Pharyngula

Naked blue giants must be the new SF trope

I saw the most awesome tech demo reel tonight — a little show called Avatar. It was well worth the admission cost, but you should be prepared with reasonable expectations.

There isn’t a plot. Well, actually, there is…but it’s so predictable that they might as well have left it out. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy on rails. Don’t worry about it, as long as you don’t expect to be challenged or surprised, it’s fine.

There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are really, really good, and the bad guys are really, really bad. Like straight from the associate of arts degree program at the local Cartoon Villain College. When there’s nothing else to do, they blow things up that gain them nothing but universal loathing. They also have standard cartoon villain military tactics, which usually involves sending in swarms of moronic foot soldiers to accompany their high-tech airborne missile platforms and act as targets for the defenders.

There is a climactic battle scene that puts the Ewok’s Battle for Endor to shame.

You get the idea. Don’t go in to the theater looking for cleverness or wit or even, dare I suggest it, intelligence in the story. But it’s OK, I heard several ten year olds behind me cheering at key points.

The planet Pandora is the real star, anyway, and it’s inhabited by strange alien creatures that exhibit some real creativity in their design. Except, unfortunately, for the protagonist aliens, who are basically human beings stretched out to be 8 feet tall and with lovely golden Keane eyes plastered on, but otherwise follow our body plan pretty much exactly, right down to the toenails. If I saw that situation for real, I’d be an intelligent design creationist, because it’s obvious that the intelligent aliens did not evolve from the animal stock on that world.

I kept wishing that the makers had shown a little bravery and made the aliens alien. Some of the animals had this creepy slick black epidermis, for instance, that looked like a mucous-covered wetsuit; why not drape that over the aliens instead of the pretty blue skins they had? Most of the alien animals also had an interesting complex dentition with a lipless covering — again, be daring and make the aliens look like something that you wouldn’t ever want to kiss. District 9 did it, and got away with it — the aliens in that movie were definitely different.

But then, this was a demo reel. They were showing that they can get awfully close to realistic human performances with computer graphics, and this was a story about native Americans anyway, not really about aliens on a different planet. And it actually pulled it off: the characters were impressive and expressive.

i-75dec1c6b59fb90af6e9c311fe657af5-neytiri.jpeg

Speaking of which, one thing I was wondering about was that the aliens, and in particular the lead female character, were hot: lithely sexy, and barely clothed. It had me wondering what kind of rights the lead actress, Zoë Saldaña, has retained to the image. After all, it’s clearly her, despite the distortions of the alien form, and that image is now in a great big digital bucket on some computers somewhere, and could be trundled out and reused in other films. I imagine it would be valuable information to the porn industry, which you just know is itching to get its hands on that technology. There must be some kind of legal protections for digital likenesses being hammered out somewhere, because one thing this movie is going to do is start making that potential problem acute.

I’ve been belittling the movie, but it really wasn’t that awful. It’s a phenomenal demonstration of a technology that will let movie-makers create anything on the screen, where all the stories are told by geeks and nerds with very sophisticated machines. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Star Wars: an absolutely enthralling experience on its opening day which completely changed the look of all science fiction films to come, which changed the way the movie industry worked (for good and bad), and which used visual spectacle to help us overlook the silly story and the embarrassingly bad dialog.

Now we can look back at Star Wars, especially with the aid of the hideous prequels, and see that a lot of it was pure crap movie-making. Avatar is in the same situation (although I hope it isn’t mined out making a series of increasingly terrible sequels) — but it’s also got the shine of some magic in it.

Comments

  1. #1 Zeno
    December 31, 2009

    I agree that the visuals in Avatar are spectacular. That’s what enabled me to endure the suspense-free, hyper-predictable, warmed-over mini-plot for as long as I did. Then I walked out.

  2. #2 Gyeong Hwa Pak, the Pikachu of Anthropology
    December 31, 2009

    I’ve always found it odd that extraterrestrials in movies have such huminoid features. Where’s the creativity in that?

  3. #3 skeptical scientist
    December 31, 2009

    I loved that the mineral they were mining was called Unobtainium. Popular cinema needs more geeky science references.

  4. #4 Uncephalized
    December 31, 2009

    For what it’s worth, I really enjoyed the movie despite the predictable plot. I’m planning on seeing it again.

    And PZ, if you didn’t see it in 3D, you missed half the visual experience. It’s worth the extra couple of bucks.

  5. #5 John Morales
    December 31, 2009

    I’ll be seeing it tonight (looking forward to it in 3-D!).

    From the previews, it sounds derivative of Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld.

  6. #6 astronomer24
    December 31, 2009

    Yeah, I would have preferred more alien aliens and a less predictable plot but I thought the rest was pretty damn sweet. The advantage of all the good guy animals having six legs with the front two so close to each other stuck out as questionable. I thought would inhibit their locomotion. I rationalized it by remembering that evolution can’t go back to the drawing board… The “flux vortex” holding up mountains (full of iron I guess) and not having much effect on the steel ships I cannot rationalize. I would figure that the ships would have to spend a lot of their propulsion just fighting that field trying to stay at an even altitude. The choppers should have been flight upside down or should have had to reverse their props, not just have a little instrument interference.

  7. #7 Rorschach
    December 31, 2009

    As someone else said somewhere else, I’m over the period of my life where I would pay 15 bucks to sit in a room full of squealing teenagers, forced to consume high-calory drinks and food, and have to squeeze through rows of grumpy people to go to the toilet or when I have run out of said high-calory drinks and food.

