“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”
― H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
The plot behind Avatar is simple: aliens leave their home planet, which they have depleted of natural resources, and invade a new planet with the hope of stealing its natural resources. Luckily, the people rise up and kick the aliens out with the help of a handy computer virus and the President’s kick-ass fighter pilot skills! Oh, wait a minute, that’s Independence Day… Joaquin Phoenix melts their skin with water and beats them with a bat? Nope, that’s Signs. Right, right, this movie is where the cowboys blow up the aliens that are searching for gold.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Avatar is just another alien invasion film, except that this time, humans are doing the invading. And what are they invading for? Energy resources of course!
The corporation that is inspiring the ruthless invasion in this movie is referred to as “the Company,” as James Cameron is rarely a fan of subtlety. The Company is after a super-conductive mineral named unobtanium, which is used for all sorts of things, including energy production. They fund an expedition to a moon, referred to by the humans as Pandora. Pandora appears to be a giant rainforest and is inhabited by the Na’vi, giant, blue-skinned humanoids with cat-like features and cat-like reflexes. The Na’vi live in complete balance with nature, so naturally they are upset by the idea of humans mining their world for unobtanium. The Company funds a project called the Avatar program, where scientists mix human and Na’vi DNA to create Na’vi bodies that humans can “drive”. Being inside an avatar allows for humans to explore Pandora since its air is toxic to humans and its environment is difficult to navigate. The Company, who is represented on Pandora by a character named Selfridge (more subtlety), also hopes that humans who appear to be Na’vi will be more effective in convincing the Na’vi to allow humans to mine on Pandora.
Selfridge to Grace Augustine (lead scientist in the Avatar program): “Look, you are supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. Isn’t that the whole point of your little puppet show? You look like them, you talk like them, and they’ll start trusting us. We build them a school, we teach them English. But after, what, how many years, relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.”
Augustine: “Yeah that tends to happen when you use machine guns on them.”
Selfridge: “Right. Come here. [holds up mineral] This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for 20 million a kilo. That’s the only reason. It’s what pays for the whole party. It’s what pays for your science. Comprendo? Now those savages are threatening our whole operation, we’re on the brink of war and you’re supposed to be finding a diplomatic solution. So use what you’ve got and get me some results.”
The Company recruits Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine, to take over his late twin brother’s avatar. Sully is approached by the head of security on Pandora, Colonol Quaritch, and asked to spy on the scientists, whom he believes to be less and less accepting of the idea of mining unobtanium. Sully becomes a bodyguard to Dr. Grace Augustine, the lead scientist in the Avatar Program, and her assistant, Norm Spellman. While Augustine and Spellmen are out researching the local flora, Sully’s avatar is attacked by the local fauna and is forced to flee into the forest. He is rescued by Neytiri, the Na’vi chief’s daughter. Neytiri determines that Sully is protected by the Na’vi goddess, Eywa, after Sully is touched by a seed of the Eywa tree. She then takes him to her her mother, Mo’at who is the clan’s spiritual leader. Mo’at says that it is the will of Eywa that Sully learn the ways of the Na’vi. As Sully becomes more and more integrated into the Na’vi’s society, he begins to regret his mission to spy on them for Quaritch. Sully learns that Selfridge and Quaritch want to mine directly under the Na’vi’s village, (called Hometree). Quaritch becomes impatient and threatens to use force to remove the Na’vi if Sully does not convince them to move in a timely manner:
Selfridge: “Sully, find out what the blue monkeys want. You know I mean, we tried to give them medicine, education, roads. But, no, no, no, they like mud. And that wouldn’t bother me, it’s just that their…their damn village happens to be resting on the richest unobtanium deposit within 200 klicks in any direction. I mean, look at all that cheddar.”
Sully: “Well, who gets them to move?”
Col. Quaritch: “Guess.”
Sully: “What if they won’t go?”
Col. Quaritch: “I’m betting that they will.
Selfridge: “OK, OK, OK. Look. Look. Killing the indigenous looks bad. But there’s one thing that shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement. I didn’t make up the rules. So, just find me a carrot that’ll get them to move. Otherwise, it’s going to have to be all stick. OK?
Col. Quaritch: “You got three months. That’s when the ‘dozers get there.”
Instead of convincing the Na’vi to move, Sully takes out a bulldozer that is set to destroy a sacred sight to the Na’vi and Quaritch manages to catch it on film. Quaritch also raids Sully’s personal video logs and shows Selfridge one of the logs where Sully admits that the Na’vi will never leave Hometree, so Selfridge, somewhat reluctantly, orders a raid on Hometree.
Col. Quaritch to Sully: “You let me down son. So what, you find yourself some local tail, and you just completely forget what team you’re playing for?”
Augustine: “Parker, there is time to salvage the situation.”
Col. Quaritch: “Shut your pie hole.”
Augustine: “Or what, Ranger Rick? You gonna to shoot me?”
Col. Quaritch: “I could do that.”
Augustine: [to Parker Selfridge] “You need to muzzle your dog.”
Selfridge: “Yeah, can we just take this down a couple notches, please?”
Sully: [to Col. Quaritch] “You say you want to keep your people alive? You start by listening to her.”
Augustine: “Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in way that you can’t imagine.”
Selfridge: “Aw, you know what? You throw a stick in the air around here, it’s going to land on some sacred fern for Christ’s sake.”
Augustine: “The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground. It’s all around us. The Na’vi know that, and they are fighting to defend it. If you want to share this world with them, you need to understand them.”
Col. Quaritch: “I’d say we understand them just fine thanks to Jake here…
[Sully on tape]: “They aren’t going to give up their home. They’re not going to make a deal. For what? For lite beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never going to leave Hometree.”
Col. Quaritch: “So, since a deal can’t be made I guess things get real simple, Jake.”
Augustine, Sully and Spellmen are able to escape from the base, with the help of helicopter pilot, Trudy Chacón. Sully is able to rally of the clans of the Na’vi to attack the Company forces, in an attempt to drive them from Pandora for good.
Sully prays to Eywa to join their fight against the humans. The Na’vi fight against the humans and just when it appears that all hope is lost the animals of Pandora launch a concentrated attack and take out the remaining humans. The humans are forced to leave Pandora with the exceptions of Sully, Spellmen and a few other scientists. Sully says: “the aliens went back to their dying world. Only a few were chosen to stay.”
The plot’s similarities to an alien invasion film are a metaphor for how ridiculous it is for a company to come in and take a society’s natural resources. The audience is always behind the humans in an alien invasion film and feels a sense of global pride when they work together to kick out the invaders. So why do we think it is okay to send a company to a foreign country to drill for oil and commit atrocities to the people and the environment there in the process? Sully claims that the Company was able to do this by making the Na’vi their enemy: “This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on s*** that you want, you make them your enemy, then you’re justified in taking it.” The humans develop a convenient racism towards the Na’vi, calling them blue monkeys and referring to them as if they were animals, and so they feel justified in destroying them. Fortunately in this narrative, the weaker force is both able to revolt and win their revolution (with aid from nature herself!) against the invaders, even if that is not the way it is in real life.
Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.