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AvatAGGRAVATING, or What the F&$@ is Unobtainium Anyway?


I just stepped out of James Cameron’s Masterpiece and I still can’t believe that was the script he put forward after twelve years. Twelve years. TWELVE. YEARS. Now, let me get a few things out of the way first. Avatar‘s visuals are positively stunning and I’m going to give Cameron the pass on his Na’vi treading dangerously close to the uncanny valley, because the environments were really, really cool to watch. However, there are several issues in Avatar that need to be considered. All in good fun of course–I’m not even going to pretend that this won’t make money or that we won’t be seeing sequels–but twelve years? Really?

I’m just saying that if a filmmaker of Cameron’s caliber is working on a script for twelve years, it should be better than this. I came away with so many questions about character motivation, unexplained plot devices, and generally not remembering the names of anything, that I was confused about whether or not I even liked the damn thing. However, we at Needcoffee realize this problem might be widespread, so we are going to answer many questions about the plot of Avatar by answering one of the biggest ones:
What is Unobtainium anyway?

For those of you unfamiliar with TVTropes, I shall enlighten you with the Wikipedia entry on the subject: “Unobtainium is a humorous name for any extremely rare, costly, or physically impossible material needed to fulfill a given design for a given application.”

That’s it: it means it’s an impossible-to-get-at substance. And no, for those of you that are asking that question, not once do they tell us what the heck it is or what it does. This leads to a host of questions about the motivations of the human beings and what the crap they’re doing there in the first place. One explanation that I shall now put forward, however, simplifies things greatly.

Unobtainium is a drug. In fact, Unobtainium is the best drug ever. The humans are mining for the best blow between here and Alpha Centauri. Every single human being on Earth in the year 2154 is totally up to their nose in fine Pandoran bang-bang and they want more. If you explain Unobtainium as a drug you get all the explanation you ever need to a host of questions.

Why don’t the humans mine somewhere else for Unobtainium? The head honcho business man says the deposit under the Na’vi treehouse is “the biggest deposit in 200 clicks in any direction.” Now either James Cameron has no idea how far 200 kilometers is (not an inconvenient distance, by the way–I routinely drive from the Cleveland suburbs to Columbus, Ohio, which is about 30 miles further than 200 kilometers) or we’re dealing with a bunch of Unobtainium fiends who can’t conceive driving more than two hours for a fix. This explains why the military tactics used against the Na’vi don’t make any sense: they’re being executed by a bunch of junkies. That would also explain the generally antagonistic attitude toward any human being that makes any sense at all for more than two seconds. I just wish it had been included in the movie… maybe a message from the President of Earth as he does a line of Unobtainium offering up his sentiments that the miners are having trouble but hey, his stash is running low and they need some of this shit YESTERDAY. This also explains why they didn’t follow Cameron’s own advice from his film Aliens: “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” One can imagine the insipient little toad of a man that they all work for mumbling, “Man, whathefuckever just go down and get the damn stuff, I’m jonzein’ here.”

A drug addicted society also explains the strange reason the mecha the marines bring with them actually carry guns. For those readers not familiar with basic mech design principles, your end result should look like a pile of guns with some legs strapped on. No need for anything like, oh, say, a big glass open cockpit that allows the natives to smash it with arrows. Also–spoiler alert–there is no reason any mech needs to carry a knife. A society with a drug addiction would also go from caring a whole bunch about the wellbeing of a couple trillion dollar piece of scientific equipment like an avatar to being ready to blow all of them up. Only a junkie nation would put main character Jake Sully to sleep for six years and not give him any kind of education on the planet he’s going to. (Reason being: they don’t have the smack to sustain him for six years.) Actually smack seems too earthy, maybe we could call it “Tain.”

I could go on all night about the glaring inconsistencies… (Why does the Earth army consist of a bunch of white people, one black guy, and a latina chick?) …and things that a man who’s done the quality of work Cameron has should have fleshed out a bit more in more than a decade of working… (They’re called the Na’vi. I’ll bet five bucks up until he started filming the script said “Natives” and he just deleted some letters) …but I will close with this thought of Cameron’s own from a recent Playboy interview:

PLAYBOY: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine’s hotness?
CAMERON: Right from the beginning I said, “She’s got to have tits,” even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.

