Avatar Essay

9 min readDec 26, 2022


~ essay on the Avatar films, thus far.

Avatar (2009) is one of the biggest films ever made. James Cameron’s science fiction epic launched audiences directly into the other-world of Pandora, with visual FX innovations that may never be matched. As a Romantically goofy action-adventure film featuring sky dragons and video game-esque mega battles, Avatar resembles the high-flying adventurism of films like Star Wars and probably influenced Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Gorgeous emerald vistas of plant and animal life background a core conflict of capitalistic resource extraction versus indigenous interdependence.

Human beings are the clear bad guys in Avatar, coming to rape, pillage, and destroy the planet for its natural resources; the Na’vi, or “The People” native to Pandora, are your proverbial underdog heroes battling against a seemingly invincible machine of violence. Jake Sully and intergalactic imperialism both come to this xeno-paradise to hash out their respective fates. In a reversal of sci-fi expectations, we humans are the invading extraterrestrials, a force of destruction upon a peaceful people outmatched by superior technology. And yet Mother Nature proves to be the strongest force of all, to the delight of the moviegoer.

Questions of cultural purchase, or lack thereof, abound about Avatar. The bottom line is that the movie made over $2 billion. Most saw Avatar, they know about the big blue people, and they probably want to live on Pandora. Don’t we all?

My own stance is that Avatar ’09 is a special movie alone for the mesmerizing visuals of Pandora’s wildscapes, from the god-trees to the floating mountains and sky dragon assaults. I also appreciated how good the action was — and just how much the human mecha-marines resembled something from Starcraft or Warhammer, with Pandora’s Na’vi & animal army as an opposing faction in a rousing real-time strategy battle.

Upon rewatching, I see Avatar (2009) carrying mythic messages and a spirituality for the power of nature (and cinema itself.) I looked forward to Way of Water (2022) with a light reverence, just on my accumulated respect for the filmmaking canon of James Cameron {never bet against Jim}. Given the time taken to craft the film, and the production budget for brand-new visual FX phenoms, my excitement could only grow. And I think the film delivers the same kind of experience as the original — cinematic action-adventure excellence with a touching heart and significant message to pass on to the future.

With my analysis here, I want to discuss the philosophy of both Avatar films, the Na’vi vs. human way of life, and the power of Pandora as an exemplar for nature, our beautiful natural world — and its irreplaceable meaning to all life.


“No one can teach you to see.”

Imagine the world of Pandora. A wildscape of otherworldly creatures, both instinctive and sentient, all interconnected by the trees and streams, the seeds and winds. Skyscraping Yggdrasils touch a clear atmosphere, untouched by any mechanical industry and worshipped by the Na’vi for the live-giving icons that they are.

In James Cameron’s 2154, Earth’s resources are depleted. (Might it be sooner?) We come to Pandora for “unobtainium” — a vibrant natural resource buried within Pandora’s earth that has an energy output as ridiculous as its name. {My guess is that the hotshot Resources Development Administration (RDA) executive played by Giovanni Ribisi named the substance as such because he is an idiot.}

Humanity’s time on paradise is as an extractor; they are running a complex military operation, with thousands of men and trillions in valuable equipment, both weaponry and biotechnology. The Na’vi live in small tribes within the trees, in interwoven homes, with necessary trades, companioned by vivacious animals and the star-filled stories of their ancestors.

Cameron gives an ample view to each way of life, rather violently cutting between sacred ceremonies and ancient traditions amidst lush wilderness >> to airship bombing runs and the beep-booping of a science lab being funded by the spoils of interstellar imperialism. The human way of life has reached into the stars to obtain the unobtainium, whereas the Na’vi are blissfully unaware of the substance’s existence.

“Learn well and then we will see if your insanity can be cured.”

The contrasting power and meaning of the human way of life must be drawn against the Na’vi way. Extraction vs. Interdependence: *using* nature versus coexisting within it. Knowledge, science, and technology run against wisdom, ancestry, and mysticism. Bullets battle spirits. Mankind’s Pandora “operation” appears cold, calculating and ultimately soul-sapping for any grunt with a conscience; the united Na’vi fight for their homeland, from a place of loving nature for the friend and foe it can be, they’re connected by common bonds of not only blood but spirituality. They believe Pandora to be a God, channeled through the voice of Eywa, a deity with an influence running through the whole of the harsh natural world they make a beautiful way in. The Na’vi even share their very consciousness with nature.

Are you in rivalry with nature, or trying to become one with it?

The Na’vi treat every step through the forest as sacred and remain grateful for a raindrop running from the leaves; the human soldier, scientist, sentinel is there because it’s their job. Can anyone on the trip to Pandora — save for Quaritch’s bloodthirsty military commandos — say they want to be doing what Mankind is doing there? Corpos manage it all for money. The scientists want more time with the natives, more information on the planet’s anomalous neurological connection to plant and animal life. The soldiers are there because they work for the military. For Sully, he’s on duty because of his twin brother and the fact that he can’t afford to repair his spine until he’s earned it on this latest campaign. The paralleling stories breaching human and Na’vi worlds are as jarring as the first contact war narrative is “simplistic.” Each is effectively thought-provoking, in my view.

