Avatar, The Movie, Reviewed

Short form: Good movie. I think the following review does not have any significant plot spoilers.

For me, in retrospect, the movie started before it started with a long multi-part tear-jerking recruiting ad for the U.S. National Guard, followed by a tribute to the troops in Iraq sponsored by Walmarts. Why was that part of the movie? I’ll tell you in a minute.

The premise of Avatar is this: In the year 2154 or so, Earthling-Americans have started to mine the hard to get and rare mineral Hardtogetium (or something like that) and an indigenous population is in the way. There are scientists who want to work with the natives and a military unit led by a hawkish ex Marine officer with a bad attitude that wants to boogie booya style and macerate the natives. And the scientists.

The “Pandorans” (the Natives) are very Native American (Neo Pan Native American), mounted (on something vaguely like a horse) hunter gatherers exhibiting relative group and gender egalitarianism and a sort of kingship, with a subequal female spiritual leader, that strongly resembles Sumerian kingship. And they also can ride pterodactyls. The trope is highly derivative of Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” which is probably why it all seems so anthropological. In this story, rather than have the natives possess a feature or essence that earthlings just can’t understand, they possess a set of cultural traits that earthlings can totally get, if only they would put down their guns and test tubes and corporate quarterly reports long enough to whatever whatever.

There are numerous cultural references to “primitive” and “tribal” people, and I sense that the words “primitive” and “tribal” were used routinely in making the movie. “Get me something that feels primitive for this part” or “I know they’re doing the tribal thing but it doesn’t feel tribal enough” and so on. The ululations as war cries are a bit hokey but maybe actually authentic as a kind of universal feature (in that many groups of humans do this, not just Movie Indians). But tuned in people will notice it.

But, the Pandorans, who are large and blue with alieny faces but very human bodies with tails, are the cool ones, the ones you root for. And the “highly advanced civilization” is not cool and you want to seem them all die.

Except for the scientists who, for once, are all doing the right thing all of the time.

One of the big stars in this movie is the bio-luminescence. The plants glow sufficiently that the night is not dark, and even the humanoids have glowing freckles.

Another underlying feature of the story is this: The natives have a spiritual religious thing going in their relationship to their planet and all life on it which, again, is very Native American. When a hunter kills an animal, she or he gives the animal a greeting, says sorry about the part where I have to kill you and stuff, and thanks the animal for the meat, as it is being done in. But there is an important difference between Pandoran spirituality and the Native American one it is vaguely based on: The former is real. The plants and the animals really do have a connection, in the form of ubiquitous neural-like tissues with at least two modalities of intraspecific interconnection (one direct fiber connection the other some kind of fossorial transduction) which are, in fact, the subject of scientist Sigourney Weaver’s research. So, the Tree that is God has more than a walk-on part in this film, and gets directly involved in the plot, and not for being god-like, but rather, for having evolved on what has always been a fantasy plant of mine: A planet on which it just happened to be the case that neural tissues were cheap and easy instead of expensive and finicky like they are on Earth.

The language spoken by the Pandorans was designed and taught to the actors by Linguist Paul Frommer, by the way.

Otherwise, the great thing about this movie is that it is exactly what doing field work is like. Oh, and did I mention that they ride pterodactyls?

The depiction of the military in this movie would not have been allowed from a mainstream US based studio in 2002/3, or if it did happen it would have drawn protests (from crazy people, but protests nonetheless). There is exactly one and only one active duty soldier or officer in the movie that you do not want to see throttled (and she is, indeed, a rebel and a hero). The rest of them you hate. Which is fine, but just a few years ago in the US a movie that ridiculed and demonized the military to this extent would have received some form of whinging criticism. In my theater, the movie was preceded by two “The Military is The Thaing, Worship It” commercials as I mentioned above, which is what made me think of the contrast. So Imma gonna let the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan finish and all, but I just want to say it is refreshing to see The Military Solution get raked over the coals for once in a decade.

As I have noted before, I’m a movie slut. Not because I watch a lot of movies, but because I’ll watch anything. So don’t get your movie advice from me. But this is actually, in my view, a must see if your tastes include any kind of sci-fi or if you just like alien plants and bio-luminescence.

I saw the 3D version, but I don’t think the 3D is that important. Either way should be fine.

When I look at the following trailer, I realize that what I saw in, and say above about, the movie is totally unrelated to what the marketers of the movie think. So maybe you should watch this:


  1. #1 Jason Thibeault
    December 30, 2009

    Yes, hardtogetium is almost exactly named that. Unobtainium. Jodi and I both scoffed at it. “We need a McGuffin… something really hard to obtain. An ore? Called Unobtainium? Get that guy a promotion to lead writer.”