    I’ll watch it when it comes out on DVD tho, sounds like brainfree fun.

  8. #8 eddie
    December 31, 2009

    I’ve heard it referred to as Dances With Smurfs, or a kinda A Man Called Horse, and that was the complimentary ones. I don’t have it on my mobile but will send later a link to a really negative review to the effect that it doesn’t even do the post-colonial guilt thing well.

  9. #9 jbeck.myopenid.com
    December 31, 2009

    I kept wishing that the makers had shown a little bravery and made the aliens alien. Cameron did act bravely, when he made Abyss ~20 years ago that featured weird looking aliens – flagellates, cephalopods, and even something that looked like the world’s largest FL, a snaking twisting long jet of water. Unfortunately it is very difficult to get these creatures to act or mouth dialogues. Artistic license can get you only thus far. As for the simple plot line theme etc., aren’t you happy that the right messages are repeated – don’t launch wars of aggression to despoil another land, and don’t blow up people because they don’t look like you. As the Tamizh author Jayakanthan says movies are made for millions so obviously some compromises must be made. Cut some slack, please and Happy 2010!

  10. #10 sydneycarton
    December 31, 2009

    I was a bit disturbed by the taming and riding of the pterodactyls…maybe it’s because I’ve seen existenz and associate bioports with sex, but jake’s plugging himself into that pterodactyl was definitely not consensual and was kind of exploitive. Sounds stupid, but it really kind of ruined that whole “friends with nature” subplot for me because I kept thinking: they are raping those pterodactyls!

  11. #11 Cimourdain
    December 31, 2009

    District 9 did it, and got away with it ? the aliens in that movie were definitely different

    True, but District 9 was directed by someone with intelligence and a great deal of moral courage, two things not exactly found in great abundance in Hollywood. As regards “alien” – for crying out loud, these guys can’t even handle that concept within our own species, let alone trying to dream one up from scratch.

    On another note, anyone else get the feeling that Peter Jackson only does well when somoeone else provides the story material?

  12. #12 Wise Bass
    December 31, 2009

    They also have standard cartoon villain military tactics, which usually involves sending in swarms of moronic foot soldiers to accompany their high-tech airborne missile platforms and act as targets for the defenders.

    To be fair, they were actually winning on both the ground and air before the Deus Ex Natura showed up and saved the day – in fact, on the ground, you got to see the technological superiority of bullets and artillery over arrows and pseudo-horses even on favorable terrain.

    Except, unfortunately, for the protagonist aliens, who are basically human beings stretched out to be 8 feet tall and with lovely golden Keane eyes plastered on, but otherwise follow our body plan pretty much exactly, right down to the toenails. If I saw that situation for real, I’d be an intelligent design creationist, because it’s obvious that the intelligent aliens did not evolve from the animal stock on that world.

    That bothered me a bit, too – virtually every other large megafauna on Pandora seemed to have more than two eyes and six limbs, ranging from the flyers to the hammerhead beasties. They did, sort of, try to address – if I recall correctly, we see a group of lemur-like creatures with some Na’vi-ish features and semi-fused forelimbs, who probably are supposed to be distant cousins or something.

    District 9 did it, and got away with it ? the aliens in that movie were definitely different.

    “District 9″ definitely did it better – the Prawns were pretty alien-looking, yet you could ultimately sympathize with their plight even with the almost instinctive repulsion at their appearance. Of course, “District 9″ had a production budget that was probably one-tenth that of “Avatar” – $300 million films don’t get to be real experimental.

    That said, once you looked past some stuff like that, the characterization was actually pretty good (I liked the chemistry between Neytiri and Jake Sully, and Major Asshole was so ridiculously over-the-top and hardcore that I had a grin on my face whenever he spoke), and the scenery was gorgeous, of course.

    I’ve always found it odd that extraterrestrials in movies have such huminoid features.

    It’s usually a combination of budgetary and plot concerns. While you can do some really alien-looking aliens on reasonable budgets (*cough* Farscape), it’s more difficult than humanoid aliens. Plus, if you make the alien culture too alien (since even a humanoid-looking race with some more subtler differences could have a vastly different culture), then it becomes hard for the audience to relate to them (“District 9″ actually managed to pull this off very well – you feel very sympathetic towards one of the Prawn protagonists).

    The “flux vortex” holding up mountains (full of iron I guess) and not having much effect on the steel ships I cannot rationalize.

    It’s because of the Unobtainium. Remember the rock levitating in the Corporate Guy’s headquarters on Pandora?

    As someone else said somewhere else, I’m over the period of my life where I would pay 15 bucks to sit in a room full of squealing teenagers, forced to consume high-calory drinks and food, and have to squeeze through rows of grumpy people to go to the toilet or when I have run out of said high-calory drinks and food.

    I pity you, to be honest. There’s something about the visual spectacle of seeing a fantastic movie on the big screen that probably won’t ever be truly replaced by dvds, at least for me.