Once again, for the human species, business is business: exploration is secondary to extraction. We are only there to harvest valuable material from the earth (or sea), everything is extraneous to that core drive. Material for what? To continue living as we have on a “depleted” Earth? To keep on earnin’ and burnin’ through our whole species’ mortal coil? Whoever pays the bills controls the mission. And humanity long ago gave up control of its mission to something called capitalism, the profit motive, and a wanton desire for infinite growth, and continuous industrial expansion.

Through the Avatar saga, James Cameron screams to the world: stop and look around. What the fuck are we doing? What are we destroying that we cannot un-destroy?

What are we doing to our own Pandora? Animal extinctions happen every year caused by human activity. Biodiversity continues to rot under the haze of excess carbon. We cut down forests and dump toxins into the ocean. Even deploying the brightest outlooks for climate collapse, humanity is on a trajectory for continuous, mass, world-ending environmental destruction.

In such broad but delightfully entertaining strokes, Pandora showcases how speaking or acting in defense of the environment — this “Environmentalism” — is not a slogan or a brand, and it should never be perceived as such. Everything is ecological; we are part of a world that responds to our actions. Live with the world and it lives with you; overstep your bounds and expect to be silenced; take too much and come to starvation. Jake Sully saw the world as the Na’vi did and he crossed over to the light. What regret could he possibly have? He didn’t betray his species — humanity betrayed itself long ago.

“See the world we come from. There’s no green there. They killed their mother and they’re gonna do the same here.”

The scene of Jake’s prayer at the sacred Na’vi Tree of Souls choked me up. The man understands the existential stakes and speaks with both knowledge and shame. Humanity has sinned before and there’s no end in sight to such behavior. Neytiri, his love, arrives to tell him that Eywa does not “take sides” and “protects only the balance of life.” The brave, beautiful warrior woman is like a goddess to Jake — and by that point, to the audience too.

No human character beyond Jake fully embraces the indigenous Na’vi way of life. Though you have to wonder if even characters like Quaritch realize the relative superiority of the Na’vi being. Ten feet tall, doubly as fast and strong, the big blue aliens appear almost angelic in their strange beauty. And they are truly One with the world around them. No human being could bear witness to the Na’vi tribes in appearance and action and not feel some awe.

Religion and extraterrestrials are already mythically intertwined, and one could easily see Cameron turning the story into some kind of mythological origin story for the future of humanity — either genetically entwined with the Na’vi, or now worshipping them as the forerunners for a brand new species-wide way of life.

And that way of life would no longer be “hippy-dippy, tree-hugging bullshit” — it would be The Pandoran Way. Regenerative agriculture and less iPhone. A lifelong lesson in all the ways nature amplifies our well-being. Small tribes forged by brotherly love and filled with meaningful roles empowered by connections. The meaning of life becomes to create a true family, while being in service to your fellow man and residing in firm balance with the natural world around you. Taking an animal companion to ride, into the sky or under the water. Etc. Something like that.

“All energy is borrowed and one day you have to give it back.”

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) has the mystic wonders of the ocean splashed down upon by our mega machines made of fire. Humanity returns to reap more Na’vi and harvest another impossibly perfect substance from Pandora’s surface. Jake and Neytiri’s clan must fight to protect themselves, The People, the whole planet. All while the audience cannot wait to see more Na’vi!

Against Avatar commandos and interstellar whalers, Cameron’s high-flying, low-diving filmmaking transports us once again to Pandora, where savage beauty thrives and The People must kill bloodthirsty human invaders, part two. The film is very much a “Part 2” and the core conflict necessarily becomes an addition to the original, often a recapitulation — Avatar-Quaritch, New Tribe Traditions montage, teen Sigourney Weaver, etc.

Once more, ancient traditions compete against hi-tech military conquest, using machines to thrash matter — versus — partnering with fellow organisms to protect it. Uncanny-Valley-Avatar-Lang crushing his own skull + Neytiri’s motherly vengeance was all-time stuff. The mo-cap emotions and intensity throughout were impeccable. The Avatars, upon the actors, are truly a new performance — amplified and undamaged by the transformative visual technologies.

The Way of Water is a thrilling action-adventure on and under the waves, filled with incredible set pieces and touching moments of character work, especially within the core family. An epic story continues, with massive explosions and dragon-riding, all bombastic and ultimately quite emotional.

Jake once more opens his eyes in connection with Eywa.

For our eyes, fictional Pandora — the sights and sounds, The People and their ways — provides proof that it’s possible to fall in love with another world. My way only wishes we saw Earth as such. ~