  2. #2 Derek Colanduno
    December 30, 2009

    I enjoyed the movie greatly. But, after a night or so to reflect on it. I feel that if Cameron got the Best Picture award for Titanic. Why shouldn’t he get it again for this?

    As I said, I liked the movie, but as with Titanic, it was a tad predicable, and used tons of CGI for a big payoff in the last scenes of the movie. 🙂

  3. #3 Virgil Samms
    December 30, 2009

    The movie was enjoyable, the effects were terrific, but I think the possibility of an Oscar for best movie is far-fetched. I would think a best movie of the year ought to put a little bit of thought into originality of plot and characters. Lots of people are referring to it as Dances with Na’vi.

  4. #4 nemski
    December 30, 2009

    Basic story, great effects, good flick. And you are right, scientists were being scientists.

  5. #5 IanW
    December 30, 2009

    I find it curious that for a movie which exhibits (not so much revolutionary as) ground-breaking image technology, and which has attracted the attention of such movie moguls as Speilberg and Lucas, you suggest that the 2d version is the equal of the 3D! It isn’t: Immediately when I came out of that movie I wanted to go right back in and see the next show. It’s very rare that I have that feeling.

    Jason Rosenhouse mentions in his blog review that it took him a half-hour to get used to the 3D. I guess this varies, because it really disturbed me to begin with but then after only a couple of minutes I guess my brain adjusted and I was no longer cognizant of any problems, but I was continually enthralled by the 3D. It never stopped amazing me. It was realistic to the point of me getting that pit-of-the-stomach nervous feeling when they leapt from a tree (I’m not fond of heights!), and I actually flinched at one point late in the movie when something (a rock or shrapnel, I forget) flew out of the screen.

    I found that once my brain had adjusted to the 3D, I could look at the movie in 2D (by lowering the eyeglasses) for a few seconds and then go right back to 3D for comparison purposes without re-experiencing the same issue I had at the very start.

    The business of apologizing to the animal you just slayed isn’t a native American (or isn’t just a native American) practice, it’s also an African practice if we’re to believe the native lifestyle depicted in “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. But I agree with you that there was a very strong native American aura to the N’avi, extending right to the way they were named. I understood (rightly or wrongly!) that “N’avi” means “the people” or something along those lines. Isn’t there also a native American tribe which has a name meaning the same thing?

    It wasn’t hard to see the ‘conquering” of the “wild” west and the marginalization of native Americans as the same story as we saw in Avatar. Talking of which, on his blog, Selva mentions that ‘avatar’ comes from India, and when the Indian god Vishnu came down on one of his visits to Earth, his avatar was blue. I found that rather interesting.

    Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful review. I must confess I’m rather surprised that the science bloggers here have not addressed this movie more than they have!

  6. #6 Jason
    December 30, 2009

    I can’t imagine watching a movie in a theater anymore. If I wanna pee, I hit pause, go pee, grab a human-sized healthy snack, settle into a nice comfy chair after not struggling past a row of people who cannot grasp simple clearly explained plot points and so loudly explain to each other…

    Sure, it’s a also a lot cheaper to watch at home, but the viewing experience is the biggest deal. That movie will still be here in a few months, I’m just not that impatient.

  7. #7 qetzal
    December 30, 2009

    I liked it a lot as well. The best part for me was the middle segment where what’s-his-name is learning to be Na’vi, simply because the alien forest and creatures was rendered with such creativity and attention to detail.

    Worst part was the floating mountains. Why spend so much time trying to be realistic in other areas (including having a linguist create a complete and consistent Na’vi language), and then throw in magic floating mountains for no reason other than visual imagery? Totally unnecessary.

  8. #8 rpsms
    December 30, 2009

    I still can’t believ they called it unobtainium, that’s an entry in the tv trope encyclopedia:


  9. #9 Greg Laden
    December 30, 2009

    IanW: I think the 3D is a trick, and it is potentially annoying, and I don’t like wearing glasses on top of my glasses. There has to be a really good reason for me (and I think a lot of other people) to prefer the 3D movie.

    House of Wax … withoiut the 3D, that movie totally sucked, but with the 3D tricks they threw in, 3D saved it. This movie is fine without the 3D. None of the ground breaking technology need the 3D.

    But, if someone really like 3D, go for the 3D. I did pay the extra for it and I don’t regret it. I just think that if it is not available to you in 3D, or you are brining a family of 6 and don’t want to spend a hundred bucks, don’t fret.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    December 30, 2009

    IanW again: The business of apologizing to the animal you just slayed isn’t a native American (or isn’t just a native American) practice, it’s also an African practice if we’re to believe the native lifestyle depicted in “The Gods Must Be Crazy”.