  13. #13 trikeabout
    December 31, 2009

    Couple of points (while avoiding spoilers!):

    first, the initial appearance that the Na’vi didn’t evolve in the same place as the rest of the large animaloids jarred with me too, but then I thought about it some more, and the whole thing looks to me like there was some pretty intense bioengineering in the past. I think that it’s a post-technological society, and the mind-meldy bits and mind storage are biotech that’s become lost in the mists of time as religion. Cameron has hinted that there are other inhabited moons in that solar system, and maybe the Na’vi descend from a race on one of those other moons.

    second, there were hints of influences from other indigenous peoples as well as North American tribes – the body painting had central african or australian themes, some of the head dresses and clothing (such as it was) looked South American or Papuan. I think that Americans will naturally see the native American influences, but it looks like a hunter-gatherer mash-up to me.

    Great eye-candy. Do see it in 3D, you’re really missing out if you don’t.

  14. #14 sunioc
    December 31, 2009

    I’m surprised PZ didn’t mention the fact that the female Na’vi had breasts… even though they aren’t mammals. In fact, Cameron himself admitted that they only have breasts to give fanboys boners.

  15. #15 aratina cage
    December 31, 2009

    I didn’t want to leave Pandora when I saw it. It really blew me away especially since I had really low expectations for the storyline which had sounded so boring, but that didn’t matter a bit while watching the movie. Cameron knows how to play to the characters and the details. For what it’s worth, I saw echoes of Miyazaki in Avatar: the floating islands in the sky that mess up nav systems like in Laputa, the interconnectedness of the planet and the glowing tendrils of the Tree of Souls surrounding the fallen humans like in Nausicaä, and both the loyalty of forest creatures to a single Na’vi and the ghostly atokirina seeds resembling kodama like in Mononoke Hime.

    It’s really quite brilliant how Cameron was able to create a race of humanoids who appear very superstitious at first but on further investigation are not. There is no religious bullshitting going on among the indigenous people of Pandora. Anyway, I hope Cameron keeps this demo going; I have a feeling that Sigourney Weaver (major fanboi here) will be back… *grin*

  16. #16 John Morales
    December 31, 2009

    sunioc,

    In fact, Cameron himself admitted that they only have breasts to give fanboys boners.

    Ah, FanService! :)

    [Warning: TV_Tropes is a time-sink]

  17. #17 astronomer24
    December 31, 2009

    Wise Bass,

    “The “flux vortex” holding up mountains (full of iron I guess) and not having much effect on the steel ships I cannot rationalize.

    It’s because of the Unobtainium. Remember the rock levitating in the Corporate Guy’s headquarters on Pandora?”

    Im pretty sure the Unobtainium was levitating due to the tray it was in on the desk. Otherwise when the corporate guy pushed it, it would have just glided across the room not spun where it was in it high tech dish. And the unobtanium would fly out of the ground where they were mining and they could just pull the big mountains along and mine those. I don’t buy your explanation. Nor do I buy the unobtanium much. The elements up to Iron come from exploding stars and then from, I guess, the geological processes of the earth, meteorites, and labs. Physics is the same everywhere so an element occurring naturally that we have not observed or created is pretty unlikely.

  18. #18 Cyberguy
    December 31, 2009

    I took my wife and two sons to see Avatar in 3D today. Except for my wife, we had all seen Avatar about a week ago in 2D and wanted to see it again.

    The 3D added an additional “wow” factor, but for me it slightly detracted from the overall experience as it was another special effect piled on top of all the others.

    The basic appeal to me is in the straight-out escapist fantasy world that is brought to life in front of your eyes. Like Star Wars and LOTR, a major part of the enjoyment is in the sheer spectacle, and in the good guys winning at the end.

    If you over-intellectualise it the magic disappears – and I think that even atheists are allowed a little magic in their entertainment now and again. However, I do agree that the aliens should have been less humanoid. It was clearly a deliberate decision so we would sympathise with them – it would be very hard to feel any empathy for an H.R.Giger alien in the same circumstances!

    Rorschach, in my opinion the movie, like Star Wars, is best experienced on the big screen. Check this with others who have seen it. You might regret it if you wait for the DVD.

    BTW, the film stood up to a second viewing, and my wife thought it was really great.

  19. #19 Levi in NY
    December 31, 2009

    So when’s the computer-generated PZ Meyers porn video coming out, I wonder?

  20. #20 pasje
    December 31, 2009

    I seriously don’t care what others think of the movie.
    I saw it yesterday in 3d. Went in completely blank, knowing nothing about the story or movie.. and was completely blown away :)

    I loved it. But than again, i’m a girl who likes pretty things and damn.. this movie was full of it :)

    It also just made me feel good that the aliens beat the crap out of the humans :)

  21. #21 hje
    December 31, 2009

    Come on Zeno, show some grit–I sat through all of Dune in 1984 ; )

  22. #22 shegeek1000101
    December 31, 2009

    I actually saw a lot of paleontology in that movie. For example, he was playing with an Archimedes when the Titanothere looking critter showed up. Then there was the bad ass feline-oid with the Dunkleosteus teeth, various plants, a couple species of pterosaurs, and we can’t forget the flying Ctenophores. Oddly enough though, no bugs. Despite that gross omission, I liked it. It was a bit long and yes, predictable, but unlike most science fiction, this really did seem like an alien world. My sister thought that it was a bit long but it needed to establish the ecosystem. Did that remind anyone else of the Internet or has being married to a geek for almost 10 years warp me?

  23. #23 kyoseki
    December 31, 2009

    The problem with having the budget to do literally anything is that you have to be conservative.

    Cameron is still beholden to the studio financing the project, so he has to play it safe, if he goes completely nuts and Avatar is too far out there to be commercially successful, then he will never get another movie deal.

