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The ending of Avatar finally explained

When James Cameron's Avatar premiered in 2009, it quickly became a box-office juggernaut. Science fiction fans and filmmaking technology geeks had been anticipating the movie for months, learning all they could about the motion-capture technology used to turn human actors into alien creatures. By the time the movie finally arrived, everyone had heard about how cool it was supposed to be, with its high-def 3D projection and hyper-realistic CG effects.

Avatar soared its way to over $2 billion worldwide at the box office, spawning numerous spinoffs and sequels. And the results were cool. The story may rehash fish-out-of-water culture clash themes from movies like Dances with Wolves, but the stunning visuals and incredible world-building allowed audiences to look past the repetitious plot points.

It will no doubt be long remembered as a groundbreaking technological achievement in cinema. But for as cool as Avatar is, sometimes it gets a little hard to follow. With actors playing both humans and aliens, a subtitled alien language, and heavy action, crucial details might seem a little fuzzy now and then. With more Avatar films on their way to theaters, you might need a bit of a refresher, so here's the ending of Avatar finally explained.

The world of Avatar

Avatar takes place in 2154. Humans have depleted the Earth's natural resources and moved on to outer space, colonizing worlds like Pandora, a moon orbiting a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri galaxy. The main character is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former Marine. His identical twin brother was part of a team of scientists on Pandora who are researching the planet and its indigenous inhabitants, the Na'vi. Using human-Na'vi hybrids called avatars, the humans can walk among the Na'vi, communicate with them, and learn their ways. Jake joins Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), scientist Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), and Marine pilot Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) on their research mission.

Of course, the Resources Development Administration (RDA) has more in mind. As RDA administrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) points out, the real reason humans are on Pandora is to mine a mineral called unobtainium, which sells for millions on Earth. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) offers Jake a deal: find out all he can about the Na'vi, and he'll make sure Jake gets new legs.

But Jake's "infiltration" into the Na'vi civilization doesn't go as he expected. He meets a Na'vi woman named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), learns about the planet and the Na'vi's spiritual connection to all living things, and becomes one of them. Jake and Neytiri fall in love and become lifemates — complicated by the fact that Jake is still a human, living vicariously through his Na'vi avatar, and the fact that he's technically a spy for the RDA.

The battle for Hometree

Toward the end of Avatar, the RDA orders the destruction of Hometree, Neytiri's tribe's home base, because of the rich deposit of unobtainium that lies beneath. By this point, Jake is fully on team Na'vi, even though Neytiri and other members of her tribe have turned against him after finding out about his spying. Jake has completely changed his identity, considering himself a part of the Na'vi, embracing their beliefs, and so he fights for their cause against the RDA.

But Quartich's huge military planes, massive guns, and numerous soldiers quickly overpower the tribe, and Hometree is destroyed. During the battle, many lives are lost, including Neytriri's father, Eytukan. Jake, Grace, and Norm's human bodies are rescued by Trudy, who airlifts them and their avatar capsules to a safe location, while their Na'vi avatars are left in the forest. But during the mayhem, Quartich shoots them, with a bullet hitting Grace.

In order to regain the trust of Neytiri, the Omaticaya tribe, and their new chief Tsu'tey, Jake mounts and bonds with Taruk, a huge dragon-like beast related to the smaller banshees. By bonding with this fierce beast, whom the Na'vi both revere and fear, Jake proves that he's a part of the Na'vi, that he respects their culture, and wants to live among them. Jake is embraced by Neytiri, her mother Mo'at, and Tsu'tey, and together they make plans to gather the numerous Na'vi tribes to fight back against the RDA and evict them from Pandora.

Grace's death

Before Jake sets out to unite the Na'vi clans, he has one request of Mo'at: save Grace. Still suffering from her gunshot wound, Grace's life is in Na'vi hands, as is the life of her avatar. As Neytiri explains, all life on Pandora is connected via a biological neural network, though the Na'vi consider it more of a spiritual connection than a scientific one. The Tree of Voices allows living Na'vi to hear the memories of their ancestors, while the Tree of Souls is said to be the closest connection to Eywa, the guiding force of Pandora that the Na'vi worship as a deity.

