Fictional universe of Avatar

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In the 2009 science fiction film Avatar, director James Cameron conceived a fictional universe in which humans seek to mine unobtanium on the fictional exoplanetary moon, Pandora. The Earth-like moon is inhabited by a sapient indigenous humanoid species called the Na'vi, and varied fauna and flora. Resources Development Administration (RDA) scientists, administrators, recruits, support, and security personnel travel to Pandora in the 22nd century to discover this lush world, which is inhabited by many lifeforms including the human-like Na'vi. The clan with which the humans have contact in the film "[lives] in a giant tree that sits on a vast store of a mineral called unobtanium, which humans want as an energy supply."[1]

The Pandoran biosphere teems with a biodiversity of bioluminescent species ranging from hexapodal animals to other types of exotic fauna and flora. The Pandoran ecology forms a vast neural network spanning the entire lunar surface into which the Na'vi and other creatures can connect. The strength of this collective consciousness is powerfully illustrated when the human invaders are defeated in battle by the Pandoran ecology, after the resolute Na'vi were nearly defeated. Cameron utilized a team of expert advisors in order to make the various examples of fauna and flora as scientifically feasible as possible.[2]

Astronomy and geology[edit]

Artist interpretation of Polyphemus

In the film, Pandora is depicted as being located in the Alpha Centauri A system approximately 4.37 light-years (276,000 AU) away from Earth. It is one of the many natural satellites orbiting the gas giant Polyphemus,[3] named for the Polyphemus of Greek mythology. Pandora's atmosphere is a mix of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, xenon, ammonia, methane, and hydrogen sulfide. Humans cannot breathe this, so they wear Exo-Packs when outside their buildings or vehicles.

Leri Greer, a designer at Weta Workshop, explained the unusual day/night cycle experienced by the Na'vi, who inhabit a moon orbiting a planet, that in turn orbits around a star.

I actually wrote about how it causes a particular sky coloration across the visible spectrum at moments of pure dusk. And the Na'vi, depending on what elevation they live at (sea level versus higher altitudes), perceive a distinct color in narrow band at the horizon at that moment. They identify themselves, and signify in their markings, with this color. Which helps other Na'vi quickly discern at a distance what/where they are from, or what they are likely to be like (fishermen, high plains, skyriders, etc.). That pure dusk "color," combined with their other predominant color markings lets you also know how they relate to Eywa as a "religion" versus Eywa as a physical reality. And during ceremonial gatherings you can "read" a Na'vi by how they mark themselves with dyes, muds, and paints. And the environment and day/night cycle is directly responsible for the development of this social expression behavior. Again, this was an internal idea to help us design things at Weta Workshop, it's hard to say how much filtered upward to the larger production.[4]

Pandora has lush, tropical rainforests that cover much of its continents. Pandora also possesses a lesser gravitational force than Earth does. The geology of Pandora is strongly affected by the presence of unobtanium, a mineral whose superconductive properties allow it to float in magnetic fields. This property makes it highly valued by humans, who mine it for transport back to Earth. Pandora's levitating Hallelujah Mountains contain significant quantities of unobtanium, which allows them to ride the strong magnetic fields in their region.

Cameron hopes to explore the other moons in future sequels, books, and spin-offs.[1][5][6][7]

Pandoran biosphere[edit]

Main article: Pandoran biosphere

The Pandoran biosphere teems with a biodiversity of bioluminescent species ranging from hexapodal animals to other types of exotic fauna and flora. The Pandoran ecology forms a vast neural network spanning the entire lunar surface into which the Na'vi and other creatures can connect. The strength of this collective consciousness is powerfully illustrated when the human invaders are defeated in battle by the Pandoran ecology, after the resolute Na'vi were nearly defeated. Cameron utilized a team of expert advisors in order to make the various examples of fauna and flora as scientifically feasible as possible.


Of interest to the humans is Pandora's reserves of unobtanium, a valuable room-temperature superconductor mineral valued at "20 million a kilo". The name is a reference to mythical materials used in engineering which have better properties than real materials.

In the Avatar universe (set in the year 2154), humans have achieved a technologically advanced, post-industrial society dominated by powerful corporations and industries. One of Earth's most powerful corporations is the globally integrated Resources Development Administration (RDA), a quasi-governmental organization that possesses a monopoly over all resources in the Alpha Centauri system and any other non-Earth location. The Interplanetary Commerce Administration granted these sole rights to the RDA under the stipulation that the use of weapons of mass destruction of any kind are to be strictly prohibited.[8] Known RDA personnel on Pandora include head administrator Parker Selfridge, Colonel Miles Quaritch, Private Sean Fike, Corporal Lyle Wainfleet, Dr. Max Patel, Dr. Grace Augustine, Dr. Norm Spellman, and Samson 16 pilot Trudy Chacon.

Although Earth is never seen in the film, other than in the extended collectors edition, Cameron developed the future Earth of Avatar as a dystopian, overpopulated, overpolluted, global urban slum wrecked by corrupt, nature-destroying industrialism; the movie's background cyberpunk theme is a regular feature of his work. According to Jake, the Earth is a "dying world" where humans have "killed their mother", suggesting that there is very little, if any, functioning natural ecosystem left. By the film's 22nd century timeframe, Earth faces a worldwide economic/energy crisis due to the depletion of natural resources. Earth is also apparently so politically unstable that the services of private security contractors and the militaries of Earth's nations are in high demand; Colonel Quaritch boasts about serving three combat tours of duty in Nigeria before coming to Pandora and notes that Jake is a veteran of a military operation in Venezuela. The planet has also suffered serious natural and man-made disasters, such as an intra-continental conflict and tsunamis hitting the east and west coasts of the United States.