    Neill Blomkamp wasn’t constrained by huge budgetary concerns for District 9, so while he didn’t have the visual effects budget that Cameron had, he also didn’t have the studio breathing down his neck to anything like the same degree.

    If you want an example of “too big to fail” filmmaking, you couldn’t do any better.

  24. #24 neon-elf.myopenid.com
    December 31, 2009

    Re: pterodactyl rape (sydneycarton @10):
    Jake asked how he would would know which one had chosen him and received the reply that it would be the one that tried to kill him. I took it that a pterodactyl tested its chosen new rider to see if he/she was brave and strong enough to be worthy to be its rider.

    Visually, I found the film stunning (and I only saw it in 2D). The science was crap, the story was hackneyed, sure – it definitely is ‘Dances With Na’vi’ – but that didn’t matter one whit to me. I laughted, I cried, I got fully emotionally invested in the characters. And thanks to years in leftwing politics, I always have a soft spot for anything blatantly anti-imperialist.

    ‘Avatar’ totally rocked my socks.

  25. #25 TigerHunter
    December 31, 2009

    @John Morales: I think this is what you were looking for.

  26. #26 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    I saw it in 3D, and while there were some really nice effects, part of it looked very out of place. It takes me back to when surround sound was in its infancy and while some did it well, it wasn’t properly utilised.

    It gives hope for the future. Unfortunately there’s still the limitation of the cinematic, it seems weird when the 3D suddenly cuts off onto a boundary.

    The story itself was really fucking lame, gaia hypothesis mixed with the myth of the noble savage all brought together in some quasi-moral tale about how we should cherish the earth. Might appeal to simpletons, but if you’re going to write a moral story at least try to make it grasp the issues at hand adequately instead of some black and white apology for modern life.

    Just had enough cool visuals to make it worth watching.

  27. #27 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    And calling the precious mineral “unobtanium”? Really weak storywriting.

  28. #28 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    I’ve heard it referred to as Dances With Smurfs

    For those who do not watch South Park

  29. #29 jq5342
    December 31, 2009

    My first description to family members after I shelled out $7.50 for for early-bird 3-D matinee (first showing of the day, even cheaper than the regular matinee): “Beautiful film. Lame story.”

    I think I might shell out another $7.50 to see it again. The 3-D is pretty impressive (next time I might tear off the temples and watch it in “reverse” 3-D just for yucks, and the 3-D trailers aren’t bad either. “Alice in Wonderland” looks pretty good, although I fear for the commercial well being of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp should either of them fall ill.

    For those who haven’t seen it, here’s a spoiler free summary of the plot of Avatar: http://comixed.com/2009/12/18/comics-comic-strip-yonkoma-avatar-summary/

  30. #30 Wise Bass
    December 31, 2009

    Wise Bass,
    “The “flux vortex” holding up mountains (full of iron I guess) and not having much effect on the steel ships I cannot rationalize.

    Supposedly (and I’m getting the thicker details from the source book that came out at the same time as the movie), it’s because Unobtainium not only is a room-temperature superconductor, it also can generate its own magnetic field, which is repelling against that of the moon (Pandora).

    It’s because of the Unobtainium. Remember the rock levitating in the Corporate Guy’s headquarters on Pandora?”
    Im pretty sure the Unobtainium was levitating due to the tray it was in on the desk.

    Read above.

    Otherwise when the corporate guy pushed it, it would have just glided across the room not spun where it was in it high tech dish. And the unobtanium would fly out of the ground where they were mining and they could just pull the big mountains along and mine those.

    You realize it’s rather difficult to push a mountain that is probably hundreds of meters to kilometers in diameter and heavily made up of a fairly massive special rock? That’s not mentioning the costs and difficulty involved in mining the floating rocks, then refining the ore, then shipping it back up – it’s probably much easier to use their digging machines.

    I don’t buy your explanation. Nor do I buy the unobtanium much. The elements up to Iron come from exploding stars and then from, I guess, the geological processes of the earth, meteorites, and labs. Physics is the same everywhere so an element occurring naturally that we have not observed or created is pretty unlikely.

    It’s not an element – according to the sourcebook, it’s a really weird compound. There’s obviously a bit of Sci-Fi MacGuffin justification here, but they’re largely consistent about it once they introduce it.

  31. #31 Kristian
    December 31, 2009

    About the likeness.
    In the Movie Aliens 3, they had planned to use Michael Biehn’s face as a modeled prop without his knowledge or consent. When he found out about that, they were forced by lawyers to drop it. Just like you can’t use someone’s name to your heart’s content. Neither can you their likeness.

  32. #32 John Morales
    December 31, 2009

    TigerHunter @25, touché.
    I’m off to the cinema now.

    (So hard to keep expectations down so as to enjoy it. :| )

  33. #33 Andreas Johansson
    December 31, 2009

    As for the simple plot line theme etc., aren’t you happy that the right messages are repeated

    I don’t think the noble savage myth and mighty whitey constitute the right messages.

  34. #34 ambulocetacean
    December 31, 2009

    How does it stack up against Battlefield Earth?

  35. #35 Snidely W
    December 31, 2009

    Yeah, pretty cool pic, with the PZ provisos.

    But whats the deal with everything having this USB plug that can be connected to every other living thing? How the hell could THAT possibly evolve? Bugged me more than the anthropomorphic blue people.

  36. #36 CatBallou
    December 31, 2009

    How do we know from the movie (not extra materials) the the Na’vi aren’t mammals?

