What to remember from 'Avatar' before watching the sequel

So, you’ve seen the trending hashtags and trailers for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and either you’re wondering what all the hype is, or you’re eager to brush up on the event from the first “Avatar” from 2009.

Well, we see you. Or, as the protagonists of James Cameron’s “Avatar” say, “Oel ngati kameie.” And we’re here to help with a recap of the original movie to prep you for its forthcoming sequel, which has been over a decade in the making.

“The Way of Water” is the second installment in Cameron’s planned "Avatar" franchise, which, so far, consists of five films in total. Though the upcoming titles for the subsequent films have yet to be released colloquially, they have been dubbed “Avatar 3,” “Avatar 4,” and “Avatar 5.”

Thirteen years ago, in 2009, “Avatar” rocketed to the top of the list of highest-grossing films. The groundbreaking movie gained acclaim for its revolutionary approach to motion capture and complex world building, exposing viewers to a lush alien world rife with flora and fauna ... and hair that can communicate with trees.

With the debut of the movie’s sequel just around the corner, there are quite a bit of details, characters, and events that draw from the first movie to remember.

Below, find a straightforward breakdown of things to remember from the 2009 movie.

Where does 'Avatar' take place? Take me to Pandora!

The 2009 movie takes place on an exo-moon (not a planet) referred to by humans as Pandora.

The human-like indigenous species that inhabit the moon are called Na’vi, and the Na’vi call Pandora "Eywa’s Child." In Na'vi culture, Eywa is the Great Mother, the deity overseeing all living things.

The Tree of Souls (Na’vi name: Vitraya Ramunong) is thought to be the closest connection to Eywa.

Remind me: What is the plot of 'Avatar'?

The 2009 James Cameron film is set in the year 2154 in the superabundant world of Pandora. The world is inhabited by a highly evolved human-like population called the Na'vi.

The story follows American earthling Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed Marine. At the start of the movie, Jake replaces his deceased identical twin brother in a program operated by an extremely powerful non-governmental organization called the Resources Development Administration (RDA).

Specifically, Jake joins the Avatar Program, which uses "avatars" to explore the world of Pandora from afar. Through his avatar, Jake is instructed by the RDA to collect vital information about Pandora's indigenous Na’vi population to influence them into abandoning the land they live on so that it can be mined by humans for a rare resource called Unobtainium, a superconductor with a strong magnetic field.

While living among the Na'vi on Pandora, Jake quickly starts to question his mission — and earthly values. Jake learns about the corrupted company he has been recruited to work for and falls in love with a Na’vi princess named Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña).

Similar to how on Earth we have countries and ethnicities, various clans exist throughout Pandora. The original “Avatar” film centers around Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldaña) Omatakaya clan— a peaceful and ancient group that lives in the rainforest.

By the end of the movie, he decides to defect to the Na’vi species and live as his avatar.

The main themes of “Avatar” are centered around environmental destruction, militarism, corporate greed and imperialism.

What is an avatar?

First, it's crucial to remember that avatars are not the same as Na’vi. In "Avatar," Na’vi are actual beings, whereas "avatars" are shells that look like Na’vi, created so that humans can live on Pandora.

Pandora’s atmosphere is high in carbon dioxide, making it poisonous to humans. Avatars allow humans to navigate Pandora without oxygen-providing masks that act as atmosphere filtration systems.

Sam Worthington in Avatar, 2009. (Alamy )
Sam Worthington in Avatar, 2009. (Alamy )

Think of avatars as cars or virtual simulation characters. You know how in the computer game “The Sims,” users operate characters that look like teeny, tiny humans? In the movies, humans operate avatars that instead look like the indigenous Pandoran population/

Avatars are biological shells hybridized with human DNA and created to help humans explore Pandora and communicate with the indigenous population.

What is a Na’vi?

Na'vi, the population indigenous to Pandora, are like humans in that they have similar musculature to humans — arms, legs, eyes, and the like. They're capable of complex speech and communication. Some, like Neytiri, speak English.

But don't get it twisted: They are not human. First of all, they are giant! Second of all, they are blue! Third of all, they ride large mountain banshees (called ikran)! The list goes on — and we haven't even gotten to those braids yet.

Zoe Saldana in Avatar, 2009. (Alamy )
Zoe Saldana in Avatar, 2009. (Alamy )

There are various ways to tell an avatar apart from a Na’vi. Some obvious distinctions include the fact that avatars have eyebrows and eyes that appear to be more human than the cat-like eyes of the Na’vi. Also, where humans typically have five fingers on each hand, Na’vi have only four.

Who are the main characters in 'Avatar'?

Sam Worthington in Avatar, 2009. (Alamy )
Sam Worthington in Avatar, 2009. (Alamy )

Let's break down the main players in "Avatar" and what happens to them.

  1. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paralyzed Marine from the United States. Jake had an identical twin brother who was a scientist. After his death, Jake is tapped to replace his brother and drive his avatar. As an avatar, Jake is fully mobile. It's important to note here that this detail (Jake's paralysis being something to escape) has been critiqued for its ableist connotations.

  2. Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) is a Na’vi and princess of the Omaticaya clan. Having made contact with Jake Sully first, she is instructed by her parents to teach him the ways of the Na’vi. Eventually, she and Jake fall in love.

  3. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a human scientist in charge of the Avatar Program. She is responsible for bringing peace between the Omaticaya clan and the humans on Pandora. At the end of "Avatar," she dies from injuries sustained in a gunfight.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” will see Sam Worthington revive his role as now fully assimilated Na’vi Jake Sully and Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri. Without giving too much away, Sigourney Weaver has received top billing.

What's up with the tails?

The Na’vi all appear to have a braid, but it's actually something far more complex. It's actually a neural queue (called a tswin in Na'vi) of braided neurons.

Think of the queue as another hand. In the same way you might hold your partner’s hand or connect to a pet or animal by petting it, the queue is used as a way to help organisms bond.

At one point during an intimate scene, Jake and Neytiri famously merge their braids. The script, per Roger Ebert, describes this as "The ultimate intimacy," with Jake "(rocking) with the direct contact between his nervous system and hers)."

But no, because you're wondering: The Na’vi don’t use their tails for sex. Sometimes, Na’vi might use their queue to form an emotional connection while mating. That’s all!

What's the significance of the phrase 'I see you'?

Following the tradition of Na'vi, people who operate avatars might say, "I see you."

"I see you" is a Na’vi greeting spoken by the Na’vi. In the Na’vi language, the phrase translates to “Oel ngati kameie.” But it can also take on a meaning closer to "I love you:" When Neytiri tells Jake she sees him while holding his human body, that means she loves, understands and respects him.

The phrase is so significant it's the name of the official theme song.

What happens at the end of 'Avatar' 2009?

The end of "Avatar" sees the Na’vi sustain a massive blow to their population and environment after it is pillaged by the Resources Development Administration. In addition to the death of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and Captain Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), many Na’vi die.

At the end of “Avatar,” Jake decides to have his consciousness permanently moved from his human body to his avatar. The final seconds of the film see his transfer complete as Sully awakens in his new life as a member of the Na'vi.

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in Avatar, 2009. (Alamy )
Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in Avatar, 2009. (Alamy )

How many hours is 'Avatar' 2009?

The original film runs at two hours and 42 minutes — not nearly enough if you’re a true-blue fan.

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