For reasons that still aren’t entirely clear to me, it’s cool to hate Avatar, AKA the most successful movie ever made. People that love Marvel hate it because they see it as a threat to the MCU – which is apparently the only franchise that’s allowed to be successful anymore – and people that hate Marvel hate it, well, for the same reasons they hate Marvel. It’s cool to hate popular things, but with Avatar, there’s a pervading narrative that it was never even popular at all, despite the many billions it put in the bank.
There’s only a few common criticisms levied at Avatar, even after all these years. People like to say it’s too archetypal, and that it simply repeats the story and themes found in FernGully, Pocahontas, and Dances With Wolves. If this is your perspective – or you borrowed this perspective from South Park – I’d recommend that you work on your media literacy and then watch it again. Just because two movies share common themes doesn’t mean they’re the same movie, and Avatar is about a lot more than conservation – but that’s the subject of a different article. Secondly, people accuse Avatar of perpetuating the White Savior trope. This is a lot more nuanced than the first complaint, and while I think there’s important ways that it subverts the trope which make it a valuable commentary on these kinds of stories, once again, that topic is beyond my scope today.
The final complaint most commonly thrown at Avatar is that unobtanium is a stupid name for the rare earth mineral found beneath the surface of Pandora and coveted by the RDA. Unobtanium, a portmanteau of unobtainable and the -ium suffix commonly used for names of metal elements. This was either a placeholder name they forgot to change in the script, or Cameron was really sniffing his own farts when he came up with that one, right? Well no, obviously I don’t agree with that. I mean, you read the headline. This is a defense of unobtainium as it’s used in Avatar. If you think it’s dumb, you’re right, but also you’re wrong.
First of all, it’s not called unobtainium. The RDA calls it unobtanium, yes, but the people of Pandora do not. There is no native word for unobtanium in the film, though Cameron’s original treatment known as Project 880 says that the Na’vi call the huge outcroppings of unobtanium that float in the air “thundering rocks”, while Na’vi linguists have come up with the word “lingtskxe”; a combination of “ling”, or floating, and “skxe”, or rock. In any event, unobtanium is an exonym used only by the RDA, and specifically by head administrator Parker Selfridge.
This isn’t just semantics. Recognizing that unobtanium is the name given to this metal that only exists on Pandora helps us understand why it was called that in the first place. The first mistake is taking its etymology for granted. Marvel has trained us otherwise. We don’t question why it’s called the Tesseract, the Darkhold, or the Eye of Agamatto. We don’t know who named the Infinity Stones or dubbed Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir. That’s just what they’re called, and admittedly, they sound cool. Unobtanium does not sound cool, but it isn’t supposed to.
The term unobtanium (and unobtainium) has been used since at least the late ‘50s by engineers and scientists to refer to a difficult or impossible to procure material that has the perfect characteristics for a specific purpose. Aerospace engineers use “unobtanium” in thought experiments to refer to material that would be light enough/strong enough/cheap enough for a particular need. Over time, the word expanded to refer to something that does exist, but is almost impossible to acquire. While designing the SR-71 Blackbird, engineers at Lockheed referred to titanium as unobtainium because, at the time, the Soviet Union controlled the global supply.
Unobtanium is used in science fiction the same way. In Dune, spice is a kind of unobtanium, as it is both rare and is perfectly suited for a particular purpose: allowing pilots to navigate safely during interstellar travel. Ringworld has an unobtanium called scrith, and the 2003 disaster film The Core has an imaginary alloy that can turn heat into electricity called, that’s right – unobtanium.
Cameron didn’t invent the concept of unobtanium, nor did he come up with the word. Avatar’s unobtanium fits the same definition as all the others. The supplemental book James Cameron’s Avatar: An Activist Survival Guide, explains that unobtanium is a room temperature superconductor with a number of unique properties that make it a profoundly useful energy generator. Hence why Selfridge says it’s worth $20 million per kilo on Earth, and why the RDA is willing to uproot the Hometree and kill the Omaticaya to get it. Cameron could have invented a new name for Avatar’s unobtanium, like melange or scrith, but he didn’t. And it wasn’t for lack of imagination, at least, not on his part.
Here’s the crux of my argument: the engineers at the RDA called it unobtanium as engineers do, and the unimaginative suits like Selfridge just went with it. Cameron says as much in the Project 880 treatment when he writes, “Its joke name of ‘unobtanium’ has stuck, over the years.” If you don’t think he knew exactly what he was doing, guess what he names the passenger ship that delivers Jake (or Josh as he was known then) to Pandora? The Lockheed-Saab TAV-37 “Valkyrie” Class Shuttle. There are no oversights in the world-building of Avatar, nor in Cameron’s attention to detail.
You don’t need to read the original treatment or any supplemental books to understand why unobtanium is called unobtanium. RDA stands for Resources Development Administration for Christ’s sake! This is the banality of evil in action, boring us with hollow terminology while they genocide a tribe of native Pandorans. Calling it unobtanium speaks to the lack of creative spirit demonstrated by the RDA, whose weapons of advanced engineering were summarily defeated by mystics and warriors of Eywa.
The irony of rolling your eyes at ‘unobtanium’ is that you’re absolutely meant to. The RDA STEMlords that named unobtanium are as cringe as our modern-day engineering intellectuals. It’s exceedingly easy to imagine Elon Musk discovering a rare metal on Mars and calling it unobtanium, isn’t it?. A made-up name like pandorium or magnetium would have drawn less ire from uncritical thinkers, but it wouldn’t have been as meaningful or helped build the world as Avatar the way that unobtanium does. It’s not that deep, all things considered, but it is an example of Cameron’s strength as a storyteller, not his weakness.
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