    I can understand the breasts/fanboy justification, but not only were beads and fabric draped over every female set, when Neytiri leans over, they don’t fall away!

  37. #37 robhoofd
    December 31, 2009

    I went into Avatar with as little expectations as I could, and I was blown away like I haven’t been blown away by a movie in a couple of years. I can be extremely anal about my science fiction, and while I’ve had some fun trying to rationalize some stuff in the movie, while watching it, every aspect of it felt as such a natural part of the story that I really didn’t think twice about any of it. Yes, the aliens are humanoid; characters are still dependent on actors, and actors are still people. Perhaps it’d be interesting to see a man romancing a spaceborne cnidarian one day, but as far as I’m concerned, all that matters in this case is whether the Na’vi worked for this movie, and I’ll fight anyone who claims they didn’t.

    The Internet is swarming with critics comparing Avatar to this movie and that, and the story has been told, and boo hoo hoo. Yes, the story is an old one. Has any movie told it as imaginatively, beautifully and movingly as Avatar? In my humble opinion, no, damn it.

    I didn’t like the Star Trek movie; not because there were scientific mistakes in it, but because I simply didn’t care or feel for any of the characters. A movie is about telling a story, and as far as I’m concerned, Star Trek failed miserably at it. Avatar told a story, part parable and part fairytale, that put tears to my eyes. I’ve seen it twice, I’m seeing it again the 7th, and probably once or twice more after that.

  38. #38 Rorschach
    December 31, 2009

    I didn’t like the Star Trek movie

    Which of the 11 Star Trek movies didn’t you like because you couldn’t relate to the characters or the story?
    I haven’t seen Avatar yet, but from what I’m reading here and on the other SB sites that have all gone movie critic all of a sudden, I might not overly enjoy it.

  39. #39 shatfat
    December 31, 2009

    I hope I’m not the seventh person to point out that the movie was digitally rotoscoped, so they’d have to have a porn actress literally do a performance (with really expensive tracing rig) and then spend hours and hours skinning and rendering, frame by frame. By the time they’re done, it’s way too expensive to make the money back on a porn title.

    So, seriously, while your musings are interesting in a what if? kind of way, we’re not even remotely there yet.

    PS: You can have really awesome blue with freckles without animation. Zaan from Farscape was blue face paint with white spattered on through a doily. Worked a treat.

  40. #40 5cent
    December 31, 2009

    From what I’ve read about this movie I’m gonna give it a pass. Sure it may be pretty and all, but I’m not shelling out to see someones proof of concept.

  41. #41 shatfat
    December 31, 2009

    The problem with Star Trek 11 wasn’t the characters, it was that the plot made no freaking sense. Personally, I thought they had the characters nailed, except for Nero, who’s a paint-by-numbers scenery chewer. (Which is yet another symptom of the plot not making any sense: “Quick, we need a McGuffin!” “How about Romulans?” “Uh, sure. Wait, didn’t TNG do that?” “No, that was Remans.” “Seriously?” “Yeah.” “Okay, great, let’s go with Romulans.” “No, no, get this–Romulans from the future.” “Yeah, that’s brilliant! Hey, coffee boy! What’s your name, Melvin? Remind me to give this man a raise.”)

  42. #42 robhoofd
    December 31, 2009

    Rorschach:

    That’s J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, sorry about that.

    And just cast off your expectations. This movie is more fantasy than science fiction; let it run off with your imagination for two hours and forty minutes, and you won’t be sorry.

  43. #43 dumnezeueateu.wordpress.com
    December 31, 2009

    It really amazed me to be thinking about evolution during the movie.
    Guess i’m not the only one (yay)

    What really shocked me was the spinny thingamajig that lit up. Like big fireflies…

    Anyway, i was thinking: so your spinning around all lit up in the night. If i was a predator this would be “come get me”. they didn’t seem to control how they flew…

    The USB plug seems ingenious, it’s evolution is odd, but maybe if the entire planet is a symbiont (as they seem to imply) it ain’t so streched.

    I liked the movie (and the giant blue babes) but in case you want more Avatar info than you need io9.com is a good resource.

    Apparently it might be a trilogy…

  44. #44 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    I didn’t like the Star Trek movie; not because there were scientific mistakes in it, but because I simply didn’t care or feel for any of the characters.

    You were able to feel something for even a single character in Avatar, but you couldn’t feel for Spock? Have you no heart?!?

  45. #45 cleve hicks
    December 31, 2009

    Regarding PZ’s claim that the invading human villains in ‘Avatar’ were cartoonish: read ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ describing the Belgians’ activities in the Congo one hundred years ago, killing and enslaving the Congolese … seems pretty remininiscent of the bad guys in this movie. Also, the Japanese invasion of China in World War II (in particular, the massacre of Nanking), or, for that matter, the US napalming Vietnam … I think Cameron was right on the mark, showing how humans act when we ignorantly intrude on worlds and cultures that we don’t understand. And cliche or not, looking at what is going on in the world today, it is a message that needs repeating.
    As for the N’avi looking too ‘human’ … I think we can agree that they are a vast improvement over the alien heroes in Star Trek and Star Wars , can’t we? (Don’t get me wrong, I like those series as well).
    I did like how District 9 created an initially ‘ugly’ (to us) species, but over time we got to like them. But that doesn’t mean another movie cannot create a (to our eyes) beautiful extraterrestrial species. And who’s to say parallel evolution might not create human-like beings such as the N’avi somewhere. Look at icthyosaurs and dolphins!(granted, both are vertebrates, but still …)

  46. #46 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    And who’s to say parallel evolution might not create human-like beings such as the N’avi somewhere.

