Avatar (2009)

Published: Feb 13, 2010 |Updated: Sep 10, 2023


Avatar is a futuristic epic set on the planet Pandora. Wheelchair-bound ex-marine Jake Sully, replaces his dead twin brother on Pandora’s ‘Avatar Program’, which enables his consciousness to inhabit a genetically created human/Na’vi body. The Na’vi initiate Jake into their clan where he initially spies on them. As the story progresses, he forms a deep connection to both community and planet, and when it comes to war with the humans, Jake is forced to choose sides. Avatar opens our minds to a wonderful new world, and demands essential questions from us about our own. Fall deeply into Avatar as you would fall into love.

Genre Scifi, Action, Adventure
Production year 2009
Director James Cameron
Male actors Sam Worthington, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang

A fantastical reminder of the need for rebirth.


Avatar brings together a range of familiar themes, common threads, topics, symbolic references and cultural backgrounds and binds them together into a tight immersive adventure. It challenges our perception of the boundaries of reality and fantasy, and can provide us with a reminder of our purpose right here on Earth.

Although there are many themes that are worthy of discussion, this review will mainly focus on Avatar’s use of rites-of-passage, and explore how these rites allow us to connect with a purpose and broaden our relationship with the natural world. Chapters are dived into ‘seasons’ and link various threads in Avatar with the natural cycle of birth, growth, decay, death and rebirth. Familiar themes on an unfamiliar world.

Birth – A new world, a fresh start

Avatar opens by introducing the possibility of new beginnings. Through Jake’s narrated introduction, we discover how he came to arrive on Pandora and are likewise introduced to how frustrating his reality of being stuck in a wheelchair is. We also get to know his dreams of being whole again, and this theme of dreams re-occurs throughout the movie, as the boundaries between dream and reality blur once he starts embodying his avatar.

With its oceans, continents, ice and clouds, Pandora looks more like Earth than a land of the terrors and nightmares those familiar with the Greek myth might have been expecting. Perhaps the corporate men were right, this could be Jakes second chance, humanities wet-dream: a fresh planet where we can start-over and this time get things right.

Pandora offers Jake the chance to leave the past behind and become someone new, the same way that Spring overcomes Winter and offers the chance for renewal and re-birth. Jake is eager to prove that he is useful, so he enthusiastically takes on the Colonel’s mission of spying on the Na’vi, because, for now, he only sees the benefit to himself. His desire to be whole again overshadows whatever consequences his actions may have on others.

The beauty of Pandora revealed

As Jake tests out his new Na’vi body, we witness the glee on his face as he fully immerses himself in the experience of being free of his chair. Yet, it cannot last. Waking up back in his cocoon, Jake is confronted once again by his useless human legs. While Jake’s human body appears to represent repression and the past, his avatar body symbolizes liberation, the future and freedom. In other words, the past represents childhood and the future symbolizes manhood.

This is stated clearly in the scene when he first meets Neytiri, “You know nothing! You are like a baby…” she points out. Although Jake possesses the body of an adult Na’vi male, to Neytiri he has not yet proven himself worthy of wearing their skin. To do so, he must think and behave accordingly.

Neytiri however is not willing to dismiss Jake immediately, as we see. She possesses a deep spiritual connection to the forest and after witnessing a sign from Eywa, she realizes that there is something special about Jake. This spiritual connection is something that we see lacking from most of the humans in the movie, which raises questions about what connections we have perhaps lost to our own world.

Growth –Learning to love and respect our new skin

When Jake is brought before the clan elder Eytukan, he mistrusts Jake and agrees with the feisty young warrior Tsu’tey that Jake should be destroyed. Moat however, takes a more diplomatic approach and although she claims that they have already tried, and failed, to open the minds of the humans to the Na’vi ways, she makes an exception with Jake.

As the spiritual leader of the clan, Moat believes that there is something special about him. She gives him the chance to learn the Na’vi way, challenging Jake to immerse himself fully in their culture, and train with an initially reluctant Neytiri in order to assess whether or not he can earn his place as one of them. As Jake takes deeper and deeper sojourns into the Na’vi culture, rites-of-passage are shown to be an integral part of the development of his character.

Neytiri gives Jake various challenges, or ‘rites-of-passage’, that demonstrate that he is improving, learning and maturing. Like a snake sheds its skin, their first rite in initiating Jake into their clan is to remove his human-styled clothes. Barefoot and practically naked, his body is exposed to the elements and eyes of others, meaning that the focus is moved to his actions.

It is through Neytiri that Jake is introduced to the various habits, practices, rituals and language of the Na’vi, and it is with her that we witness the initial steps in the evolution of Jake’s character which snowball into the giant strides that he later takes.

