Since its inception as a form of visual art, movies have pushed the boundaries of imagination to their limit and beyond. Especially movies based on science fiction have captivated the audience time and again by challenging the possibilities and limitations of norms and opening vistas to new, uncharted horizons. Director James Cameron’s magnum opus, “Avatar” (2009), can be regarded as the chief example of such a cinematic achievement, which not only managed to astonish contemporary viewers but also set a benchmark of visual extravaganza from which franchises like “Star Wars” and the MCU are taking their cues to this day. While the visual aspects of the movie were undeniably its backbone and what made it a historical success in the first place, there was a central narrative encompassing two worlds that formed the structure. With the movie’s first sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” scheduled to release this week in theaters after a prolonged gap of thirteen years, we think it is only appropriate to discuss the first one to jog readers’ memories.
‘Avatar’ Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Film?
James Cameron conceptualized “Avatar” in 1994 and had planned to start its filming even before the release of another of his masterpieces, “Titanic” (1997). However, according to his own admission, he was constrained by the technology of that period and also by the immense budget that would have been needed to make a movie on the scale he imagined, which halted his vision of making the movie in a CGI-heavy environment for almost a decade. In 2005, he started developing the screenplays for the movie, and after having several production hiccups due to Fox Studio’s back-and-forth commitment tribulations, he finally managed to unravel his vision in 2009 as “Avatar” was released. The movie was a financial and critical success and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time.
The story of “Avatar” takes the viewers to the Earth’s timeline of the year 2148 AD, a distant future where, going by the real-life course of actions, humans have, unsurprisingly, managed to deplete all of Earth’s resources, shot up their population to 20 billion, and ‘looked through’ the extinction of the majority of the planet’s flora and fauna. The movie begins with the narration of protagonist Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-marine living in impoverished conditions, bearing with inhumane conditions and searching for a purpose in life. Jake is approached by RDA (Resources Development Agency) agents and informed that his scientist twin brother, Tommy, has been murdered. The agents informed Jake that Tommy had been associated with a significant interplanetary outreach program called “Avatar” and had trained for three years to participate as one of the very few chosen “Avatar drivers.” They request that Jake undertake the role of the Avatar Driver in the absence of his brother (which is possible since their genomes are identical and making a new one will be extremely costly and time-consuming), and Jake agrees to the deal.
The outreach program is a guise for RDA’s resource mining on extraterrestrial lands. In the future, in the absence of traditional fuel, humanity will have discovered a regular-temperature superconductor named unobtanium, which will solve the fuel crisis and make everything from industrial operations to interstellar travel possible. This mineral is, however, extremely rare, and humans have ventured into deep space in search of it. In the process, they discovered Pandora, a moon of Polyphemus, a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system, which is inhabited by a race of blue-skinned, indigenous sapient humanoids called Na’vi. Pandora itself is rich with unobtanium. In order to mine its land, humans have colonized the moon and are in conflict with its native denizens. To earn their trust, humans have initiated the “Avatar” program. Scientific advancements have made it possible to create individual human-Na’vi hybrid clones in enclosures that have an appearance similar to the Na’vi natives and are known as “Avatars.” Human consciousness is transferred to the bodies of Avatars using a neural link, and the human-operated Avatars are used as instruments for exploring Pandora. (Since Pandora is extremely inhospitable for humans.) Or if we take operation security head Quaritch’s or corporate administrator Parker’s perspective into consideration, avatars are instruments of colonization. Through the years, humans have tried to come up with a diplomatic solution by mingling with Na’vi, offering them humanly-desired amenities like education and means of recreation – but the highly intelligent species are connected spiritually with their environment and haven’t agreed to relinquish their rainforests or lands which are sacred to them.
