Having just seen the film “Avatar”, I’m still pondering the substance Unobtainium, which shows up early on in the plot. It was a bold move for James Cameron to include something of this name in his story. “Unobtainium” is, in some circles, a well known substance. Whether you work in the sciences or the film industry, it is the thing you can’t get. For example, my cousin who works in film production tells me that the replacement lamp you need on the set, when there is no replacement lamp to be had, is said to be made of Unobtainium.

It turns out that this substance has its very own Wikipedia page — from which I learned that it is not actually the rarest substance in the universe. That turns out to be “Handwavium” — referring to something that can’t actually exist in any universe at all, because it consists of hand waving. Apparently that is the rarest substance of all. Or the most common, depending upon how you look at it.

Unobtainium (in case you need to know what it looks like)

I love the way that Cameron just plops this term right in the middle of the most literal-minded expensively realized special effects film in history, a movie in which each leaf on every blade of grass was lovingly created at immense detail, and at even more immense expense. In the midst of all of this slavish devotion to accuracy, this delicacy of execution, he throws us a giant neon sign, a metaphor as clankingly, pointedly in-your-face as, say, the first three letters of the title character’s name in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”.

This is a move that shows great confidence, which I like. After all, in the world of the film, when one character explains to another that this is Unobtainium, the appropriate response would have been “What? Is this some kind of joke? Or are you just a complete idiot?” But of course that’s not how it goes down. The characters are not in on the joke — only we are, the audience. Cameron is asking us to join him in a moment of outrageously post-modern comedy in an otherwise very self-serious story. Basically he’s telegraphing, in no uncertain terms, that all of this world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

When you watch “Avatar”, if you haven’t already (I recommend it highly — it’s right up there with “Lost in Austen”), you’ll see that this seemingly tiny Shakespearean detail is, in fact, a precise commentary on one of the central themes of the story. And that’s just genius.

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