Editor’s Note: The following contains Avatar: The Way of Water spoilers.
The phrase “never bet against James Cameron” has been thrown around a lot amidst the release of Avatar: The Way of Water, and for good reason. Although it seems like every Cameron film has its doubters ahead of its release, each of his films has fundamentally changed the entertainment industry in one way or another. James Cameron’s unflinching belief and sincerity in his vision is evident, as even the cornier elements of his films have been gradually accepted into pop culture. Celine Dion’s hit single “My Heart Will Go On” from the Titanic soundtrack became a smash hit that’s largely associated with the film’s legacy; unfortunately, the same couldn’t quite be said about Leona Lewis’ “I See You” from 2009’s Avatar.
Why “My Heart Will Go On” Was Such a Success
Part of the reason that “My Heart Will Go On” was such a critical breakthrough is how closely it aligns with the themes of the story; it’s an epic love ballad that’s fit for one of the most sweeping movie romances of all-time. However, Avatar is first and foremost a science fiction action-adventure, so tying it to a melodramatic love ballad about the power of romance seemed a little odd. While “I See You” received moderate praise, it didn’t become a top-charting sensation, even as the film’s box office continued to grow and topple records. Of the first Avatar’s nine Academy Award nominations, Best Original Song was not among them.
While a lesser filmmaker may have attempted to set aside something like “I See You” altogether, Cameron refuses to apologize for anything in the first Avatar that may have seemed a little corny. Avatar: The Way of Water understands that the success of the first film was how it didn’t conform to the self-awareness that has dominated blockbuster movies ever since; the characters aren’t winking and acknowledging how goofy the situations are, and the romantic storylines are given even more attention. Avatar: The Way of Water doubles down on the phrase “I See You” by incorporating it into the Na’vi culture, and tying it even deeper to the film’s characters.
“I See You” Represents Jake and Neytiri’s Romance in ‘Avatar’
In the first Avatar, “I See You” doesn’t play until the end credits, but it clearly represents the romance between Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). The lyrics “your love shines the way into paradise, so I offer my life as a sacrifice” clearly embody how Neytiri’s love inspires Jake to set aside his human body for good, and accept his new role as a Na’vi. If it wasn’t entirely clear by the end of the first film, Jake’s decision to rebel against his own species isn’t because of revenge. He truly feels that he has found his place with Neytiri and Pandora; as the song says, “your love shines the way into paradise.”
Even if the song doesn’t play until the ending credits, the composition by composer James Horner is hinted at throughout the film’s score and corresponds with the main Na’vi leitmotif. In The Way of Water, the slower, more intimate scenes aren’t simply peppered throughout; they make up a majority of the story. In fact, the film opens not with a giant action sequence, but with a prologue exploring how Jake and Neytiri have evolved as a couple and as parents. They raise their children Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Neteyam (James Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), telling them stories about their early romance.
“I See You” In the Na’vi Language
Despite having only two installments released thus far, the Avatar franchise has already built an extensive fictional universe that rivals Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and the Marvel universe in its complexity. The attention that Cameron and his incredible team of artists paid to worldbuilding paid off, and resulted in a fully-fleshed out history of Pandora that has found an active fanbase. Some dedicated fans have even taken it upon themselves to learn the Na’vi language, and “I See You” is an important phrase in their terminology. According to the guidebook The World of Avatar: A Visual Exploration, “I See You” is a formal greeting and sign of respect.
However, the importance of “I See You” embodies how the Na’vi perceive each other; not only do they refer to the literal act of seeing someone, but they truly recognize them in the spiritual sense. When Jake is greeted with the phrase, it signifies that he has fully assimilated into the Na’vi way of life, and that he is recognized by the Na’vi elders as a member of the species. In The Way of Water, Jake’s human memories are far behind him, but his children still deal with their mixed heritage. Due to the fact that they are partially human, the Sully children feel that they are not “seen” as equals by their own tribe, and they find even less acceptance when they meet the reef clan of the Metkayina.
“I See You” Meaning Expands In ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’
While the chief of the reef people, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), greets Jake by saying “I See You,” it’s clear that not every member of his clan shows the same respect for their new visitors. Jake and his family are insulted and bullied, and at one point, Kiri is even called a “freak.” However, during one of the more emotional moments in the film, Lo’ak discusses these issues with Tonowari’s daughter, Reya (Bailey Bass). When Reya tells Lo’ak “I See You,” she signifies that she accepts him, despite their physical differences. She recognizes his value and the strength that even Lo’ak’s parents have ignored. It’s also a sign of romance; like in the first film, “I See You” has a double meaning as a romantic phrase.
“I See You” isn’t necessarily played in full during The Way of Water, as the new score by Simon Franglen introduces new themes that represent the additional characters, moments, and lessons within the sequel. Since “I See You” is the love theme of Jake and Neytiri, it makes sense that the sequel would introduce new songs and undertones that represent their children. There’s even a new odd pop song in the film’s credits with The Weeknd’s “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength).” However, there are still a few subtle nods to the original theme as a tribute to the late great Horner and everything he did for the Avatar franchise.
One of the oddest criticisms that has emerged in between the release of the two Avatar films is that somehow the first film did not have any impact on pop culture; the hype, fanfare, and acclaim for Avatar: The Way of Water certainly indicates otherwise. While “I See You” may not have become the runaway success that “My Heart Will Go On Was,” it’s part of fans’ “warts and all” love of the first film. This acceptance is why Avatar: The Way of Water works; “I See You” was always good, and it’s even better now.