    Having spent months in the Kalahari and years in the Ituri with the Efe Pygmies, I assure you that the Gods Must be Crazy is wrong. That is not where you should get your ethnography! It may be that this theme is found in a number of different cultures, but there was a lot more than this which gave a Native American feel to the Na’vi.

    Yeah, the whole Avatar and blue connection was interesting.

    I’m actually suprised that the there are now, it seems, three Sb reviews! I think the only reason there are so many is that the movie came out during break so people happen to get out to see it! How many sciencebloggers reviewed 2012?

  11. #11 Rich Wilson
    December 30, 2009

    It’s nice to know you can just take off the glasses and it’s not double imaged in 3D. I have monocular vision. I can only use one eye at a time, so 3D tricks don’t work for me. In fact, 3D reality doesn’t work for me either.

  12. #12 BG
    December 30, 2009

    The “troops” in the movie are mercenaries working for the corporation; NOT active duty Marines, soldiers, or sailors!

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    December 30, 2009

    BG: You are correct but in 2151 the distinction becomes unimportant, a trend that started with Blackwater and various other events in the earlier 20th century, and even earlier in Africa where most US operations were funded mercenaries.

  14. #14 JimV
    December 30, 2009

    I just saw the movie for the second time, with some friends who hadn’t seen it. I left the first show with some reservations, albeit blown away by the fantastic 3D CGI imagery (I’ve never seen anything half as good before), so I went the second time more to accompany the friends and have dinner with them afterwards then because I wanted to see the movie again.

    I actually liked the movie better the second time. I think because I focused on the simplistic or inconsistent parts as they occurred the first time, but the second time I let them go, and focused more on some good parts. Like near the end when the Na’vi meets the avatar in his human shape. The part reminded me of some C.J. Cherryh novels.

    (The movie “Avatar” reminded me of was “A Man Called Horse”, starring Richard Harris, which shows my age, I guess.)

    (About 30 years ago, as a young mechanical engineer I asked a materials engineer if there was an alloy that had certain properties. He replied, “I know just what you need. It’s called ‘unobtainium’ – so that was one one of the things that bothered me in the first viewing.)

    My main remaining issue with the movie is, if we now have the technology to do this, why not apply it to a great novel such as “A Deepness In The Sky” (by Vernor Vinge)?

  15. #15 Morejello
    December 30, 2009

    My friends can’t understand why I’m not all gaga about going to see this in the theatre. They all say “yeah, the story is mediocre but the effects are AWESOME.” My response always is “what would you rather watch in the theatre: Star Wars with it’s mediocre 1970’s effects, or Phantom Menace with it’s super CGI podraces?”. I tire of the hollywood trend where the effect *is* the movie (Avatar, Transformers, anything by Michael Bey, etc…) and the story is a thinly constructed framework used to push you from one CG laden scene to the next.

  16. #16 Julia
    December 30, 2009

    Sorry Rich Wilson, but when I went to see the movie with my dad, I took the glasses off a few times fearing the indent that was destined to appear on the bridge of my nose, and the movie was blurry or double visioned, not horribly like other 3D movies that I have seen, but still fuzzy. All of the movie theaters that they are showing this movie at, have it playing in another theater in normal 2D. When I go to see it again, I’m going to watch it in 2D, because the 3D wasn’t that amazing, and this way I won’t get a mark on my nose.

  17. #17 Sarah
    December 30, 2009

    Well, this movie was made mostly so Cameron could push the boundaries of the technology. Now it will be possible to do stories that may have looked really awful otherwise. We’ll see.

  18. #18 Michael
    December 30, 2009

    @Rich Wilson

    The movie is double-imaged if you try to view the 3D without 3D glasses.

    However, the new glasses aren’t the old style red/blue glasses. The new glasses work with a single-eye.

  19. #19 SQB
    December 30, 2009

    I already saw the original when I was three. Is the remake that much better?

  20. #20 Joshua Zelinsky
    December 30, 2009

    They really called the mineral unobtanium? I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I haven’t seen the movie yet and am now not sure I want to based on that detail. Ok, I’ll probably see it, but I’ll definitely laugh whenever they use that. Unobtanium is the stereotypical joke term when you need a metal that is made up. I don’t know why they would put it in an otherwise serious film.

  21. #21 Raging Bee
    December 30, 2009

    Would you prefer they call it corbomite? Or is that what the natives tell the invaders they can profitably mine in a more deserted part of the planet?

