s always a bigger fish” scenario out in the deep sea. The two come to form a special bond as they’re both outcasts, Lo’ak feeling shunned for failing to be the perfect son and looking different with his half-breed physicalities (like having 5 human-like fingers) and Payakan being exiled for breaking the sacred Tulkun way. Payakan has been labeled as a killer of his own kind, but Lo’ak knows there must be more to his story. As the two spend time together, James Cameron eases us in with some of the most elating, cinematic visuals of the film. Just a boy and his brother whale enjoying life, until death comes knocking.

When Lo’ak gains enough trust in the exiled whale, they seal their bond and the truth is revealed: Payakan is the lone survivor of a failed Na’vi and Tulkun insurgence on the human amrita hunters. Their joint forces never stood a chance against the sky people’s latest tech. Lo’ak fails to clear Payakan’s name with the Metkayina, leaving him as the next vulnerable target after mother Roa’s death. This sets up a tense final battle where it’s not the fate of the entire planet at stake like in the first film, but the fate of a family with one less member, whether it be a blood-related Sully or a spiritual Tulkun brother. When Payakan is finally marked for death by a tracking beacon, the Sully children race to save him, with Jake, Neytiri, and the Metkayina following behind in a war party ready to avenge their fallen sister. 

The third act of Avatar: The Way of Water feels like a relentless thrill ride, and Payakan’s revenge is that first epic plunge into chaos that the film has spent precious time building up to – the devastating whaling sequence being the major tipping point. Seeing this misunderstood whale rise from the bottom of the ocean and launch himself onto the enemy hunting ship, landing the first fatal hits in this grand finale, couldn’t be more satisfying to watch. If you’ve seen Avatar: The Way of Water with a packed theater crowd, then chances are you saw this very moment led by a Tulkun inspire cheers and applause. Those who did some of that clapping likely went even crazier when Payakan gets sweet payback on Scoresby by getting a hold of harpoon wire and using it to graphically tear him and his boat apart “arm for an arm” style. 

Choosing a Side

Scoresby’s death is so hilariously off the rails yet welcomed. What could be more satisfying than seeing cruel human hunters get their just desserts? Similarly, seeing Neytiri skewer human soldiers with her signature bow and arrow never gets old. James Cameron’s action escalation brings a kind of satisfaction that no other major Hollywood franchise is capable of delivering, and it mainly stems from his politics. The Avatar series serves as an anti-military and anti-capitalist parable just by presenting irredeemable characters like Scoresby or Earth’s reinvasion of Pandora as evils of corporations and the military-industrial complex. In the first 10 minutes of the sequel, acres of forest and wildlife are engulfed by the flames of Earth’s invading rocket ships. Whereas it took a failed displacement mission to start firing down on natives in Avatar, this immediate extermination signals that more aggressive colonialist crimes lie ahead… Tulkun hunting being one example.

James Cameron leaves no middle ground between who the heroes and villains are, a political distinction that goes back to how the filmmaker frames police and law enforcement in his Terminator films. And whether you realize it or not, this kind of hard-pressed moral stance has worked greatly in the Avatar franchise’s favor. The environmentalist messaging and political themes of Avatar: The Way of Water are so deeply intertwined with its characters that they cannot function without one another; when you root for Jake Sulley, Neytiri, or even the Tulkun, you’re clearly picking a side. This can’t be said for most modern blockbusters, just look at the underlying military propaganda of Top Gun: Maverick. Even films that have aimed for anti-corporate and anti-military stances, like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, leave room for some redemption (see: the friendly C.I.A agent Everett Ross played by Martin Freeman). 

Payakan the young male bull Tulkun does an epic jump from Pandora's oceans in slow-motion and in front of a beautiful sunset from AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER.
‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The Tulkun Rider

Audiences have come to fully accept that when stepping into the world of Avatar, they are viewing a drastic future where humans don’t change. An alternate existence where humanity has brought its downfalls to a new galactic frontier after draining Earth dry of resources. This creates a universal appeal that’s not so different from what George Lucas originally did with Star Wars, pushing cinematic innovation with political topics relevant to our daily existence in a reality more troubled than movies can show. You cannot truly separate these franchises from their ideologies, and when you try – e.i. “Keep politics out of my Star Wars” – you’re fundamentally trying to watch something different than what’s in front of you. It’s why the murder of a mother Tulkun in Avatar: The Way of Water can be so hard to watch yet pivotal in the viewing experience. 

The role of the Tulkun in Avatar: The Way of Water is unquestionable in its messaging and fulfilling in its execution by the time James Cameron shows us something we all desire to see in real life: mother nature getting back at its violators. If you’re privy to the potential next sequel titles that Cameron himself confirmed were in contention, then you’ll know the fourth film is possibly titled Avatar: The Tulkun Rider. It’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing more of Lo’ak and Payakan’s friendship. This type of dynamic only works so well in an environmental space opera like Avatar, wherein Cameron has found a way to mine melodrama from significant issues like whaling. Will he touch upon other pressing topics in the sequels? Yes, but it wouldn’t be Avatar without it. People have always cared about Avatar, and the Tulkun are merely the latest testament to that power. 

Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing only in theaters!

Follow Managing Editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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