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Technology in James Cameron’s Avatar


James Cameron’s “Avatar,” released in 2009, is once again the highest-grossing movie in the world as of March 2021.

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Jake Sully with Woodsprites

“Avatar” follows the story of Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine sent to take his recently deceased twin brother’s place in the Avatar Program on the fictional planet, Pandora. He must navigate the terrain by operating a part-native, part-human body called an “avatar.” At the same time, the Resources Development Administration, or RDA, mines the Pandoran terrain for the mineral, unobtanium, threatening the sacred homes of the natives, the Na’vi. Sully acts as a liaison between the scientists, the RDA, and the Na’vi, having earned the trust of the latter and becoming Toruk Makto, or a rider of toruk, a winged dragon-like creature. As Sully is taught the ways of the Omaticaya tribe of the Na’vi, his respect for them grows, while his alliance with the RDA is terminated. The RDA attacks Hometree, the clan’s sacred meeting place above a large deposit of unobtainium, and the Na’vi tribes all come together in retaliation, led by Sully at the forefront. Many Na’vi die, but the humans are overtaken in the battle when the wildlife of Pandora join in solidarity with the Na’vi. The surviving humans are sent back to Earth and Sully is transferred into his avatar body to permanently live among the Na’vi.

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Neytiri riding on an ikran

The major technology depicted in “Avatar” is the titular “avatar technology,” which allows humans to not only experience Pandora’s atmosphere but also explore its terrain and interact with natives. This is done by psionically linking the driver’s nervous system with the avatar, so the driver has full control of the avatar body, even though they could be physically miles away in a lab! Other avatar drivers besides Sully include Dr. Norm Spellman (Moore) and Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver). Augustine is the head of the Avatar Program and a strong advocate for diplomatic relations between the humans and the Na’vi, even having previously built a school for them on Pandora. Spellman joins the Avatar Program at the same time as Sully and is sought to make contact with the Na’vi before Sully is ultimately chosen, as his personality is more likely to win over the trust and respect of the natives. The leader of the RDA, Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang), in search of that unobtanium, poses a proposition to Sully: if he gathers intel on the Na’vi, the RDA will provide him with the ability to use his legs again. So, with his true intentions unbeknownst to the Na’vi, Sully successfully becomes a spy among them. This advanced technology of humans becomes a threat to the future of the Na’vi and their home. The entire reason the humans are on Pandora in the first place is they have depleted the resources on Earth and Pandora could be next! It isn’t until Sully lives among the Na’vi and learns of their deep spiritual connections with nature, while the looming threats from the RDA become more and more violent, that Sully reveals his true reasons for being there to the Na’vi and turns his back on the RDA. In the end, nature triumphs over technology, but technology becomes nature as Sully becomes one with the avatar and the Na’vi forever. Sully gains his legs back, albeit blue and making him ten feet tall.

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Sam Worthington as “Jake Sully” and Zoe Saldana as “Neytiri” in Avatar (2009)

In the case of Avatar, perhaps one of the greatest technological filmmaking advances, to me anyway, is director James Cameron’s invention of the brand new camera called a “SimulCam.” SimulCam combines the real world with the virtual movie world; basically, the computer-generated avatar characters were superimposed over the live-action actors on set in real-time, giving the filmmakers the ability to shoot in a sort of “augmented reality”. Even when the live-action actors weren’t on set, the CGI avatars were still in the camera, so Cameron could set up a shot in a completely empty room, but on screen, he’d be shooting in the world of Pandora! All of that being said and despite being a majorly digital film, hundreds of costumes and props were still necessary, not only for the main actors but for all the extras as well. It’s interesting to think that behind all of those computers and pixels, there’s an entirely live-action version of “Avatar” that was shot with motion-capture suits under Na’vi headpieces and garb.

Avatar 2 is scheduled to release on December 16, 2022, with subsequent sequels in 2024, 2026, and 2028.



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