The Volokh Conspiracy

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Avatar: The Way of Water and Ghen v. Rich

The blockbuster movie tracks a classic property decision. Spoilers!


Today I watched Avatar: The Way of the Water. There are spoilers here, so I will put the rest of the post after the jump.

The first Avatar movie, which was released more than a decade ago, explored several property-related themes including the rights of indigenous people, acquisition by conquest, and subsurface mining rights. The sequel moves from the forest to the ocean. On the planet of Pandora, there is a whale-like creature that is sacred to the native beings. The film depicts a whale-hunt that evokes many of the themes present in Ghen v. Rich, a classic property decision that most students learn during 1L.

In the future,  hunters have used technology to solve many of the problems that the 19th century whalers faced. First, the hunters shoot the creature with a tracking device, so they can follow it. They had sophisticated radar to detect schools of these creatures, and even tried to separate the mother from the calf. Second, when the creature submerges, they shoot explosives into the water (known as depth charges) to force the creature to surface. Third, after the creature surfaces, they fire an exploding harpoon at the creature–very similar in design to the bomb-lance in Ghen v. Rich, but much, much bigger. The harpoon is connected to the hull of the boat. The creature then takes a boat for a ride. Fourth, when the creature begins to slow down, they shoot the creature with these floating devices–basically inflatable life rafts. That way, when the creature dies, it does not sink to the bottom of the ocean. (That was the practice at issue in Ghen v. Rich.) After the creature dies, they then tow it onboard their flying boat. (The boat transforms into something of a flying machine.)

After the animal is slaughtered, we learn why the hunters engaged in this elaborate process. The creatures are hunted to extract a very tiny amount of matter from the carcas. Several hunters walk into the creature's mouth (Jonah-style), and drill into the brain cavity. What are they trying to get? No, it's not whale oil. Rather, in the brains of these creatures is this shiny yellow liquid that "stops the aging process." (Yes, that is actually the purpose). A small container of the material costs $80 million. The hunters say it is the most valuable substance in the universe–even more valuable than the metal known as "unobtanium," which was mined during the first Avatar movie. (Unobtanium was valued at $20 million per kilogram.) The value of this yellow ooze explains why the hunters are willing to risk life and limb (and both are lost) to secure the whale. By contrast, 19th century whalers were able to extract about 6 tons of oil from 60 ton whale.

The first whale hunt is successful for the hunters. The second whale hunt does not go so well for the hunters. I'll leave it there.