Pop Culture

Can You Remember the Plot of Avatar?

We asked a semi-random assortment of smart and funny people who were alive in 2009—from Broti Gupta to Brandon Wardell to Marianne Williamson—if they could recall the plot of the highest-grossing movie ever.

AVATAR from left Sam Worthington Zoe Saldana

??????Photograph: Everett Collection

It’s December 2009. The world is in the midst of a pandemic (swine flu) and a recession (the great). That year, you watched Barack Obama get sworn in for his first term as president. You listened to The Black Eyed Peas on your iPhone 3GS. Now, you’re about to see James Cameron’s new sci-fi epic Avatar in theaters. It’ll go on to make $2.84 billion worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time.

And you don’t remember much of anything about it, right?

It’s become a long-running joke that Avatar has had little to no cultural footprint since its release. Despite this, there are four sequels planned. The long-gestating Avatar: The Way of the Water comes out this December and just dropped the trailer last week. Three more follow ups include Avatar: The Seed Bearer in 2024, Avatar: The Tulkun Rider in 2026, and Avatar: The Quest for Eywa in 2028. 2028! Hollywood apparently not only has great faith in James Cameron, but also in movie-goers, the supply chain availability of blue body paint, and the very concept of human existence on this planet.

Still—even though my brain is more or less a slurry of apocalyptic news, great sandwiches of my life, and snapshots of my dog—I thought I more or less remembered what happened in Avatar. Blue guys, Zoe Saldana, huge glowing tree … ponytail sex? But then while watching the new Mormon murder drama Under the Banner of Heaven, I kept wondering why one of the main guys looked so familiar. Where the hell had I seen him before? I checked IMDb to help relieve me of this spell of face-blindness.

It was Sam Worthington, the lead actor in Avatar.

13 years on, we had a mix of writers, comedians, and even a former presidential candidate to likewise do their best to remember what happened in supposedly the biggest movie of all time.

“The human brain can’t remember anything before 16.” 

I’m going to try my hardest to remember any part of it because I was 15 when it came out and the human brain can’t remember anything before 16 (?). Avatar is about Sam Worthington going to a moon (??) where blue people live. They’re called Na’vi and they’re genetically engineered to sort of be like people and their god is the earth. Zoe Saldana is one of the Na’vi and Sigourney Weaver is a scientist who wants to also colonize the moon for their chemicals?? I think I remember it largely being quite similar to the film Pocahontas, and I cannot wait for the sequel. — Broti Gupta, Simpsons writer

“Sam Worthington is placed in a tanning bed that magically transports his consciousness.”

Actor Sam Worthington, a name I surprised myself by remembering, is a truly great soldier in the U.S. Army of whenever the hell Avatar takes place. Except then he gets hurt soldiering, and becomes a paraplegic. The good news is that as a great soldier, he’s perfect for an experimental program, led by … (shit, not Susan Sarandon, this is embarrassing) Sigourney Weaver. In this program, Sam Worthington is placed in a tanning bed that magically transports his consciousness into the blue-skinned Kevin Durant alias known as the Na’vi, the sentient humanoid species inhabiting the planet of Avatar. It’s a beautiful world, one untouched by the garbage idiot hands of humankind—a world where the trees are huge and the colors are as aggressively saturated as an iPhone photo, as nature intended.

Sam Worthington, there to connect with the Na’vi and understand their ways, is at first rejected because he’s basically wearing a Groucho Marx costume and asking too many questions. But then they learn to like him, because Zoe Saldana, playing an authentic Na’vi, comes to respect his puppy-dog first-date energy. She vouches for Sam Worthington and teaches him how the Na’vi forge a single consciousness with the planet, sometimes by taking directions from a tree and sometimes by plugging their head-tentacles into various creatures that they ride. Point is, the Na’vi, they understand that they are a part of nature, stewards of the life force that governs the world of Avatar, and not in dominion over it. Sam Worthington, he understands now. But then: it turns out the military doesn’t just want to learn from the Na’vi! Sam learns the military is bad. It actually wants to steal the planet’s resources for itself, because Earth is a dying shithole and Avatar still has trees, good-ass trees, and I think a metal they literally call unobtainium? Sam Worthington, in his Na’vi costume, fights against the human invasion to protect the planet—and Zoe Saldana, who he’s come to love. In the end, with James Cameron’s help, we learn that humans aren’t nice to planets and that there’s only room for one Channing Tatum in Hollywood. — Jon Wilde, GQ digital director

“Are we sure this wasn’t just one of those IMAX nature movies they play at the Liberty Science Center?”

