A recent blog post about wormholes reminded me of that moment while I sat in the theater watching Avatar and they named the mineral that they were on that planet to mine — Unobtainium.

I was the only person in the theater to laugh.  Was this funny? Not directly. Using the term unobtainium started in the sciences when a element was needed to fulfill an experiment, but that element was impossible to obtain or use.  It’s also been used in SciFi by Larry Niven and others. I appreciated its use in the movie, but apparently nobody else thought it was funny.

I’m a geek. What can I say?

What is unobtainium? Wikipedia defines it as:

In engineering, fiction, or thought experiments, unobtainium is any extremely rare, costly, or physically impossible material needed to fulfill a given design for a given application. The properties of any particular unobtainium depend on the intended use. For example, a pulley made of unobtainium might be massless and frictionless. However, if used in a nuclear rocket, unobtainium would be light, strong at high temperatures, and resistant to radiation damage. The concept of unobtainium is often applied flippantly or humorously.

I also blogged about it in July 2008 when discussing the movie The Core, a movie that’s been panned by critics and audiences alike, but I also appreciated it’s use of the term unobtaninium in the movie. It’s a word that says to me: “Yes, I know it’s a silly word, but we’re asking you to suspend your disbelief and go with it.”

Is unobtanium the same in The Core as in Avatar? No. In The Core, it’s the metal used for the hull of the ship so it wouldn’t melt when going to the core of the earth. Handy, that fictional metal that does the impossible. In Avatar, its a mineral that has magnetic properties, or something. I wasn’t clear on it’s definite qualities, but perhaps that was done on purpose. Whatever it is, it’s rare, nearly impossible to obtain, and worth a lot of money.

There are other such terms in SciFi. Some are theoretical in real sciences as well as fiction. Some might say faster than light (FTL) travel for spaceships is impossible, or a type of unobtainium.

What about Superman’s kryponite?

Or Wolverine’s adamantium?

Have you read or watched a story with unobtainium?

Or, do you like seeing this kind of “in-joke” in a movie or story?


Ella Drake is a dark paranormal and science fiction romance author. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, & Goodreads. Her next release is Jaq’s Harp, coming February 21st from Carina Press.

This slightly revised tidbit was originally posted at The Raven Happy Hour.



  1. I love when movies fit in these types of jokes, but I prefer them to be subtle. The word unobtainium sounds so silly it has the power to throw me right out of the movie when used as prominently as in Avatar. I also like when later movies insert something for fans of earlier movies or when genre movies reference each other. For example, AVP requiem put one of the objects from the bridge of the Nostrmo (original Alien movie) in an early shot of the film. Predator 2 showed an “alien” skull as a trophy in the Predator ship. It is a nod to genre fans and I love it.

  2. Oh, I love finding those references, too. Lately I’ve been noticing them in the animated movies by Hayao Miyazaki. He references his films in his later ones & it’s always cool to look for and find them.
    The latest was pretty cool, though, to see Miyazaki’s Totoro do a “cameo” in Toy Story 3.

  3. Then, of course, there are the fictional Tarantino brands that show up in other films.

    1. Tarantino *is* a brand!

  4. I laughed when I heard unobtainium in Avatar, mostly because I thought it was a pure laziness and I didn’t think that sort of tongue-in-cheek humor meshed with the self-importance of the movie… er… can you tell I wasn’t a big fan? But when it fits the movie? Yeah, it can be a lot of fun, especially when you notice something your uber-geeky husband hasn’t (and yes, I’m still waiting for that day to come).

    1. You know, I agree that unobtainium fit with the movie. None of the rest of it was remotely tongue-in-cheek.
      Speaking of uber-geeky husband’s, I don’t notice much he doesn’t either–he’s a stickler for detail and the expert on finding plot holes. Can be NO FUN watching some movies with him. He’d agree with you on Avatar, but I saw it in the theater and let myself be blown away by the 3D. I refuse to watch it on DVD because I know I won’t enjoy it the same way.

  5. I love the name Unobtainium! It’s like calling it, “the MacGuffin”. I thought it worked nicely in Avatar, as something that really didn’t need explaining. But in The Core they did try to explain it–as an alloy that cools as the temperature rises, or something–and fell flat on their cheesy faces. Sometimes it’s better to leave it to the imagination.

    1. The only thing I liked about The Core was DJ Qualls. Because, inexplicably, I’m a fan. 😉

      1. He had a fun character!

    2. I watched The Core after all the critics had panned it & after reading articles that trashed the science. I think that made it better for me because I could laugh at that stuff and enjoy it as camp, though I don’t think they intended it that way 🙂
      Sometimes bad is sooooo good.

  6. I’d never heard of unobtainium (as a movie watcher, I’m a failure). But I love the definition and the sense of fun. Unobtainium, LOL

    1. I guess it’s an uber-geeky thing, but I love it!

  7. Sandra Allan · · Reply

    I think that was the only funny thing in Avatar unless you include the last hour of the movie. I was like you Ella.- picture packed theater and me laughing. I’m all for these terms but I have to agree and say it was lazy in Avatar. At least in the Core there was a little bit of substance behind the term – get it substance hehehe.

    1. Yeah, it didn’t fit in Avatar.
      What kind of substance, though, that’s the question!

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