To draw parallels with another great movie reviewed here, Neytiri – like Katsumoto in ‘The Last Samurai‘ – takes the role of mentoring Jake in the ways of the heart as much as the ways of the warrior. She teaches him about the deep spiritual connection the Na’vi have with the forest and its other inhabitants. As Jake gradually climbs the ladder of her respect, we are given the chance to reflect on our own lost cultures and traditions and can be reminded of times when men would have provided for the community as hunters, and defended them as warriors if needed.

Another example of a tradition we are familiar with can be found in the funeral, a scene in which Neytiri is seen placing one of the sacred seeds in the grave of the Na’vi elder as Jake repeats her words in his diary dialogue, “All energy is only borrowed, and one day you have to give it back…”. This brings us full circle by asking us to compare this funeral scene to the one that Jake’s twin brother received at the beginning of the movie. Once again we see that the Na’vi have a healthy respect for death, which perhaps brings them in closer contact with the life they choose to lead.

Jake meets an Ikran for the first time

The Na’vi rites-of-passages are those of a hunter. His first clean kill grants him access to the test of the warrior, and he must climb Mount Iknimaya to make the bond with a banshee (Ikran) – a dangerous exercise where he could either die – or become a true warrior. But the title of ‘warrior’ is not the final step in becoming a man. After passing through the rites of a hunter, then a warrior, Jake’s ultimate challenge is to stand before the Na’vi community and be accepted as one of them.

This conclusive action, the ritual of ‘laying of hands’ to form a connection with each clan member proves to each one of the Na’vi present that Jake is being reborn, and that after that moment he is accepted as one of them. This transformation can be witnessed in nature right here on Earth in examples such as the caterpillar becoming a moth or butterfly, or when a juvenile bird gains its adult colours.

Jake is now fit to wear the skin that he has been given. Another way to interpret this scene would be to say that he is now no longer a child. He is a man. The Na’vi use of rites pose other questions: how do our own societies qualify us as men? Are we ‘men’ simply because of our deeper voices, our taller, broader, hairier bodies?

How do we actually know that we are now men and not still boys? And how do others know? What types of rites do boys have to pass through to be considered men in contemporary society? Is it the keys to our car? Our shavers? Our 18th birthday? Our ability to legally buy alcohol? Or is it something much deeper: the knowledge of our purpose in life? These questions are definitely worth taking a moment to think about.

While watching, I also notice that Neytiri is not surrounded by weak male role models. This is no fairy-tale in which the whimsical princess sings to her animal friends while waiting for a handsome prince to whisk her away from the boredom of her claustrophobic room high in the Palace’s Eastern Tower. Neytiri is positive, powerful and very feminine.

So when it comes to the question of love and partnership, Jake is intimately aware that it is not just his own personal choice as a man that matters: a life with a partner must be decided together and he states to Neytiri “I have already chosen, but she must also chose me”, another confirmation that Jake has transformed into a wiser man.

Decay – Leaves and trees fall, bodies waste away

While his Na’vi self improves in leaps and bounds, we witness Jake’s human side (especially his body) waste away and he grows increasingly pale and thin and stalls his mission of relocating the Na’vi from Hometree. Jake states that the lines between his old self and his new self are blurred, he is not sure who he is any more. Despite all that he has learned and the commitment that he has made to Neytiri and the Na’vi people, he is still attached to his human body and past.

When the yellow bulldozers suddenly arrive and destroy the sacred site that he and Neytiri have just made love in, Jake finally sees what his fellow humans are doing through the eyes of his newly attuned Na’vi self and his true sense of purpose, to defend his home, kicks in. His uncontrolled rage exposes his true allegiance and the following negotiations between Grace, Jake, the Colonel and Selfridge do not go in favour of the Na’vi. Grace puts up an especially well-reasoned fight. She and Jake both display aspects of the KWML ‘Lover (in their fullness)’ during this scene, deeply in tune with Pandora’s beauty and unafraid of protecting it at any cost to themselves.

But instead of taking their pleas seriously, Selfridge deflates their arguments by exclaiming “What have you guys been smoking!?!”. He appears completely disconnected from himself by the greed, denial and destruction that his everyday life has become. In KWML terms, Selfridge displays many aspects of the ‘The Tyrant King’ here, blinded by his hunger for richness he is unable to associate with the situation he has created:

The immature Selfridge commands Dr Grace Augustine to produce results with the Na’vi

His degradation of others and all beauty is limitless, as everything good, true, and beautiful reminds him of his own shortcomings. He is extremely sensitive to criticism… responding with rage, when what he feels is fear and vulnerability.

The Colonel too plays a role, the Sadist Warrior who itches for battle, he prefers mass genocide in order to acquire military rule over Pandora. As the military destroy Hometree, he too appears entirely disconnected from the reality that he is creating for the Na’vi: while they die or watch their home being destroyed, he sips coffee and offers to buy everyone a beer.

