James Cameron’s Avatar disappoints me as a movie. Without a doubt, it’s a beautiful film that a lot of time and effort went into, but despite all that, the story falls flat in so many other areas. In terms of worldbuilding, the movie’s biggest crime is that none of the characters seem to realize that they’ve discovered the key to eternal life.
In the world of Avatar, planet Earth is dying because of some unexplained means. A deleted scene at one point shows our main character Jake living in a dirty city—but the actual conflict on Earth is left unsaid. Did humans murder all the animals and plants? Is it smog and global warming? Do we no longer have enough resources to sustain us—food, oil, etc.? This is never explained; it’s just a gimmick to justify humanity traveling to the world of Pandora to collect a mineral called unobtanium, which can somehow save Earth and sell for a lot of money. How unobtanium can save Earth is also completely unexplained. We never learn what it can do, except make mountains float.
In order to communicate with the natives, the Na’vi, humans cloned themselves using both their own DNA and Na’vi DNA. The clones are empty husks that the humans can temporarily upload their thoughts to. When they go to sleep, or if they die, the humans will safely find themselves back inside their own body. I can only assume the clones were purposefully designed this way, since Pandora is a dangerous world, and other than our main character, most of the scientists driving Na’vi bodies don’t actually want to be Na’vi. It also seems like it would be harder to create a remote mental link between a clone and an original human body than it would be just slapping a person into the clone permanently. But once again, this is never explained.
Our main character Jake’s twin brother was a scientist heading to Pandora, and when he unexpectedly is killed, Jake is called in instead, as he is the only person who can drive his brother’s clone. While on Pandora, Jake finds himself living with the Na’vi and learns that tensions between the Na’vi and humans are strained at best. Instead of taking this opportunity to communicate with the natives and explain the plight on Earth, Jake escalates problems and starts an all-out war.
The entire story is an allegory for colonialism and the destruction of native peoples and lands. Jake being a white savior would be bad enough, but the movie also completely undermines its own message. The plight of our human settlers is very clearly much more serious than that of the Na’vi—Earth is literally dying and humanity is about to be wiped out, but the mineral deposit the one Na’vi tribe lives on could save Earth somehow. Jake never explains this to the Na’vi, nor do the humans decide to simply fly to a different part of the planet to find an unoccupied deposit.
The entire story feels completely simplified, and at no point in time is the conflict on Earth ever resolved. Instead, we’re supposed to cheer when the Na’vi drive the humans from their planet, and while that’s certainly a victory for the Na’vi, the humans still have to contend with the impending destruction of their species. It’s unfortunate that the movie doesn’t explain what exactly is happening on Earth, because the humans’ ability to clone things could probably solve a whole bunch of problems. Was there a mass extinction? No problem! We keep DNA samples of everything. Plants and animals can now be saved. Are we running out of food? Thank God cloning can solve that for us. Are people falling ill and dying? We now wonderfully have the ability to create new, perfectly healthy bodies for ourselves and can theoretically live forever. The cloning in Avatar is the key to eternal life for this very reason—it doesn’t matter if someone grows old or is ill if you can just hop into another body over and over again.
Unfortunately, this means one of two things. The first is that the humans have the ability to make their clones permanent hosts for their consciousness themselves and can solve all their worldly problems through cloning needed resources. I’m inclined to believe this is the case, since humanity isn’t trying to colonize Pandora or look for other habitable worlds, which means that all the problems on Earth are still reversible regardless of whether or not they get their magic floating mountain minerals. The bad part about this theory, however, is that it makes the entire plot of the movie pointless, and has numerous consequences for the people on Earth—if cloning can solve all these very serious problems, why waste resources traveling across space for an unneeded rock?
Alternatively, since we never see the humans make a clone a permanent host body themselves, then this second scenario might hold true: humanity hasn’t figured out how to transfer someone over to stay. While this would mean that the humans have yet to master eternal life, it’s a problem that the Na’vi can solve for them. The Na’vi worship the goddess Eywa, whom they talk to through plants. The Mystical Tree of Souls is their most direct connection. At one point when Jake’s friend Grace is shot, the Na’vi attempt to save her through her clone body—Eywa has the ability to transfer her consciousness. Although Grace dies before this can happen, at the end of the movie, we see Eywa do the same to Jake and succeed in making him a permanent Na’vi. There are so many issues with this that I don’t know where to even begin. Eywa has a mental bond with all the Na’vi, and when a Na’vi dies, their soul goes to Eywa and lives on. The Na’vi are able to do this through using neurotransmitters in tails growing out of their heads—and like all other things in the movie, it is not explained well.
Does a Na’vi have to be physically plugged into Eywa at the moment of death, like Grace had to be? We see an older Na’vi buried in the middle of the film, and in a deleted scene, a Na’vi rival of Jake dies without making a physical connection, yet goes to live on with Eywa anyway. As such, the rules here are arbitrary and change depending on the characters. Because none of this is ever explained and we’re meant to take it at face value that the Na’vi can live forever while the humans might not be able to, the movie sadly perpetuates a “magic native” storyline. They are now the mystical people of color. And Jake, the great diplomat that he is with his lack of communication skills, also never thinks to ask if it would be all right for his dying species to borrow the Tree of Souls so they don’t die.
The technology and magic elements in Avatar unfortunately change the narrative from one about colonialism to an unexplained mess that doesn’t know what it’s doing. Part of me is convinced that the reason why none of this is expanded on is because no one working on the movie realized the implications of having clone bodies. None of the characters realize that the ability to live forever is already technologically and/or magically possible. It’s an unknown key to eternal life, because a movie about a dying species never even realizes that it’s there in the first place.