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Avatar | The Way of Neytiri: Exploring James Cameron’s Warrior Women

With Avatar: The Way of Water in cinemas, we reflect on Neytiri’s place alongside Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley in James Cameron’s canon of capable women

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Avatar (2009), The Terminator (1984), and Aliens (1986). Proceed with caution.

Thirteen years in the making, Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in cinemas this month. The long-awaited film from James Cameron is the sequel to his 2009 movie, Avatar, and will reunite audiences with the incredible world of Pandora. Avatar charts the story of paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington).

After the death of his twin brother, Tom, Jake is offered to take his position on Pandora. The jovian moon houses a vast population of exotic creatures, the most advanced being the giant Na’vi. Aided by artificially created Na’vi bodies called Avatars, a group of scientists has been studying the race for years. Although able to interact with the Na’vi as their peers, relations are strained, and the team needs help. Tom was meant to provide that help and his death complicates matters. However, by sharing the same genetics, Jake is compatible with Tom’s avatar and may be able to be of assistance.

Once on Pandora Jake finds himself immersed in the Na’vi way of life, but as a soldier, he falls under the leadership of Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who hates the Na’vi and everything native to the moon. Under the direction of greedy corporate executives, Quaritch is tasked with securing the highly lucrative mineral known as Unobtanium. With a motherload of the material resting underneath the home of a large Na’vi clan, the Omaticaya, Jake is instructed to infiltrate the tribe and relay intel back to Quaritch. Under the tutelage of the chieftain's daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), Jake’s eyes are opened to a new way of life. The more time he spends with the natives, the more he is seduced by the Na’vi culture, and Neytiri herself. Meanwhile, Quaritch’s plan intensifies, leading to an epic war that forces Jake to choose between his new and former life.

Neytiri teaches Jake Sully how to use a bow.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) in James Cameron’s visually spectacular ecological science fiction epic Avatar. Cameron recommended Worthington for a role in McG’s Terminator: Salvation (2009) as a result of his experience with him on Avatar. | Twentieth Century Fox, 2009.

Although Jake is the lead character, his fate is intrinsically linked with that of Neytiri. A consistent element across all of Cameron’s work, regardless of genre, is his ability to write complex female characters. In Aliens (1986)’s Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and The Terminator (1984)’s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), Cameron created two of the most iconic women in film history. The characters in Avatar continue this trend; Pandora is full of dynamic females. First, there is Grace (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the scientists. Grace is strong-willed and passionate in her beliefs. Then there is Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez), a tough pilot cut from the same cloth as Cameron’s Aliens creation, Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). Then there’s the Na’vi tsahik, or shaman, Mo’at (C.C.H. Pounder). Though not granted much screen time, she is clearly not a lady to be messed with. As bold and as interesting as each of these women are, the standout female character is that of Neytiri.

Neytiri: The Na’vi

Brought to life by Zoe Saldaña, Neytiri is a member of the Omaticaya clan. The daughter of Mo’at and the chief, Eytukan (Wes Studi), Neytiri has a high position within her society, though this does not mean physical weakness. The Na’vi are not a race of people that shelter their leaders. Despite her parents' positions of power, all three of them work alongside their people. Neytiri is a confident and accomplished hunter, and although part of a society that believes in marriage – or pair bonding, she does not need a man to satisfy her.

Sarah Connor looks towards the camera, a red dot laser sight on her forehead.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) falls under the T-800's red dot laser sight in James Cameron’s The Terminator. | MGM, 1984.

Neytiri’s status within the Omaticaya also comes with certain responsibilities. Much like The Terminator’s Sarah Connor, Neytiri’s future is all mapped out. As a prominent member of the Omaticaya, it is her job to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become the next Tsahik – the spiritual leader. This is something that Neytiri approaches with neither reverence nor disdain, it is merely a fact of her life. Her willingness to honor tradition deviates from the classic princess wanting to escape their chains. She respects her lineage and welcomes her responsibilities. The only pouting on display is when she is told by Mo’at to help teach Jake the ways of the Omaticaya.

Much of the early information about Neytiri is gleaned through Jake. The audience watches their dynamic as teacher and pupil through montages set to Jake’s video diaries. Everything seen casts Neytiri as a formal and honorable member of the Omaticaya clan. It is her dedication to the Omaticaya way of life that seduces Jake and makes him rethink his mission for Quaritch. His change of heart comes too late though, and his betrayal is revealed amidst the destruction of Hometree. During this attack, Neytiri’s devastation at the fate facing her people is heartbreaking, but there’s more to her grief than the loss of her home.

Neytiri: The Romantic

One area in which Neytiri diverges from Cameron tradition is in her partner. Unlike Sarah Connor who is destined to pair with Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to create the future savior of mankind, Neytiri has the ability to choose her partner for herself. Tradition dictates that Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) is the ideal choice. A well-respected Na’vi fighter, and the next in line for clan leader, Tsu’tey has all the qualities that on paper make him the perfect match. Neytiri is not driven by obligation though and instead finds herself drawn to Jake.

Neytiri’s deviation from what is expected of her causes issues within the Na’vi clan. Tsu’tey is especially (and rightfully) distrustful of Jake. The Na’vi people are not ones to hold grudges, however; they are a kind and respectful race, and once Jake proves himself, they all accept him as one of them. The revelation of his betrayal places Neytiri in a painful position. On one hand, she is as angry as her people, ready to cut Jake out of her life, but by this stage, she is in love with him. Being torn between duty and her heart places a great strain on her.