Returning to the main narrative, Jake wakes up from his six years of cryosleep as he arrives at Pandora along with other Avatar candidates. In human outposts of Pandora, he meets Norm Spellman, his brother Tom Sully’s scientist friend and Avatar candidate, Dr. Grace Augustine, the chief of the scientific expedition and Avatar program; Trudy, a friendly combat pilot; and Miles Quaritch, the head of the security of the mining operation. Grace is displeased at Sully over the fact that instead of someone like Tom, who had a science-oriented background, they have to make do with Jake, whom Grace initially considers a “trigger-happy moron.” The corporate administrator of the mission, Parker Selfridge, doesn’t pay heed to Grace as he mentions that the highest concentration of the unobtanium is right under the local Na’vi clan’s village, Hometree, and they need to vacate the place by any means. Quaritch, on the other hand, welcomes Jake and makes him an informant, tasking him with negotiating a deal with the Na’vi within three months and convincing them to leave the place. He also promises Jake that he will restore his legs once he returns to Earth.
After gaining control over their Avatar bodies, Jake, Norm, and Grace venture into Pandora’s wilderness for exploration. En route, they visit Grace’s school for Na’vi, which is in dilapidated condition. Jake finds bullet holes in the classroom and questions Grace about them, but she is evasive about it. In the jungle, after being attacked by a predator called Thanator, Jake gets separated from the team. In the night, he once again finds himself being attacked by a local scavenger species, the viper wolf, and narrowly escapes death as a female Na’vi warrior named Neytiri saves him. Initially angry at Jake’s presence, which caused the needless deaths of those animals, Neytiri agrees to take him to her clan after witnessing seeds of Eywa (the god the Na’vi worship) hovering across Jake’s body, anointing him as a pure spirit. After visiting the clan, Jake comes to know that Neytiri belongs to Omaticaya, the clan residing in the home tree. Jake meets Neytiri’s mother, Mo’at, the spiritual clan leader; her father, Eytukan, the clan leader; and Neytiri’s betrothed and next in line to be leader, Tsu’tey (whose first impression of Jake is untrustworthy). Upon learning Jake is from a warrior (military) background, the leader duo wishes to study him and ask Neytiri to be his mentor to teach the ways of Na’vi life. Jake’s quest to become “one of the clan” starts as he learns to hunt, form neural bonds with creatures called ‘Tsaheylu,’ ride the winged beast Ikran and learn their language and culture. In the process, Jake starts spending more and more time in his Avatar form, neglecting his original human body. Grace gets to know about Jake’s secret, meets with Parker and Quaritch, and relocates their base of operation to Pandora’s floating mountains. Jake also learns from Grace that humans killed Neytiri’s sister in front of her eyes in the school—hence the bullet marks.
Life in Avatar form starts taking its toll, and Jake is barely able to remember his past human life anymore. As Jake starts getting closer to Omaticaya and forms a relationship with Neytiri, he grows weary of his human life. Neytiri shows Jake the tree of souls, aka Vitraya Ramunong, the most sacred site for the Na’vi, as it is considered the direct connection with Eywa. A seemingly hesitant Jake meets Quaritch for one final time and learns that his intel on the tree of souls will be used as leverage by Quaritch on the Na’vi if a fight breaks out. Jake halts Quaritch’s plan of action by stating he’ll attempt to sway the Omaticaya after becoming one of them. On the same day, Jake is inducted into the Omaticaya rank as one of the people, which is the highest honor ever given to human Avatars. Jake mates with Neytiri in the “tree of voices,” or Utraya Mokri, another sacred site to the Na’vi, which lets them communicate with the memories of their ancestors.
The next morning, Jake and Neytiri wake up to find RDA bulldozing the site of the tree of voices. Jake destroys the camera fixated on the machine, and is recognized by Quaritch and others. After the destruction of the sacred site, Grace and Jake go to the home tree to confess Jake’s objective and ask them to relocate, but before anything is said or done, Jake and Grace are cut off from their Avatar bodies as Quaritch and co. have found out their location in the mountains and have forcibly shut them down. Back in the RDA office, Quaritch shows Jake’s earlier video logs to show negotiations with the Na’vi are impossible as they want nothing from humans and will not give up their home or sacred site. The logs also show Jake losing interest in his allegiance with humans. Quaritch prepares for assault on the Hometree, and Jake and Grace earn one final chance from Parker to negotiate.
