Is Avatar Really a Political Commentary on Eminent Domain Abuse?
Posted in Right to Take

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see Avatar.  With two young kids, we rarely see movies in the theaters, and we picked this one based on its advertised special effects, not any belief that it was the "best" movie among our choices.  

As I watched, I never really thought of it as an expression of outrage over eminent domain abuse.  Looking around the Internet, however, the movie seems to have been picked up by eminent domain reformists as a big budget example of eminent domain gone bad.  But is it, really?  Let's look at some facts:

  1. The "acquisition" was being handled by a private company, not any government agency.  Yes, sometimes eminent domain is pursued on behalf of private companies (typically, in the redevelopment context), but rarely does a private company itself have such power -- though there are a few notable exceptions (for a big one, explore the chain of events that sent Walt Disney to Florida for his "new" theme park decades ago);
  2. There was no pretense of "public use."  The fundamental premise was that the "unobtanium" being sought was worth $20 million per kilogram, meaning the company would pursue it at virtually any cost -- including decimation of the Na'vi village. 
  3. There was no established right to take.   Fundamentally, the movie did not involve a government's adoption of a resolution of necessity establishing a right to take the property.  Instead, it represented blatant imperialism:  we will take what we want because we can.
  4. There was no payment of just compensation.  Maybe I missed something (it was a really long movie), but I don't remember the company appraising the property and paying for it at fair market value. 

In the end, the movie may resonate with eminent domain critics, and it certainly contains the themes found in modern-day "eminent domain abuse" cases.  But it does not reflect how eminent domain really occurs. 

This hasn't stopped it from being used with increasing frequency in the campaign against eminent domain.  In early January, New York eminent domain attorney Michael Rikon, speaking at a New York Senate Committee hearing on eminent domain abuse, directly compared Avatar to current New York eminent domain practices:  "this is how eminent domain works in New York."   

An article by David Boaz in today's Los Angeles Times, "The right has 'Avatar' wrong," takes the position that conservatives -- who have typically derided Avatar's "liberal" themes -- miss the movie's main point:  "what they have missed is that the essential conflict in the story is a battle over property rights."  Mr. Boaz sums it up as follows;

"Avatar" is like a space opera of the Kelo case, which went to the Supreme Court in 2005. Peaceful people defend their property against outsiders who want it and who have vastly more power. 

I'm still not convinced the movie speaks to me as an eminent domain lawyer.  But I will say this:  if eminent domain opponents can convince the public that real world eminent domain mirrors James Cameron's fantasy world, the reform movement may continue its post-Kelo momentum for longer than I have otherwise predicted.   And, in places like New York -- where, unlike California, eminent domain reform efforts continue to move forward -- this may well be the case. 

As for the movie itself:  the effects were indeed spectacular, though the plot was predictably predictable. 

  • Rick E. Rayl

    Rick Rayl is an experienced litigator on a broad range of complex civil litigation issues.  His practice is concentrated primarily on eminent domain, inverse condemnation, and other real-estate-valuation disputes.  His public ...

California Eminent Domain Report is a one-stop resource for everything new and noteworthy in eminent domain. We cover all aspects of eminent domain, including condemnation, inverse condemnation and regulatory takings. We also keep track of current cases, project announcements, budget issues, legislative reform efforts and report on all major eminent domain conferences and seminars in the Western United States.

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