  22. #22 Gareth Rees
    December 30, 2009

    JimV@14: A Deepness in the Sky would lose something if turned into a movie. [Spoilers ahead.] One of the most interesting aesthetic effects of the novel is the way that the sympathetic and human-like portrayal of the aliens is overturned at the end and the actual aliens are revealed to be rather different than you’ve been imagining them. It’s hard to see how this kind of effect could be achieved in a movie.

  23. #23 Caravelle
    December 31, 2009

    Maybe you could do the whole first part with the aliens in animation, or simplistic Toy Story-like CGI, and then go more realistic when the humans actually meet them ? It could work if you made explicit from the start that it’s all a story being told by the translators, so you’d have to give up that surprise but it could still work.

    My problem with a Deepness in the Sky adaptation is that it’s essentially, what, two stories in one book ? Three if you include the backstory ? (it’s a fat book). A movie couldn’t possibly do justice to them all and you’d need to be very judicious in your choice of what to cut.
    I guess it could work as an Xlogy but good luck on that one.

    Wouldn’t A Fire in the Deep work better ? It spans months instead of decades, also has cool aliens, and has cooler spaceships to boot.

  24. #24 valentines day
    January 2, 2010

    I dont think so..I havent seen such a clean storyline movie and its a visual treat to watch..Infact,I would say that I’m pretty lucky for having the movie in my generation..Its easy to critize any movie..But the real pain and guts alone will DEVELOP such a movie..

  25. #25 mumfie
    January 4, 2010
  26. #26 Missing_Head
    January 6, 2010

    I have seen the film in both 3D and regular version, to relive the experience and to compare the effects of 3D tech. There was little difference for me and based on what I saw, I don’t feel the need at all to go and see any future 3D film if there’s a regular version as well (cheaper, no annoying (usually filthy) glasses on glasses).

    Now, I wonder if this is a general thing, that 3D barely does anything special other than some semi-cool effects with guns, bugs and water drops in rare scenes, or if it’s the fact that I have close to no stereoscopy. Have any studies been conducted on the subject of amblyopia and 3D film (or any 3D for that matter – estimating distances in remote sensing didn’t work out for me at all either)?

  27. #27 Bert Chadick
    January 7, 2010

    Loved the movie, but where were the missionaries? Sequil?

  28. #28 Dacks
    January 7, 2010

    Dragged the whole family to see it the day after Xmas, and all 10 had a good time. We only have 2D available here, so now I have to travel to see it in 3D. Seeing it twice will be good, because I’ll be able to brush aside the plot silliness and focus on the incredible visuals.

    “Unobatanium” is definitely played for laughs, as is the hero’s early pigheadedness.

    So Greg, we can substitute a vision of Sigourney Weaver in our minds when we read your fieldwork journals?

  29. #29 Riya Mohnot
    January 10, 2010

    I am a 13 year old…this may be a stupid question….
    if Pandora did’nt have oxygen (everyone used to gasp without a mask) then how come the fires blazed on the planet?

  30. #30 Riya Mohnot
    January 10, 2010

    I am a 13 year old…this may be a stupid question….
    if Pandora did’nt have oxygen (everyone used to gasp without a mask) then how come the fires blazed on the planet?

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    January 10, 2010

    Riya … good question. Was it lack of O2, or was there some poison that the masks were filtering out?

    Anybody know?

    Of course, this could indirectly explain somehow how the rocks got to float.

  32. #32 aratina cage
    January 10, 2010

    Was it lack of O2, or was there some poison that the masks were filtering out?

    Anybody know?

    I found this:

    Pandora’s atmosphere is unbreathable because a pungent mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, xenon, ammonia, methane and hydrogen cyanide exists in the air. –http://james-camerons-avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Exopack

  33. #33 avatar movie wallpapers
    January 15, 2010

    this was the best movie i ever saw period ,i like to see this in my own home on dvd.

  34. #34 micro sd cards
    February 2, 2010

    There is still at least one man in Hollywood who knows how to spend $250 million, or was it $300 million, wisely.

  35. #35 Steve
    February 6, 2010

    Your comments on the tolerance of organized military authority were very interesting. I invite you to share your thoughts on Pandalous. This topic has been heavily debated among our community members:


  36. #36 PhilBee, NZ
    February 11, 2010

    CGI awesome! Storyline underwhelming.
    But hey, 3hrs of wall-to-wall non-stop Cameron…who’s too worried about the plot?


  37. #37 George
    April 27, 2010

    found this avatar spoof – classic! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N15ok23x6Rk