Jake confesses his ulterior motive as a part of RDA’s plan in front of Omaticaya and urges them to leave the Hometree. However, they (Jake and Grace) are held captive due to their act of treason, and the Na’vi prepare for battle. Quaritch leads a fleet of airships and attacks the Home Tree. Despite their efforts, the Na’vi are clearly outmatched, as they see numerous casualties along with Eytukan, and their home tree gets destroyed. Mo’at releases Grace and Jake and urges them to help. A grief-stricken Neytiri rejects Jake. Once again, he and Grace are shut down from their Avatar bodies by RDA mercenaries and get arrested in their human form for their act of treason.
Trudy rescues the team and flies off to safety, but in the meantime, Grace is shot by Quaritch. They transfer their site closer to the Tree of Souls, and Jake undertakes the task of taming the legendary Toruk as a way of earning back the trust of the Na’vi. Upon successfully gaining their trust back, Jake asks for their help to save Grace. Na’vi, with the help of Mo’at, performs a ritual to transfer Grace’s consciousness permanently to the Avatar’s body but fails as Grace succumbs to the injury. Before dying, Grace acknowledges Eywa’s presence and says that she has seen her (Eywa).
Devastated and desperate, Jake asks Tsu’tey’s help in translating his speech to the Omaticaya and calls for war against the sky-people (humans). Jake and the Omaticaya reach out to all the other clans to unite against the humans, and the clans start converging. Seeing the number of Na’vi rise, Quaritch plans to attack the tree of souls and destroy their most sacred site, curbing their defiance once and for all. The night before the battle, Jake tries to communicate with Eywa using the Tsaheylu bond with the tree of souls, asks the deity to see into Grace’s memories to get a hint of the viciousness of the human species, and asks for help.
As the battle commences, initially, the flux vortex of the site helps the Na’vi gain the upper hand. However, human artillery starts pressurizing the natives into a corner as Trudy and Tsu’tey die a martyr’s death while fighting valiantly. As all hope seems lost, the composite animal life of Pandora joins the Na’vi in the battle against humans and turns the tide in their favor. Quaritch’s last attempt to kill Jake by attacking his Avatar pod fails as Neytiri shoots him to death. Once again, Neytiri saves Jake, now in his human body, as she sees him in this form for the first time and greets him with the traditional Na’vi greeting, “I see you.” Except for a few Avatar members and loyalist humans, the rest of the humans are sent back to Earth. Jake decides to take the Avatar form as his primary and only life, and in the ritual, his human consciousness is transferred to the Avatar body. The movie ends as Jake, the Avatar, wakes up.
‘Avatar’ Ending Explained – Did Jake Finally Find His Purpose?
Jake’s search for purpose is something to which the audience was introduced at the beginning of the movie. During his human lifetime on Earth, he had to go through an impoverished, mundane life in a society where nonchalance and apathy have turned the Earth more toxic than human greed could; he served in warfare and lost the use of his legs. In other words, he was part of a life over which he had no control. In Pandora, in his Avatar form, he gained a sense of control, also a sense of purpose in life. The sequence where he runs hurtling through the fields for the first time, right after gaining access to his Avatar body, symbolizes liberation from all earthly shackles. Jake finds his moral standards and psyche to be more identifiable with the denizens of Pandora than the species he belongs to. Pandora gave Jake a rebirth, a surrounding where he felt a sense of belongingness. The theme of identity surfaces time and again as Jake finds it increasingly difficult to keep semblance in his dual life, with mere three months of life in Avatar form feeling more accustomed than the human life of decades. This self-and-other equation at the core of the narrative reaches its destined conclusion as Jake chooses the rest of his life to be spent in Avatar form, completing the course of rebirth once and for all.
See More: ‘Avatar 2’ Ending, Explained: What Does The Future Hold For Sully Family And Pandora?