That’s really interesting…because all the Na’vi are shown to have not only “tits” but navels and umbilical cords as well, which are ONLY found in placental mammals. Apparently Cameron spent as much time working on his tenth grade biology homework as he did revising his script. Again, I’ll hand it to the man, the stuff is nice to look at. Happy Avatar days everyone!

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  • I have so many more rants as well. Because if I hear one more person say, “Well, there was a really good/important/deep message in the movie!” I will scream.

    Which message? There are, by my count right now, at least 10 – some big, some small, some “Oh god, yes, Jim, I get it! We need to believe in Mother Earth/Gaia/Awya!”

  • The one rant I will add: after what must have been many decades and billions of dollars invested in safely obtaining unobtainium, and after 3 months of painfully trying to gain the native’s trust, they couldn’t give the guy even an hour to talk the people there to move or negotiate some treaty? They really must have been jonesing! Of course, they also never actually send anyone to get the stuff, they just keep blowing things up. The plot was not very clever at all, but the visuals were outstanding. BTW, the plot was straight from Star Wars, where the primative Ewoks defeated the Evil Empire. Darth Mech.

    The message I got from the movie? Don’t bother to make a credible plan on how to defeat your enemy, just get everyone riled up and kick some butt – if you are the good guy then the planet Gods will surely save you.

  • The author of this article is kinda dumb because 200 click isn’t kilometers it’s miles. My uncle is in the military and whenever someone says “its a click or 2” or what not they mean miles, not kilometers so that might be why the want the unobtainium under the home tree genius! If you’re going to diss this movie which I don’t know why you would atleast know what the heck you’re talking about first.

  • To the little fella says a “click” is a mile. Get your facts straight.
    1)We measure everything in METERS when calling in fire missions.
    2) following the cardinal rule we read out coordinates in METERS
    3) 556 and 762×51 NATO ring a bell? NATO sets out standards for members to minimize screw ups due to EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD using METRIC and the USA using AMERICAN. SO everyone in the service, ESP the ground forces use METRIC. Hence the above
    4) its was spelled as “Klick” back in the 50’s according to my DI as short for KILOMETER which is a thousand meters which is 3300 feet
    5)Only gimps called a Klick a mile because they are LAZY and just approximate.
    I think you heard your uncle wrong.
    so in your own words:
    If you’re going to diss some one which I don’t know why you would at least know what the HECK YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT FIRST.

  • Other possible explanations for Unobtainum (aka Uno):

    1- It’ s the base of a new drug that is 1000 times more effective than Viagra.

    2- It’s the key ingredient in an advanced cosmetic that makes any woman look like Catherine Zeta Jones or Rihanna

    3- It’s a powerful source of energy.

    I’m going with door number 3, because I read this in a synopsis of the Avatar movie somewhere on their website.

    “After discussing Pandora’s much-desired natural resource, the mineral Unobtanium, which can save Earth from its present energy crisis. Parker wants Grace simply to “use what you got and get me some results.”

    Regretfully this implies an incredibly high cost of renewable energy. You see, economics tells us if venture capitalists are willing to invest hundreds of billions of dollars on an inter-planetary mission to recover Uno, that implies all other forms of energy available on earth are at least as expensive as Uno. Otherwise, why bear the cost of traveling over four light years to Pandora to get it? We would first use the cheaper forms of energy available in our back yard until they are used up. Since Uno is reportedly worth $20million per kilo (that’s 200,000 times the price of uranium and 40 million times the price of oil, give or take) we can assume that all known finite forms of cheaper energy on earth, like oil, gas, uranium, etc., have already been depleted. That means the only energy source left on earth to compete with Uno is renewable green energy which costs at least as much as Uno does. (I knew it!)