    We’ve got another Simon Conway Morris on our hands. ;)

    In the 400 million years or so of tetrapod evolution on this planet, we’ve had a total of one human-like lineage. We simply have no grounds to think that a form such as ourselves would be inevitable.

    Speaking of the film and evolution, I find it odd that the other creatures in the film all had an extra set of front limbs while the human-like natives didn’t. Seeing one species without an extra pair of arms is like trying to picture a chimpanzee with an extra pair.

  47. #47 cleve hicks
    December 31, 2009

    I didn’t say inevitable. Just possible.
    Parallel evolution does happen, after all, and when you have a whole Universe full of planets, you’d expect that on some occasions you’d get really weird (to us) stuff like Jabba the Hut or the District 9 critters and on other occasions N’avi-like humanoids. Of course the odds are pretty unlikely that there would be any advanced beings on any planets near enough for us to visit … but then that would make for pretty dull science fiction, visiting a planet of rocks or algae!
    By the way, I think you could consider parrots, dolphins or elephants as being ‘human-like’ in some of their qualities. Granted they don’t look as much like us as the N’avi do …

  48. #48 cleve hicks
    December 31, 2009

    By the way, Kel, Comment 12 addresses the ‘missing link’ lemur-like creatures that seem to combine some N’avi traits with the other Pandora creatures.

  49. #49 Snoof
    December 31, 2009

    I’m with #13 – Pandora’s ecosystem seemed pretty artificial to me (are you honestly saying that parasites _wouldn’t_ make the exposed segments of the nervous system into a major drawback?).

    So yeah, bunch of sophonts who were really good at biotech decided they liked the Gaia Hypothesis so much, they’d build one of their own. The Na’vi may or may not have been the descendants of some who decided an idealised hunter-gatherer existence was the way to go.

  50. #50 Greg F.
    December 31, 2009

    Just goes to show it that it doesn’t matter how inanely simplistic your story is, how lazy you are in naming your pivotal material (come on, unobtanium? might as well just call it “placeholder” because that’s exactly what that term means in the SF world), if you have a billion bucks to invest in a server farm and photo-realistic rendering technology and another billion to shamelessly market it anywhere and everywhere with no regard for taste or moderation, no one will notice.

    Seriously, were this not Cameron suggesting this project, it would’ve been thrown in the garbage after the development interns got past the tenth page. Yes, in Hollywood, the standards get lower and lower as tenure lasts longer and longer.

    Oh and just as a random side note. Hijacking an episode of Bones and turning three of the key characters into drooling fanboys desperate to see Avatar, then having one of them hooking up while camping out in line? That was cheap, tacky and desperate. This is Cameron trying to become George Lucas and doing it very, very badly.

  51. #51 timscience
    December 31, 2009

    The flying rocks are due to the unobtanium, apparently. Which is a room temperature superconductor that they should have called “McGuffinite” IMHO.

    RE the N’avi I see it the other way round to Snoof: It seems clear that the real power on the planet is the trees and their enormous planet spanning biocomputer. The N’avi are merely their pawns. They may even have been bioengineered specifically to deal with humans, which is why they look so hottt. Never trust a tree, is all I’m saying.

  52. #52 innerbrat
    December 31, 2009

    I’m ashamed of you PZ – Pandora isn’t a planet; the space shots made it perfectly clear that it’s a moon of a gas giant.

  53. #54 antaresrichard
    December 31, 2009

    Dr. Snaut: “We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror.”

    Solyaris (1972)

  54. #55 Pastor Farm
    December 31, 2009

    I’m going to see this on Friday with a friend only because he’s a good friend and saw The Men Who Stare at Goats with me.

    James Cameron has a few points that go against him in just about every film he makes: Community theater-level acting from truly talented actors; dialogue that George Lucas would consider kindling; and the sweet subtlety of an airhorn amplified through a megaphone.

    Consider his villains. His best non-Terminator film, The Abyss, had what amounted to a mild variant of Snidely Whiplash and he was easily Cameron’s most nuanced bad-guy character. He almost reached the second dimension.

    Every spoken sentence in his films are second-hand cliches borrowed from a screenplay consignment store. And if Baby Jesus was real, it wouldn’t just make him cry, it’d make him crucify himself. (Because Baby Jesus would care about good writing in my own little Pandora).

    However, because I hate being too negative, I will say that no one in Hollywood is as adept with special effects, nor can stage an action sequence as well as James Cameron.

    Too bad he sucks at everything else that matters.

