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Everything you need to remember from 'Avatar' before seeing 'Avatar: The Way of Water'

Your primer on all things Pandora.
By Belen Edwards  on 
One Na'vi teaches another to shoot a bow and arrow.
It's been a while: Let's catch up. Credit: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation/Kobal/Shutterstock

It's been over a decade since James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar first hit theaters and destroyed box office records. Since then, it became the highest-grossing film of all time, lost that title to Avengers: Endgame, then reclaimed it after a re-release. It's also become a meme as the "the most popular movie no one remembers."

Now that its sequel Avatar: The Way of Water is making its way into theaters, it's high time for a refresher on the lore underpinning Cameron's universe. Here's a crash course in all things Avatar before you hit the multiplex.

Where does Avatar take place?

A helicopter flies through floating mountains.
Behold, the floating mountains of Pandora. Credit: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation/Kobal/Shutterstock

The setting of Avatar is what drives the film, so it's the perfect starting point for our recap journey. Avatar takes place on Pandora, a moon covered in lush forests and floating mountains. Pandora's indigenous people are the Na'vi, who are ten foot-tall blue aliens who don't take kindly to humans — whom they call "sky people" — invading their home.

Why are humans on Pandora?

In Avatar, the main group of humans on Pandora is the Resources Development Association (RDA). Their goal? Mining the highly valuable compound of unobtainium. What is unobtainium? Eh, don't really worry about it. All you need to know is that the RDA's methods cause widespread ecological devastation, putting them in conflict with the Na'vi. To establish contact with the Na'vi and explore Pandora without human casualties, a group of RDA-affiliated scientists take part in the "avatar program," run by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).

What is an avatar?

An avatar is a human-Na'vi hybrid body that a human is able to pilot remotely with their mind. This grants a pilot many advantages like greater speed, agility, and being able to breathe Pandoran air, which is toxic to humans. However, not just anyone can pilot an avatar. Each avatar is grown from one human's DNA. Only that human can serve as a pilot.

Who is the main character of Avatar?

A human man looks at a Na'vi body floating in a suspension tank.
Jake and his avatar. Credit: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation/Kobal/Shutterstock

That would be Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Jake is a paraplegic Marine veteran whose identical twin Tommy was supposed to take part in the avatar program. However, when Tommy died on Earth, the RDA offered his contract to Jake, whose DNA matched Tommy's already-grown (and therefore extremely expensive to produce) avatar. With his Marine experience, Jake is brought on as security detail for the scientists, including Grace, Norm (Joel David Moore), and Max (Dileep Rao). He also agrees to spy on the Na'vi for the RDA without the scientists' knowledge.

While on an excursion through the forests of Pandora, Jake meets a Na'vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). She spares his life thanks to a sign from the Na'vi goddess Eywa. Because of this sign her clan, the Omaticaya people, agree to teach Jake their ways. It's not long before Jake switches allegiances from the RDA to his newfound clan.

What are the Na'vi customs I should remember?

Learning the Na'vi customs makes up a big chunk of Avatar, and quite a few come into play in Avatar: The Way of Water. The big one to remember is that the Na'vi's prime deity is Eywa, or the Great Mother. She's the life force of Pandora, and according to Na'vi belief, everything returns to Eywa upon dying. The place where you can most closely feel Eywa is the Tree of Souls.

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Another important part of Na'vi culture is tsaheylu: the mental bond between living things. This bond is achieved by linking a Na'vi's braid to a similar braid found on all animals, or even on certain plants like the Tree of Souls. Na'vi also link their braids when they mate, so in the first movie, the whole process feels weirdly sexual. Don't worry, though; that's not really the case in Avatar: The Way of Water.

The Na'vi use their braids to link up to animals to ride them, and the most important of these animals to remember are the flying predators known as the ikran. To become a Na'vi hunter in the Omaticaya clan, you must climb through the floating mountains and tame one. Jake manages this and passes the test to become a hunter.

Who are the villains in Avatar?

A man in a giant mech suit.
Papa dragon wants to dance. Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

The entire RDA is full of nasty characters, but the Big Bad you need to remember is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). He's a staunch military type hell-bent on wiping out the Na'vi to further the RDA's mission. And he almost succeeds! He and the RDA blow up the Omaticaya Hometree, and later they try to destroy the Tree of Souls as well. At one point before battle he calls himself "papa dragon," and while that's not important to the plot, it is important to me.

Quaritch dies fighting Neytiri in Avatar's third act, meeting his end at the point of her arrows. However, Lang is returning as Quaritch in Avatar: The Way of Water, so it's clear he's not completely out of the picture yet. Just remember, he has a bone to pick with Jake and with Neytiri.

How does Avatar end?

A Na'vi snarls.
Consider me intimidated. Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

When they learn of Jake's role as a spy, the Na'vi imprison him. However, after the attack on Hometree, Jake regains the Na'vi's trust by taming a great flying predator known as the toruk. In doing so, he earns the title of Toruk Makto, which is bestowed upon great Na'vi heroes. He, the Na'vi, and the wildlife of Pandora band together to defeat the RDA and stop them from destroying the Tree of Souls. The defeated humans are banished from Pandora, save a few scientists who wish to stay, like Norm and Max.

However, there are some casualties before the Na'vi reach victory. The biggest one to remember is Grace, who gets shot by Quaritch. The Omaticaya attempt to transfer her soul to her avatar body permanently but fail. As she dies, she tells Jake that she can see Eywa.

Elsewhere, Jake and Neytiri choose each other as mates. Then, after the final battle, the Omaticaya try to bring his soul into his avatar body for good. This time they succeed, and Jake awakens in his avatar.

And that's it! You're now ready to return to Pandora. Avatar: The Way of Water picks up just over a decade after the end of the first film. We catch up with Jake, Neytiri, and their growing family. But it isn't all fun and games: A new threat is looming on the horizon as the sky people make their dreaded return. Haven't they done enough?

Avatar: The Way of Water is now in theaters.

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Belen Edwards

Entertainment Reporter

Belen Edwards is an Entertainment Reporter at Mashable. She covers movies and TV with a focus on fantasy and science fiction, adaptations, animation, and more nerdy goodness.


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