Neytiri reaches out a hand to a bioluminescent creature whilst Jake Sully watches.
Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar. | Twentieth Century Fox, 2009.

Whereas Cameron’s other women of science fiction, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, transition into fierce fighters, Neytiri treads a different path. She is already a warrior and so her journey is instead a romantic one. As the story progresses, she morphs from being hostile toward Jake, to choose him as her partner. Their relationship isn’t love at first sight; respect comes first, which slowly morphs into something more.

An early hint early that something might bloom between the pair is glimpsed during the moment that seeds from the sacred tree land on Jake. Suddenly this moronic outsider is cast in another light. Neytiri has great respect for her heritage, and if her deity, Eywa, has deemed him of merit, then maybe he is worthy of more consideration. From here on, their relationship builds. There is a clear chemistry, but it is one that is built slowly. This conforms to the Cameron logic of romantic subplots. Mistrust in love is a staple of Cameron’s love stories. Take Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. Upon their first encounter, Sarah believes that he is the killer butchering people that share her name. Then come his far-fetched stories of a dystopian future war. Eventually, when confronted with the realization that his words are the truth, she begins to see him differently.

Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor sit a concrete culvert at night.
Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) are on the run in The Terminator. | MGM, 1984.

Aside from her romance with Jake, there is another softness to Neytiri. Whilst she is an accomplished hunter, she is also sensitive. Her deep admiration for her environment makes her somewhat of a natural romantic. Neytiri is someone who cares deeply about everything. This is communicated immediately after meeting Jake. Her attempt to save his life results in the mortal injury of one of Pandora’s creatures. Not wishing for the animal to be in pain, Neytiri euthanizes it. She is full of pathos during this scene, which demonstrates how heavily she wears her emotions on her sleeves.

Neytiri: The Saviour

The first time Neytiri is introduced on screen, she saves Jake. He has become separated from the rest of his group and is stumbling around blindly in the Pandoran fauna. In need of warmth, he starts a fire, and in doing so attracts some unwanted attention. Jake is immediately in a lot of trouble, but before hope is lost, an arrow cuts through the air and dispatches one of his predators. Neytiri then leaps in and single-handedly takes on a group of panther-like creatures.

Having a woman save a man is still a relatively new concept in works of fiction. Historically, it is the female in need of saving. Even Cameron’s other sci-fi women warriors initially adhere to this template. For the bulk of The Terminator, Sarah is a damsel in distress, one who relies on Kyle Reese to keep her out of harm's way. Similarly in Aliens, Ripley needs the colonial marines – who are mostly male in number – to protect her. Each woman eventually uncovers their own power, but Neytiri always has the upper hand over Jake in the combat stakes. This fact is strengthened further as Jake is a marine and as such should be able to defend himself. His inability to do so in their initial encounter demonstrates just how tough an opponent Neytiri is.

A wounded Kyle Reese collapses onto Sarah Connor as wreckage burns behind them.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) embraces the fatally wounded Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator. | MGM, 1984.

Raised to hunt as a child, Neytiri is a formidable warrior. Her prowess makes her the ideal candidate to train Jake in the way of the Omaticaya. As a teacher, she is firm but fair, and although her romantic entanglement with Jake causes her to soften, Neytiri never loses her fire. After mating with Jake, Neytiri remains an individual who is able to defend herself. Importantly, Jake respects this part of her. Just like Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) when teaching Ripley how to use the weaponry in Aliens, Jake admires Neytiri’s ferocity. He sees her as an equal and so when he rouses the various Na’vi clans to fight back against Quaritch, Neytiri is standing right next to him.

It is during the final battle that Neytiri truly proves her strength and ability as a strong and ferocious fighter. As the fray escalates, Jake asks Neytiri to stand down. Unable to stomach the further destruction of her home and the innocent wildlife, she rallies to their aid. Effortlessly she takes on a legion of soldiers alone, defeating them all. Then she is face-to-face with the leader of the enemy, Quaritch. Audience expectations would dictate that this final showdown should play out between two men. Whilst Jake does eventually get involved, it is Neytiri who instigates and ends this final fight. In a switch to conventions, it is Jake being manhandled by Quaritch and in need of rescue.

Neytiri in Avatar: The Way of Water
Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) in the long-gestating sequel Avatar: The Way of Water. | 20th Century Studios.

The woman eventually saving the man is a regular Cameron convention (Titanic’s Rose and Jack aside). Whilst Sarah cannot save Kyle in The Terminator, she does rouse him onto his feet for one last smackdown with the T-800. In Aliens, when Hicks is sprayed with acidic xenomorph blood, it is Ripley that carries the muscular soldier back to safety. For Avatar though, Neytiri truly is the warrior goddess as she fights not only for her land but for the man that she loves. Neytiri's defiance in her battle against Quaritch echoes the power of Ripley during her brawl with the Alien Queen, as well as the determination of Sarah’s final encounter with the T-800. By bridging both sides, Neytiri becomes simultaneously the love interest and the fighter, making her a distinctive Cameron creation.

With at least thirteen years having passed on Pandora in the interim between Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water, it is interesting to imagine how Neytiri may have changed. Plot details of the new film remain a guarded secret, but it is known that Neytiri and Jake’s children will be a heavy component. This presents an opportunity to explore a completely new side of the complex Neytiri. Motherhood had profound effects on both Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, with their maternal nature becoming their driving force. Will Neytiri conform to this Cameron convention, or has life without obstruction and interference from humans, caused her to mellow? Either way, Avatar: The Way of Water is sure to be a thrilling reconnection with a uniquely crafted character.

This article was first published on December 12th, 2022, on the original Companion website.

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