  55. #56 Rob Monkey
    December 31, 2009

    I don’t watch Bones cause the ads make it seem like a the same old recycled shit with the smart girl paired with the simpleton guy, with some CSI-ish plotlines added, but now I definitely won’t watch it, that sounds like the clumsiest product placement ever. I kind of get how people say that huge movies like this won’t be that unique because they have to please the focus-group obsessed studio execs, but I also get the feeling that I got when I saw Transformers and GI Joe. I went into neither expecting cinematic excellence, but I wanted it to be fun. GI Joe was a little cheesy, but pretty much action the whole way through, decent effects, cool weapons, and, what made it the best, a MINIMAL amount of fall-flat stupid jokes and annoying romances between characters. Transformers? It was like they tried to smash together a sci-fi, action, and romantic-comedy movie wrapped in a toy commercial. We spent what seemed like ages working on Shia LeBouf’s useless romance with Big Thumbs Fox, John Turturro continued to embarrass himself, etc., and for what? The remaining plot WISHED it were as well-done as GI Joe, and that is meant as an insult. Sigh, after all this rambling I might still see Avatar, but only because there are few better ways to spent a too-cold afternoon than smokin’ a bone and watching digital 3D ;)

  56. #57 UntamedAxeRage
    December 31, 2009

    Daniel Dennett was the original avatar:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_8yo5hacKM

  57. #58 shonny
    December 31, 2009

    Predictable?
    What else to expect, it is American!
    There are no doubt good American movies, but that excludes all and any from Hollywood.
    And ‘blockbuster’ is the safest sign that it is sheer crap.
    Strange that the Mexicans and the Canadians are so much better at it when it comes to quality over quantity.

  58. #59 timothy.green.name
    December 31, 2009

    So the blue people aren’t at all uncanny?

    Based on what people are saying here, I may go to see this film after all.

    TRiG.

  59. #60 cleve hicks
    December 31, 2009

    Wow, #59, that sure is a blanket statement. So ‘Amadeus’ was sheer crap, because it sold a lot of tickets? Or ‘Witness’? Or ‘Philadelphia’?

    Re Avatar, don’t listen to all these naysayers and nitpickers, go out and enjoy a really creative attempt to bring an alien world to life.

  60. #61 cleve hicks
    December 31, 2009

    Sorry, my #60 comment was addressed to #58, not #59.

  61. #62 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    December 31, 2009

    Good grief, it’s escapist entertainment, a spectacle of color and sound. If you’re not in the mood for bright, pretty pictures and familiar plot themes, stay home and read a book. If you’ve decided in advance you’re going to hate a movie, don’t waste your time watching it just to stroke your ego. You’re not the target audience.

    It’s really creepy to see so many normally level-headed people get onto the elitist snob train.

  62. #63 cleve hicks
    December 31, 2009

    I agree with #62.
    What’s wrong with re-using and reshaping a tried and true archetypal story anyway? Shakespeare recycled old material, after all. If you are expecting Avatar to be some kind of a documentary, you’re missing the point. It is supposed to be a fable. Villains in fables tend to be rather wicked and over the top.
    And considering that we humans are actually doing all the things depicted in Avatar to other humans and our natural world, and we do it over and over again, it’s no great stretch to think we’d behave like villains on an alien moon either.

  63. #64 PaleGreenPants
    December 31, 2009

    @62

    I think I love you.

  64. #65 Deen
    December 31, 2009

    @12 WiseBass:

    That bothered me a bit, too – virtually every other large megafauna on Pandora seemed to have more than two eyes and six limbs, ranging from the flyers to the hammerhead beasties. They did, sort of, try to address – if I recall correctly, we see a group of lemur-like creatures with some Na’vi-ish features and semi-fused forelimbs, who probably are supposed to be distant cousins or something.

    I had the same problem. I really liked how they attempted to create a somewhat coherent fauna, but it made it all the more obvious that the Na’vi did not fit in with the rest at all.

    Besides the four eyes and six limbs that you mention, all other animals seem to have breathing holes in their chests, but not the Na’vi. The transition from chest breathing to mouth-breathing seems a little too large to bridge by evolution, even more so than losing a pair of limbs.

    The only thing the Na’vi appeared to have in common with the animals were the filament thingies they used for linking up to animals. But even those were different from the ones the animals had. The other animals seemed to have two tentacle of some sort, one on each side of the head, which contained the link filaments. The Na’vi on the other hand appear to have only one set, hidden in their braid.

    Maybe the Na’vi were originally alien to the planet too? And only later adapted to the forest, or genetically engineered a linkup possibility for themselves? Who knows.

  65. #66 Carlie
    December 31, 2009

    What’s wrong with re-using and reshaping a tried and true archetypal story anyway? Shakespeare recycled old material, after all.

    Sure, if it’s a good archetypal story. Some people just think if writers tried, they could probably do better than another movie about noble savages who can’t save themselves so they’re saved by the Great White Hope who is better at everything than they are and does it for them, with a heaping helping of crip drag and disability stereotypes thrown in. But hey, pretty pictures, right?

  66. #67 PaleGreenPants
    December 31, 2009

    @65
    In the sequel, it will be revealed that the Na’vi are really humans from the future who went into the past to populate Pandora. Over time, local pressures turned their skin blue.

  67. #68 Endor
    December 31, 2009

    I dunno. Isn’t anyone else bored to death with whole “noble white guy saves the noble savages” crap?

    Yeah, it was brainless, stale fun, but dear FSM I’m so bored with everything being about straight white guys.

  68. #69 Endor
    December 31, 2009

    LOL. Carlie beat me to it. I agree, Carlie.

  69. #70 Greg F.
    December 31, 2009

    @Naked Bunny,

    If you’ve decided in advance you’re going to hate a movie, don’t waste your time watching it just to stroke your ego. You’re not the target audience.

    That’s exactly why I went to see Sherlock Holmes instead, with slightly higher expectations.

    Yeah, that didn’t work out for me either…

  70. #71 Pacal
    December 31, 2009

    Re: No. 5

    From the previews, it sounds derivative of Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld.