One of the futuristic computer screens, used for the AVATAR program, which employ 3D graphics and touchscreen interface.

Technologically, humans have achieved monumental advancements by 2154: interplanetary and interstellar space travel and colonization; virtual 3D printing and holography mapping; and advanced methods of cryonics and psionics (via synthetic telepathy interface) are employed. Using their capability of advanced genetic engineering, humans develop "Avatar" hybrid bodies from genetically distinct modified-human DNA and Na'vi alien genetic material. Through psionics, genetically matched humans are then mind-linked to these "Avatars" for remote control operation. In the area of medicine, humans have developed advanced stem cell neuroregeneration technology that can cure Jake's paralysis. However, in 2154, it is still extremely expensive and is not covered by Veterans Affairs benefits. Thus, RDA is initially able to use Jake's desire to regain the use of his legs as leverage against him.

As with many science fiction films, many space vehicles, aircraft, ground vehicles, weapons and technologies were created to fit the story. Many were patterned after historical or contemporary technologies to give the film a sense of futuristic realism.[9] Concept artist Ryan Church based many drawings on aerodynamic research from previously classified NASA and DARPA technical papers. Unlike the movie Aliens which employed one drop ship from de-orbit to ground combat, several vehicles cover specific roles of utility transport, gunship, and base resupply. This is similar to the specialization of aircraft and helicopters in the United States military since the Vietnam war.

The huge glowing radiators mounted to the engines dissipate their heat, and the enormously long central truss, with its own protective coolers and reflectors, protects the cargo and crew modules from the engines' heat and radiation using the simple rule of r-squared attenuation rather than heavy shielding. (Yes, [James Cameron] really thinks about this kind of stuff and explains it very clearly in text and in person.) The ship has a pair of centrifugal-gravity-gen modules for the crew who remain awake for the duration, which has become a pretty typical feature of quasi-realistic ship designs in movies. But one unique feature it has which directly relates to the sub-light realistic travel is a cascade-style shield stack to protect the speeding craft from interstellar debris. Jim's [brief] completely explains this technology, apparently based on current NASA research, and how it obliterates potentially catastrophic particles by letting them slam through a series of thin, light shield surfaces.[4]

The ship was based on designs by scientist and author Charles Pellegrino, who served as science advisor on the film,[10] and deceased scientist and author Robert L. Forward. It also resembles the spaceship Discovery One from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly writes, "Cameron turns Pandora into a vertiginously suspended forest landscape...Jake and the sexy tribal princess Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) wow us with their fluid, prancing movements, but there's no subtext to their smoothly virtual faces."[12] Carol Kaesuk Yoon of the New York Times wrote that Avatar "has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world".[13]

CNN reported that the film's universe has had a profound effect on the audience over their perception of Earth, and life on it, in reality. Avatar Forums posted a topic thread entitled "Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible" which received "1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope" (a second thread was posted for more room). Philippe Baghdassarian, the site administrator, commented that, "I wasn't depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy, but I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don't have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed." Many have confessed to falling to depression and harbouring suicidal thoughts, while others have expressed disgust towards humanity and "disengagement with reality." Psychiatrist Dr. Stephan Quentzel added that "Virtual life is not real life and it never will be, but this is the pinnacle of what we can build in a virtual presentation so far."[14]

In February 2010, CNN published an article exploring the "Avatar science" (the technology linking the human mind to a remotely controlled body). Elizabeth Landau wrote, "Scientists say we are many decades, even centuries, away from making this kind of sophisticated interaction possible, if it can be done at all." A neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, Andrew Schwartz, further commented that it "shouldn't be taken as anything but fantasy."[15]


  1. ^ a b Rottenberg, Josh (December 18, 2009). "James Cameron Talks Avatar: Brave Blue World". Entertainment Weekly (1081). p. 51. 
  2. ^ Kozlowski, Lori (January 2, 2010). "Inventing the plants of "Avatar"". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 3, 2010. 
  3. ^ Although not mentioned in the movie, Polyphemus was discussed in the book James Cameron's Avatar: An Activist Survival Guide by Maria Wilhelm & Dirk Mathison. ISBN 978-0-06-189675-0.
  4. ^ a b Anders, Charlie Jane (February 4, 2010). "27 Avatar Questions, Answered By The Movie's Designers". Retrieved February 8, 2010. 
  5. ^ Carroll, Larry (June 29, 2006). "'Titanic' Mastermind James Cameron's King-Size Comeback: Two Sci-Fi Trilogies". MTV. Retrieved October 18, 2006. 
  6. ^ Murphy, Mekado (December 21, 2009). "A Few Questions for James Cameron". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ Eric Ditzian (December 21, 2009). "James Cameron Talks 'Avatar' Sequel Plans". MTV. Retrieved January 2, 2010. 
  8. ^ Wilhelm, Maria; Dirk Mathison (November 2009). James Cameron's Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora. HarperCollins. p. 147. ISBN 0-06-189675-6. 
  9. ^ "Avatar's hardware was all based on real-life stuff". io9. 
  10. ^ "Charles Pellegrino Web Site". Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  11. ^ "SA-2 Samson". Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  12. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (December 25, 2009). "But What About Avatar? James Cameron's 3-D epic didn't make our top 10 lists. But critic Owen Gleiberman praises its visual artistry". Entertainment Weekly (1082/1083): 84. 
  13. ^ Kaesuk Yoon, Carol (January 19, 2010). "Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist's Dream". The New York Times. p. D-1. 
  14. ^ Piazza, Jo (January 11, 2010). "Audiences experience 'Avatar' blues". Retrieved February 19, 2010. 
  15. ^ landau, Elizabeth (February 3, 2010). "Is the 'Avatar' concept really possible?". Retrieved February 9, 2010. 


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