Did Avatar have an actual plot? Are we sure this wasn’t just one of those IMAX nature movies they play at the Liberty Science Center? Look, I can tell you with certainty that Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Lang all appear in this movie, alongside someone named Sam Worthington who apparently once held a nice bit of blackmail over key Hollywood executives. In 2009, the first and only time I’ve seen this film, I remember walking out of Lincoln Square IMAX—the theater with the best chance of fully appreciating Cameron’s ambition— calling it a “3D Pocahontas” so I’m going to assume that means all the white people had futuristic conquistador energy. Oh, and Giovanni Ribisi is in particular, a big heel, right? I feel like Sigourney’s character dies, but I see she’s slated for 2vatar, so … ???? We’re all gonna rewatch this thing between now and Christmas but on the low I feel like Way of Water might play best if you just go in 13 years cold not giving a fuck. — Frazier Tharpe, GQ entertainment editor

“I feel there is simply no way the blue guys are not problematic in retrospect, and have a vague sense they may even have been problematic at the time.”

Avatar came out when I was 21. Some friends and I pulled off the highway to go see it in a suburban theater shaped like a UFO, after the idea of sitting in long-weekend traffic for even another second got to be too much. If it seems like I’m telling you a lot about the circumstances of my seeing the movie as a stalling tactic while I try to remember even one thing about it … that’s exactly what I’m doing.

In my head it’s kind of like Disney’s Pocahontas? There’s some kind of Science or Exploration Space Guy and he’s on a mission to, presumably, space, looking for “unobtanium.” This is the only thing I am certain I remember because even though I was sunburnt and sleepy and the 3D glasses were giving me a headache, I was open-mouth stunned at the insanity of that word choice. UNOBTANIUM. Come on, James Cameron. How deep underwater were you in your little one-man submarine when you came up with that? Be honest.

Okay, so I guess the humans from Earth land on a planet somewhere in another galaxy that has a kind of FernGully vibe, and there are clashes with the big blue local people. I haven’t revisited the film since that original viewing, but I feel there is simply no way the blue guys are not problematic in retrospect, and have a vague sense they may even have been problematic at the time. My big memories are: runes, loin cloths, Zoe Saldana. They’re famously very long and tall, and I think they’re also strong?

Oh my god sorry, I just remembered that they all TURN INTO THE BLUE GUYS, even the people visiting from earth. I can’t remember how they do this, maybe some kind of Matrix way, like with a plug? Or through quasi-spiritual space magic? I think this is possibly one of those movies that features a lot of shots of science guys clustered around a screen in a very “sir, you’re gonna wanna take a look at this” way while a spiritual elder character closes her eyes serenely and things start to glow that should not, per science, be glowing. I think the glowing may also feature in a sort of needlessly erotic portion of the movie as well?

The denouement and conclusion of the film are a complete blank to me. But I guess it leaves five movies’ worth of unanswered questions, so how satisfying could it be? — Monica Heisey, writer

“I’m not sure what I’m just conflating with The Matrix.”

What I remember is like, a guy getting attached to some shit and then he’s in the Na’vi world with all the blue people in the blue people planet. And they’re in a war or something and he’s in love with a blue lady. The thing with him being in the goo and in this other world is something where I’m not sure what I’m just conflating with The Matrix. I’m kinda in the same boat re: not really remembering that much vis a vis Avatar 1. — Brandon Wardell, comedian

“Aesthetically pleasing in the way a Windows screen saver is pleasing.”

I don’t remember anything about Avatar, even though I’m pretty sure I saw it in movie theaters twice. The key plot points flicker to life in my brain before its more prejudiced parts conflate it with the live-action Smurfs movie, the music video for Daft Punk’s “Digital Love,” and the ’90s Saturday morning cartoon ReBoot—an inelegant mishmash of blue lives finally mattering. The movie was fine, aesthetically pleasing in the way a Windows screen saver is pleasing, and maybe my inability to recall anything concrete about the film speaks to the fact that it borrowed heavily from other movies while barely attempting to hide its references. — Chris Gayomali, GQ articles editor

“I think the movie was about the struggle to see how on-the-nose an allegory can get.”

So I’ve never seen Avatar. But just my general impressions at the time is that the movie came out in 2009, and seeing a movie with really impressive graphics of tropical locales was as much excitement as people could afford, I think, so now it’s the highest grossing movie of all time. I remember people saying that it had the same plot as FernGully: The Last Rainforest, which is also a movie I don’t remember but did see. And that’s about protecting the environment. I know that in Avatar, people are looking for some substance called “unobtanium,” so I think the movie was about the struggle to see how on-the-nose an allegory can get before people walk out in the middle. I think it was a parable about protecting the environment. But it didn’t work, because they still needed to make Don’t Look Up. Which I think did the trick, and now the environment’s cool. — Josh Gondelman, comedian and head writer for Desus and Mero

“They did it with their ponytails.”

