Nearly 15 years have passed since the release of James Cameron’s record-shattering blockbuster, and the messages from Pandora ring ever more true on our planet today.

It’s challenging to deny that, at least at some point after watching Avatar, you haven’t imagined how you would fare on the alien planet of Pandora. It ignites a strangely competitive streak in me, and I’m filled with a complete and unfounded confidence that I could pilot a Mountain Banshee without breaking a sweat.

10 years after its initial release, Avatar remains one of the highest-grossing films ever made. Even on my fourth or fifth rewatch — fairly standard — it continues to present new facets of itself for me to pour over. This time around, I found myself marvelling at Cameron’s uncanny ability to package a politically charged film with an outright green agenda as a Hollywood blockbuster.

As the film opens, humanity has finally exhausted Earth of the entirety of its resources, leaving special U.S. missionary forces no choice but to cross extra-planetary boundaries in search of new fuel sources. They have arrived on the planet Pandora, thought to possess a rich source of ‘unobtanium’, a mineral that promises to revolutionise energy supply back on Earth, with a large check from shareholders thrown in for good measure.

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We follow Jake Sully, an ex-marine who arrives on Pandora charged with gaining the trust of the peaceful Na’vi — a rainforest-dwelling tribe indigenous to Pandora. Jake uses an Avatar body composed of a blend of his own and Na’vi DNA to allow him to breathe Pandora’s toxic air and to attempt to persuade the Na’vi to leave their homes, allowing for the extraction of unobtanium. Or, as Colonel Quaritch rather charmingly puts it, “force their cooperation”. 

Jake’s loyalty to his Colonel begins to waver as he immerses himself in the wonders of Pandora and falls for the fierce Neytiri. When the expeditionary forces find rich reserves of unobtanium under the Na’vi’s Hometree, Jake’s true allegiance is exposed as he decides to fight alongside the Na’vi to protect their home from destruction and exploitation.

Cameron’s cinematic world-building throughout Avatar is an absolute force to be reckoned with. Stunning visual effects and some extraordinary performances allow us to become completely immersed in Pandora’s fantastical world. The intricately woven narrative beautifully contrasts the brilliantly vibrant lives of the indigenous Na’vi with the cool, calculated agenda of the missionaries in a delightful, if slightly clumsy, critique of capitalism.

By far the most intriguing aspect of this romp of a film is its exploration of the world of Pandora. We are allowed to learn about life on this alien planet through the wide eyes of Jake, and as his connection grows, so does ours. Our compassion builds to the point that when Hometree falls, we understand the depth of the pain experienced by the Na’vi. Their innate spiritual connection to Eywa — the guiding life force running throughout Pandora — has allowed them to live in deepest harmony with nature. It’s a relationship gilded with respect.

Earth’s sacred forests

For all of Avatar’s fantastical imagery and blue-skinned giants, there is a degree of reality layered within its stories. Across the globe, there are numerous cultures that intertwine nature into their spiritual and religious beliefs. Areas considered sacred are preserved, with access to these areas restricted by taboos and codes. There are many different names for these protected areas: sacred forests, church forests and sacred groves. But the key is that ‘normal’ land-use activities like hunting, logging and cultivation are strictly prohibited.

Because of this, they are heralded as some of the oldest forms of habitat protection in history, acting as reservoirs for biodiversity.

With as little as 3% of the world unaltered by humans in some way, these areas offer as close a glimpse into Pandora’s pristine wilderness as we are likely to get. With this in mind, we might view Avatar as an allegory, urging a degree of caution while we question the direction of ‘progress’.

Protecting traditional forests from commercial exploits will become increasingly difficult as the demand for resources rises, and they may soon face a threat similar to Pandora and the Na’vi.

But are we capable of simply letting resources lie? When presented with an entirely new planet, James Cameron clearly doesn’t seem to think so. But what of Earth and all of the resources it holds? Well, in the right hands Sacred forests are the perfect example of exactly that. And with COP28 calling for more indigenous voices to be recognised in land management strategies, it’s worth being hopeful, and, after all, I’ve always thought I was more optimistic than James Cameron.

Watch the official Avatar trailer here.