The Tree of Souls, Neytiri explains, has such power that it can take her consciousness, her memories, and her personality, and transfer them through the immersive neural network of Pandora and have them permanently placed into her avatar body so she can survive. This transformation doesn't just highlight the Na'vi's spiritual beliefs, but also hints at the potential scientific advancements that could be achieved in the future. Grace's body is weak, and she unfortunately doesn't survive the process, but before she dies, she assures Jake that she sees Eywa, the connections are real, and the world of Pandora is truly a living thing.

Eywa hears their prayers

The final battle for Pandora includes the RDA soldiers, the many tribes of Pandora, and one final participant: Eywa herself, or at least Eywa as manifested through the animals and wildlife of Pandora, who come to the Na'vi's defense at the last minute. The night before the battle, Jake connects neurologically to the Tree of Souls and asks that Eywa help them on their quest to defeat the RDA. This, more than his bond with Toruk, proves Jake has fully embraced his life as a Na'vi. He used Toruk to regain Neytiri and the other Na'vi's trust, but his prayer to Eywa is a private act, showing us that he now believes in the power of Pandora and its spiritual network.

During the battle, at a moment when it looks like the Na'vi might be defeated once again, suddenly a great rumble is heard from beyond the forest. Numerous animals from throughout the planet join the fight, understanding that the RDA is destroying their world and their survival depends on their involvement. Not only is the neural connection on Pandora more significant than previously thought, but the creatures of the planet are capable of more complex decisions. "Eywa has heard you!" Neytiri screams as the animals join the fight, eventually leading to the RDA's defeat and the return of Pandora to its original inhabitants.

Jake's transformation

After the battle, many of the humans left on Pandora are forced to head back to Earth. Jake, of course, wants to stay, but can't really do so while still in his human body. The love between Jake and Neytiri is strong, but with humans unable to breathe Pandora's air, maintaining their relationship would be rather difficult. Not to mention the fact that Jake doesn't even consider himself human anymore. He's spent so much time as one of the Na'vi, learning and embracing, that remaining human would just be a letdown.

So Jake asks the Na'vi to connect his human body as well as his Na'vi avatar to the Tree of Souls via their neural networks. The Na'vi pray together, chant, and ask that Eywa transfer Jake from his human form into his avatar. The closing shot of the film is Jake's avatar opening his eyes urgently, suggesting that the process did indeed work, and that Jake can now go on living as a true Na'vi.

The supporting cast

Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace Augustine doesn't survive the battle of Hometree, and she was far from the only casualty. During the epic final conflict, Trudy switches sides as well, outfitting her fighter plane and face with Na'vi colors, but her plane gets shot down. Omaticaya chief Tsu'tey is also mortally wounded in the battle, and after the battle ends, asks Jake to end his suffering. At first, Jake is reluctant to do so, but as Tsu'tey explains, it is a great honor, and passes the tribe leadership on to Jake, before Jake ends his suffering.

On the human front, scientist Norm Spellman survives the battle. Unfortunately, his Na'vi avatar gets shot and dies, so Norm has to remain in his human form on Pandora from then on. Norm is one of the few humans who is permitted to stay, and he fronts a new and ongoing scientific exploration team, one that has nothing to do with procuring unobtainium or conquering the indigenous peoples of the planet. Neytiri's mother Mo'at also survives the final battle, and it's she who supervises the ritual at the Tree of Souls to transfer Jake's consciousness from his human body to his Na'vi avatar.

The bad guys

Greedy RDA administrator Parker Selfridge was only out for one thing: the money and power that came with dominating the Na'vi and destroying their land. As a character, Selfridge was the movie's embodiment of colonialist and imperialist capitalist interests. His description of the Na'vi as "fly-bitten savages who live in a tree" could mirror any of history's conquering forces as they dominated the indigenous peoples in various countries across the world. Thankfully, Selfridge is banished from Pandora by the end of the film, though it isn't known whether he's learned any kind of lesson.

