Adventures in Ethics and Science

Movie review: Avatar.

While the sprogs were hanging out at the aquarium with the Grandparents Who Lurk But Seldom Comment, my better half and I went to see a 3-D IMAX screening of Avatar. My big concerns going in were that all the 3-D IMAX goodness would make me motion-sick, and that if that didn’t get me, then the story by James Cameron might make me lose my lunch.

I am happy to report that neither of these outcomes came to pass. Not that the plot here is especially sophisticated, nor the characters terribly complex, but they weren’t as dreadful as I had feared from the Twitterati and the Facebookers.

The main event here, unsurprisingly, is the three-dimensional world that Cameron has created on the moon Pandora. Cameron could have created a three hour nature program featuring the flora and fauna of Pandora (in glorious 3-D IMAX) and I would have been completely satisfied. However much was budgeting for visual effects here was money well spent.

Having gone into the theater with precisely no inkling of the plot, I don’t want to give much away. (If you want plot points, I suspect other reviews or sources will give you what you seek.)

I will note that a recurrent theme was the question of where you belong and with whom — or what — you align yourself. Another theme (and one that didn’t work as well for me) had to do with whether being full-up (whether with book-learning or something else) gets in the way of being able to really grasp something new.

The villains in this movie are completely predictable, but it’s hard to fault Cameron for that when the military-industrial complex and multinational corporations do villainy so well in the real world. In Cameron’s film Aliens, the military types ended up standing up to the company and fighting on the right side. In Avatar, not so much. There’s probably an interesting story to tell here about how much closer private corporations and military forces have become in the 23 years since Aliens was released that makes their banality-of-evil partnership here so convincing.

More surprising is the fact that the scientists in this movie are the good guys (or at least, are well-aligned with the forces of good). There’s a striking parallel between the scientists’ engagement with Pandora and its inhabitants and the military forces’ engagement with them, although the former is more biological and graceful, the latter more mechanized and clunky. It’s hard to know whether there was supposed to be a deeper message suggested here (about the complexity of living things compared to products of human intelligence, the coolness of biology compared to engineering, or whatever).

The characters are not deep. To some extent, this actually works here; as you are immersed in this world’s sights and sounds, the characters are blank enough slates that you can imagine yourself into their skins and try to figure out what you would do in circumstances that seem impossibly constrained. The optimist in me would have liked to have seen more of the legions on the wrong side of the fight ready to pull back and change sides, but the realist in me recognizes that some jobs (especially in harsh economic times) can really wear a person down.

There is plenty of violence in this movie, some swearing, and some cigarette smoking. It might be scary for youngish kids. However, the critters are very, very cool.

At least in these parts, shows have been selling out well before show time, so it may be a good idea to try to get tickets online rather than showing up at the theater and hoping to get lucky.

Comments

  1. #1 MattK
    December 29, 2009

    I really enjoyed this movie. The landscape and the flora and fauna were really well imagined and executed. Obviously some zoologists consulted on the film. The critters were very cool and I enjoyed the depth of the detail (scleral ossicles on the skull of the big red flying thing, movable internal jaws on the slightly less big green flying things (a la morrays? will have to look again)). My biggest quibble is that the N’avi don’t seem to share many homologies with other large ‘vertebrates’ (they didn’t have six limbs, or respiratory venty things, or eyelids that closed from the side, and their teeth looked like human teeth rather than projecting directly from the jaw ‘bone’ as in the other creatures. Also, not being mammals, why do the (nulliparous even) females have breasts? I guess there are limits to what the audience will empathize with (and to what marines will fall in love with (who knew?))

    My girlfriend found the villains unrealistically exploitative and, well, villainous but it seemed entirely likely to me. I think that she was unduly influenced by optimistic STNG humanism during her formative years.

  2. #2 Roadtripper
    December 29, 2009

    The alien creatures of Pandora were the work of Wayne D. Barlowe, author/artist of “Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials” and “Expedition.” Another notable technical expert who worked on Avatar was Dr. Charles Pellegrino, whose ‘Valkyrie’ concept was the basis for the starship in the movie.

    And I don’t know who did the landscapes of Pandora, but they remind me of nothing else so much as my old Roger Dean album covers.

    Rt

  3. #3 GrayGaffer
    December 29, 2009

    I guess Cameron realized we – and the Avatar – would have a hard time feeling that falling in love was a likely thing to do and not a bestial perversion. They not only had breasts, they had belly buttons. But we had no bio lessons on them so we cannot necessarily say they were not mammals.

    The lack of the second pair of arms was more problematic for me. Could have been done without losing the humanly sexy look.

    Apart from the handy connecting fibers they all had in common, I could see a future episode going into how the Na’Vi are not actually indigenous, or that the whole biome was a deliberate creation on the part of some Elder race.

  4. #4 WiseWoman
    December 29, 2009

    Here’s a really great discussion on the science of Avatar – I would give it an A, too!

    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/43440

  5. #5 IanW
    December 29, 2009

    I’m a little surprised that we haven’t heard more about this movie from the Sci-blogs crew. I guess it’s just not on your collective radar! But it’s great to see a female perspective on this.

  6. #6 Alan E.
    December 29, 2009

    I read somewhere that James Cameron is working on developing a Blu-Ray disc that allows you to watch in 3D at home. It would be awesome if there was a disc of purely “exploring” Pandora.

    While watching the movie, though, one thought kept flashing through my mind. Ferngully. Ferngully with a Titanic budget (in reference to size and Cameron’s previous film ;) ). That’s how I’ve been explaining the story to people who haven’t seen it yet. I enjoyed the Utopian ideal that the Na’vi shared with the world, and the environmental message beneath clashing with the corporate ideal. Of all that was put into the movie, I was most upset with the name of the mineral for which the humans were mining: Unobtainium. Really? I laughed out loud and got a few stares when the name was first mentioned. I’m sure I will laugh again when I watch it at home (hopefully in 3D!).

  7. #7 Kathy Orlinsky
    December 29, 2009

    I agree, it was odd that the Na’Vi did not have six limbs. And of course, the fauna being so similar to that on Earth was a stretch.

    However, the thing that I really could not believe was that the scientists had funding for a completely equipped secondary lab that lay unused up in the mountains. Show of hands, who here has a vacation lab they can retreat to?

  8. #8 Adam M. Project
    January 7, 2010

    I’m doing a philosophy project on Avatar and I was wondering what the main philosophical points are in the film. IF anyone has any comments that would be greatly appreciated.

  9. #9 Mahesh
    January 11, 2010

    @Adam.M

    Some of the philosophical points

    1. The name – AVATAR – derived some Sankrit it can be interpreted as – manifestation of one form (usually super human form )into another form (human or animal).

    2. Transmogrification of Grace & Jake into Na’vi clan. Its derived from the Hindu philosophy on the Soul & Rebirth.

    3. Before the climax you get to Jake praying to the Eywa to help in winning against the skypeople. Ney’tri intervenes and says – The mother(eywa or God ) doesnt take sides. One form of energy that is getting transferred to another. i.e the nature is balance of energy forms and the ecosystem expects the ratio of its various forms/living organism be maintained.