    To be fair, there are other factors to consider. I suppose Uno could have an extremely high energy density. It might be scientifically possible that just one nano-gram of Uno yields enough power to run 1,000 Ipods and a Hummer. That could explain a huge price difference between a kilo of Uno and say, a Prius battery. Still, $20 million per kilo implies an energy density about 100 times that of bomb grade Plutonium, even after adjusting for 144 years of inflation. If that’s the case, I hope the scientist who first discovered the highly concentrated energy in Uno survived the experiment. I would also expect the Na’vi on Pandora to be helping humans instead of fighting them to carefully mine the stuff and get it out of there. That way the Na’vi would no longer have to live on top of a pile of Uno with enough explosive power to blow them and Pandora into a cloud of cosmic dust. (And you thought Colonel Quaritch was their biggest threat.)

  • MeSimpson: It would be sort of hilarious if in the midst of the battle they hit a vein of Uno the wrong way and vaporized all of Pandora. Somebody needs to come up with THAT fan edit. Thanks for the comment!

  • It is a room temperature super-conductor for energy, which makes it very valuable: it is worth $20 million per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) unrefined (worth $40 million per kilogram refined) on Earth. However, It is prohibitively expensive to mine on Pandora as humans are unable to breathe in the Pandoran toxic atmosphere. Because of this, all personnel are required to wear a Exopack which is very cumbersome. Humans transport Unobtanium on trucks called Hell Trucks from the mines back to Hell’s Gate for refining.

    Unobtanium proved to be the most baffling of scientific discoveries in the area of superconductors as it had an extremely strong magnetic field, reversing prior knowledge that all superconductors repel magnetic fields. Furthermore, unlike the fragile crystals of human-created superconducting compounds, the substance found on Pandora was a stable quasi-crystal with its atoms arranged in a never-repeating but orderly pattern with fivefold symmetry. This structure was not only structurally rugged but also has microscopic voids in the quasicrystalline structure that contain the magnetic flux lines (see [1]). Unobtanium has a unique magnetic field and properties of superconductivity, causing it to levitate in magnetic fields under the Meissner Effect.

  • @Jay

    the difference between 200km and 200miles is minimal so I don’ think that really explains why they need it from under this one tree if they have already travelled 6 years to get to the planet

  • Nice to see you really thought this through and asked some questions before you wrote this. MORON! Unobtainium in this movie is a room temperature superconductor. The Earth is just about dead and something like that may well solve the energy problems. As for the whole “Druggie Mechs” they are exosuits designed for military use. Thus they must be able to use weapons and perform other functions such as construstion and so on. Now when it somes to the Na’vi I must agree with you.. he should have just done away with the whole “they are not placental mammals” thing.

  • If I could rent out senses of humor, I would be a rich man. Just how to get some people to realize they need my services? Hmmm.

  • Unobtainium, within the context of the movie “Avatar” represents a novel substance which is a “high temperature superconductor” (HTSC), also referred to in non-scientific literature as “room temperature superconductors”. I don’t know where some people got the idea that it is a drug, as nothing in the movie would suggest this that I have seen. Unobtainium’s ability to “float” over a piece of metal is exactly what one sees when a HTSC is placed into liquid nitrogen. Current HTSCs are better than the original superconductors which required temperatures in the range of “absolute zero”, so liquid nitrogen temperature is “high” relatively speaking (-196c). Of course the “Holy Grail” of HTSCs is a substance which can retain its properties at “room temperature”. It is not an energy source per se, but would allow the development of technological advances such as (inexpensive) maglev trains, flying cars, super-high capacity batteries, no-energy-loss wires, ultra-fast computers, and so forth, without the need to add liquid nitrogen.

  • So I am going to address the two hundred clicks issue!! Look at the equipment think about moving that from cleveland to Columbus???? Did you look at the size of the excavator?? It’s huge I grow up around the big Muskie prob the biggest excavator known to man I know it’s the biggest I have ever seen my buddy could park his truck in its bucket comfortably!!! The muskie would have to be taken apart to move it would take almost a year to break down and move it would take a day to move a 100 yards. The bucket on the excavator in the movie was three or four times bigger than the size of the bucket on the Muskie. So looking at the cost of moving it the closer the better!!!! They even stop using the Muskie because it was to expensive to move they use smaller ones. This is not like they can bring another one in when ever they want!!