A much more gruesome fate befalls Colonel Miles Quaritch, who over the course of the movie becomes a more sinister, violent, and frightening villain than Selfridge. During the final battle, Quaritch heads to the Hallelujah mountains where Jake's human body is connected to his Na'vi avatar through the pod. Quaritch tries to disconnect and kill Jake, but his mission is interrupted by Neytiri riding her new thanator, a fierce land mammal of Pandora that looks like a cross between a horse and a dinosaur. Just as Quaritch is about to crush Jake with the use of his AMP suit, Neytiri launches two giant arrows into his chest. It's after Quaritch's death that Neytiri meets Jake's human form for the first time, lovingly greeting each other with the traditional Na'vi saying, "I see you."

The meaning of Avatar

There are a number of ways to read Avatar and how it connects to our own history and possible futures. First, it's easy to see the parallels between the RDA's conquest of Pandora and the European colonization of America, Africa, Asia, and other nations. The RDA is financially driven, as were European countries during various imperial spreads. Gobbling up resources and forcing original inhabitants to move, or killing them when they didn't, was unfortunately a huge part of the formation of the modern world; its aftermath comes in the form of continued racism, the consequences of industrialization, and lost civilizations. Avatar is particularly evocative of the plights of Native Americans against European forces, which is why it's often compared to films like Dances with Wolves.

There's also the future that Avatar is suggesting. In 2154, humans have basically destroyed the Earth and turn to other planets in a repetitive cycle of environmental destruction. Avatar provides us with a view of what humans used to have: a pristine world of untouched, lush landscape. An atmosphere not destroyed by pollution, and a planet that is still thriving. ”There's a sense of entitlement," James Cameron told the Telegraph, adding that humans believe they're "entitled to every damn thing on this planet. That's not how it works and we're going to find out the hard way if we don't wise up and start seeking a life that's in balance with the natural cycles of life on Earth.”

Looking ahead: Avatar 2, 3, 4 and 5

Avatar was so successful, and James Cameron became so immersed in its world-building, that it's no surprise there are plans for a whopping four additional movies. The second and third installments in the franchise finished filming principal photography in November of 2018. Avatar: The Way of Water should hit theaters in December of 2020, while Avatar: The Seed Bearer will hopefully follow in December of 2021. We know little about both, except for the fact that the main actors are returning, including Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang.

Also joining the cast is Cameron vet Kate Winslet, who starred in his other record-breaking film, Titanic, and is bringing her water-acting experience to Pandora. In fact, it might have been the water portions of the sequel that made production take so long by interfering with the mo-cap technology used to render the world. As Cameron told Collider, "The problem with water is not the underwater part, but the interface between the air and the water, which forms a moving mirror. That moving mirror reflects all the dots and markers."

And what of movies 4 and 5? Don't get excited just yet. They're supposed to arrive around 2024 and 2025, though production is still in the brainstorming phase. "Let's face it, if Avatar 2 and 3 don't make enough money, there's not going to be a 4 and 5," Cameron told Vanity Fair. "They're fully encapsulated stories in and of themselves. It builds across the five films to a greater kind of meta narrative."

The legacy of Avatar

With or without the upcoming sequels, James Cameron's Avatar was a truly innovative and interesting film, one that plunged audiences deep into a new world and heralded a new era of filmmaking. The motion capture technology as well as the use of 3D definitely had an impact on the film industry. Although 3D as a gimmick is dying down a bit these days, motion capture, as well as new advances in computer graphics and life-like animation are more integral to filmmakers than ever.

It's those technological advancements that will be Avatar's lasting legacy, as well as Cameron's ability to bring action and heart to some of his most elaborate worlds. Even if we never see another Avatar movie, the original ushered us into the new millennium of cinematic experiences. It's exciting to imagine what's coming next from Cameron and Pandora.