I remember! Okay so what happened was that Kevin Costner was sent to explore this foreign land filled with wild eagle and buffalo and restless aliens. But then he met a pre-Sneakers Mary McConnell, who played the lady alien buffalo. Then Costner was like, “At first I feared this strange new land and its customs, but now I am one with it. And I love the girl buffalo.” And then he and McConnell did it with their ponytails. — Drew Magary, writer

“It’s a little weird and intimate but not really germane to the overall plot so don’t worry about it.”

There’s a planet, Pandora, that has these huge blue guys on it, but also a bunch of this stuff called unobtanium that Giovanni Ribisi wants. Also it’s the future and we are able to get to other planets obviously. (Not for nothing but unobtanium was also what Delroy Lindo called the metal that he used on the ship that goes to the Earth’s core in The Core, which came out like a decade before Avatar.) Anyway, while the miners and military escorts dig around for the unobtanium for Giovanni Ribisi, some scientists including Sigourney Weaver and the game developer from Grandma’s Boy are studying the huge blue guys, who are called the Na’vi. The scientists created a way of beaming your consciousness into a blue guy host body so you can hang out with the blue guys, and that body is called your [looks directly into camera] avatar. You sleep in a pod while you’re running around with the blue guys, and when you’re awake in your human body the avatar is asleep instead.

Anyway a guy working with the scientists dies so they hire his twin brother, Jake Sully, and swap him in, since they already spent a ton of time and money making his brother’s blue guy. The head military guy asks Jake to spy on the scientists to make sure they don’t mess with the mining operation. Jake ends up getting a Na’vi girlfriend and she teaches them their ways and once the tribe starts to accept him he goes Dances With Wolves Mode and sides with the Na’vi against the military and miners. The scientists move the whole avatar operation off the military base because otherwise the bad guys could just pull the power cord (smart). The bad guys decide that it’s time to blow up the big spirit tree that the Na’vi see as the home of their god Eywa, so there’s a big final battle around that. Jake ends up taming the biggest flying dinosaur thing which involves connecting his ponytail to the flying thing’s tail and it’s a little weird and intimate but not really germane to the overall plot so don’t worry about it. Taming the biggest flying dinosaur thing basically makes Jake the chief of the tribe, and he’s able to call in all the other Na’vi tribes to fight the bad guys. The head military guy fights in a Na’vi-sized mech and I remember he has this huge mech-sized hunting knife which is pretty cool.

The military ends up losing the battle and the big knife guy gets killed, so the military and miners leave Pandora but Jake and some of the scientists stay (minus Sigourney Weaver, who I think gets killed during the battle but that might be wrong). Then the Na’vi elders do this ritual that transfers Jake’s consciousness to his avatar so he’s a full-time blue guy. I think the last shot is of his Na’vi eye opening like at the start of Lost. And that’s Avatar, basically. — Patrick Monahan, comedian and writer

“I damn sure ain’t seen whatever this is.”

So basically, this lil boy got an arrow on his head and they found him in a block of ice….

What?

Wait, really?

Oh.

They’re blue?

Well I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I ain’t watch Titanic and I damn sure ain’t seen whatever this is. James Cameron? The dude who made Alita: Battle Angel? — Tyler Tynes, GQ staff writer 

“I think it’s a gift to the world.”

What was so powerful to me was the fundamental mythology. It told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what’s happening in Western civilization. Corporate powers, backed by governmental and military force were seeking the unobtainium. And the unobtanium of course is whatever resource provides them profit, regardless of whether or not obtaining it ruins plants, ruins Earth, ruins people, ruins life. Those corporatized military forces, looked on these very wise and indigenous people as barbarians. When in fact, of course, it was the invaders who were the true barbarians. And yet, the indigenous people of that planet fought back and ultimately prevailed.

Also, an interesting thing is that there were people working for the invading forces who did have conscience. Who did have hearts, who realized what was really happening, and even converted their efforts to work on behalf of the indigenous tribes and against the invading forces.

I think Avatar is a work of genius. Putting into comic book form what is really going on in the world—telling the story of how a sociopathic corporatist juggernaut is destroying the natural world and the wisdom of its indigenous peoples—proclaiming that in the end sanity and love prevail, no less, then turning that into a fun piece of entertainment easy to understand and watching literally around the world. People often laugh at me for saying this but I think that’s a gift to the world. — Marianne Williamson, activist and former presidential candidate

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