Back at the base, Selfridge and the others watch their television screens passively, somehow connecting and disconnecting them at once. Norm and Trudy are the only ones who feel the need to act: Norm flies into a rage and Trudy simply walks away, wanting no part in the massacre of the people she too connects with. Small, but powerful actions.

Death – Redemption. The making of the king

With Eytukan dead, Tsu’tey steps up to his responsibility as clan leader – but, overwhelmed by the situation that he has been thrust into, he can do nothing more than lead the Na’vi retreat to the Tree of Life. It is finally time for Jake to take the initiative: the people need a leader they can trust to fight back and win against unthinkable odds. Using his training, Jake pulls off the unthinkable – makes the bond with Last Shadow (Toruk) and arrives to the awe of the collected Na’vi.

As we watch this scene, we are reminded of what it often takes to make a true leader: as human beings we must pass through many hoops in life – many rites and rituals – but in order to become a true leader, one must often surpass the confines of mere mortals. Jake appears when the Na’vi most need him and as such, represents the 6th incarnation of their messiah, something that was also hinted at earlier when Jake was ‘chosen’ by the sacred seeds.

Jake turns to Tsu’tey and, brother to brother, man to man, asks for the new chief’s permission to bring the clans together to form a larger force. The show of respect for Tsu’tey’s position here is a good example of how Jake connects with the Na’vi. The warrior Tsu’tey recognizes a power in Jake that he does not yet possess and agrees to let Jake lead. War follows, and the Na’vi pack a mighty hole in the human forces. Tsu’tey’s heroic fight on the aircraft ramp is particularly noteworthy.

But against the bullets and rockets, their fortunes quickly turn and the humans and their machines one-by-one lay waste to the Na’vi forces. But Jake’s call to Eywa for help is answered and various creatures come to the planet’s aid, giving Jake the break he needs to destroy both the airship and the Colonel’s battleship. Although it may appear cliché and obvious to point it out, what this scene does is once again show us that one man can make a huge difference, one man can turn the tide and fight for what he loves despite the fact that he can lose everything.

“How does it feel to betray your own people?” the Colonel asks Jake during the final battle. He doesn’t perceive that Jake’s connection goes far deeper than A) human, or B) Na’vi. Throughout the whole film, the Na’vi have played a very important role in allowing us to connect to the planet Pandora emotionally. The Na’vi have shown us the spirit of Pandora: Eywa, not as dark feminine seduction, but as a positive feminine energy source. One to bathe in, admire and respect.

The Colonel’s disconnected analysis is not an uncommon one at all: while the natural world on our own planet is continuously raped, divided up and turned into corporate commodity, humans inherently continue to focus on human-centric issues and conflicts. To Jake – who has fully embraced his Na’vi spiritual side – the connection goes much further than this. He doesn’t even bother to respond to the Colonel’s challenge. He just snarls like a cat and goes in for the kill.

Re-birth – The cycle of life comes full circle

As Neytiri enters the cabin hoping to save the suffocating Jake, she meets Jake in his human body for the first time. They finally ‘see’ one another as their true selves. There is something both strange and wonderful about this scene as the massive battle-painted warrior princess crouches in the tiny steel and plastic lab, cradling Jake’s body like a baby in her huge arms.

These two scales, of small and large (child and adult) are also much clearer in the final scene as Jake’s two bodies lie in the fetal position, one symbolizing that of a child and the other that of a grown man. Reborn one final time, the boy becomes a man, permanently.


Avatar takes us half-way cross the galaxy, to the wondrous world of Pandora. But like always, when we transition out of make-believe worlds of great wonder, reality smacks us in the face.

The question to ask yourself is this: ‘What reality do I now see?’ Can Avatar show you how wonderful the world that surrounds you is – outside of your car, your house, your office and even your clothes? For me, Avatar is a call to action, it strikes deeply and asks us one essential question about our lives: what is our core purpose?

It hints at the benefits of deepening our current personal connection to people, the natural world around us and the spiritual side of that connection we may have lost touch with. It tells a story that challenges us to analyse the consequences of action versus inaction when we see a cause that is worth fighting for.

It is a story that reminds us that we simply can’t sit around and wait for the future to solve the problems of the present. Deep down this is a story that shows us that we are capable of evolving from boys – through several rites of passage – to the final rite of being reborn as true men, of wearing this skin – this form of the adult male that we have so fortunately grown into – with pride. To take responsibility for our own actions, fight for what is right and protect our mother, ‘Earth’, from those that would harm her.

And most of all, it asks us to do something very simple: to see ourselves through the eyes of others and to stand confidently under their gaze without fear, because we understand who we are and our true purpose right here and now.

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