    Mr. Morales you got it exactly right. Although how the natives defeated the Company was a good deal more believable in the book.

    It is interestin that when I mentioned this most people had never heard of the book.

    I was also reminded of LeGuins The Word for World is Forest.

    Pierre

  71. #72 neon-elf.myopenid.com
    December 31, 2009

    OT:
    It hit midnight an hour or so ago here in Canberra, so Happy New Year to all Pharyngulites everywhere.

  72. #73 Celtic_Evolution
    December 31, 2009

    As a sci-fi / fantasy fan, I greatly enjoyed this movie.

    I could spend alot of time being an over-analytical creep and nit-pick the movie to death… but for fuck’s sake I went to the movie (much as I go to most movies) to be entertained… and I was entertained thoroughly. End of story.

    If I want to watch something with bio-naturalistic or scientific integrity I’ll go home and find something on the Discovery channel.

  73. #74 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    December 31, 2009

    BTW, for anyone who is curious, TV Tropes has an extremely lengthy entry on Avatar. Sorry if it’s been referenced before.

    *insert obligatory warning about TV Tropes being a time sink*

  74. #75 John A
    December 31, 2009

    It never ceases to amaze me how some people manage to sabotage their capacity to have a good time. Not every movie you are going to watch it going to be breakthrough in story-telling that will leave you crying, laughing, and wondering how no one has ever thought of that before. In fact, at this point, with the tens of thousands if not more films and movies out there, an original plot is near damn impossible.

    Sure Avatar had a re-hashed predictable plot. Sure, you could see not only the ending, but every step in between coming from a thousand miles away. Did that make it unenjoyable? No. Does that warrant walking out of the theater, shocked and offended and angry? No.

    Movie-makers should strive towards originality, but it’s not a sin to use a simple plot to showcase a beautiful world. This movie is not about the plot, it’s about the setting (with some white man’s-guild tossed in for good measure).

    As PZ said, regardless of the lack-luster plot, Avatar was a technological breakthrough. It does for today what Star Wards did in it’s time. It changes the rules. It creates an original, breathtaking world that seems real. It can still be an amazing achievement.

    In short … there probably is no original plot, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.

  75. #76 PaleGreenPants
    December 31, 2009

    @75
    or “how I learned to stop worrying and love Avatar”

  76. #77 Kevin
    December 31, 2009

    I’m seeing it later today in 3D (digital, not IMAX)

  77. #78 aratina cage
    December 31, 2009

    So the blue people aren’t at all uncanny?

    For a few seconds when Jakesully first takes his avatar out for a spin, but after that it is like a dream.

  78. #79 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    December 31, 2009

    Oh, and my last word on the subject, before I have to go: I don’t mind complaining about movies! I think Star Trek V (the one directed by Shatner) sucked donkey balls, for instance. But that’s because it was bad even for a Star Trek movie. Star Trek II (the one written by Herman Melville — er, I mean, the one with Khan) was a good Star Trek movie, but it’s still Star Trek; complaining that it’s not Ingmar Bergman would be silly and doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know.

    I like to learn. Telling me that Hollywood blockbusters tend to be light in the plot department is simply stating the obvious; analyzing why they are that way sounds more interesting to me.

    And if I didn’t find this blog and the people who post here interesting, I wouldn’t stick around.

  79. #80 Pastor Farm
    December 31, 2009

    I have no problem with brainless fun, pretty pictures, and overused plots (what plat isn’t?) After all, I love games, particularly Final Fantasy.

    But a three hour video game that won’t give me the courtesy of playing it doesn’t interest me.

    Also, I’m a huge fan of dumb, fun adventure flicks. However dumb movies that think they’re smart rub me the wrong way and leave a burning sensation that can only be eased with Anusol.

    And lest anyone think I’m a movie snob, I must mention that I love Cabin Boy un-ironically and The Goonies is my Citizen Kane.

  80. #81 JackC
    December 31, 2009

    OK – I liked it – brain checked at the door, all that.

    But the one thing I had trouble with – every time Unobtainium was mentioned or referred to, the personal processing unit kept returning Upsidasium.

    I kept looking for Moose and Squirrel.

    The thing that most excites me about the movie was that the tech can be used to re-visit older movies and make them 3D convincingly. The particular one (out of maybe three) mentioned in an interview was 2001, A Space Odyssey. Yeah – I would pay to see that again in 3D.

    JC

  81. #82 Pastor Farm
    December 31, 2009

    Stupid work computer! I know it’s spelled “plot”, and the web-blocking software killed my spacing.

  82. #83 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    December 31, 2009

    However dumb movies that think they’re smart rub me the wrong way

    That’s exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. It sounds like my biggest complaint with Avatar, if I were to see it, is that it takes itself too seriously. (No surprise, given its writer/director.) It’s much easier for me to digest atrocious dialogue and inane plots when I’m watching a movie like Power Rangers, which revels in its big-budget cheesiness, than watching something like Zardoz.

  83. #84 toth
    December 31, 2009

    I don’t know if this is true, but I heard that Cameron said, in an interview, that when they were making the Navi, they asked “Would I do her?”, and when they said “Yes”, they had the design.

  84. #85 Legion
    December 31, 2009

    What about the eyes?

    Haven’t seen it yet and won’t if they didn’t get the eyes right. We’re still having nightmares after watching that animated christmas flick a couple years ago with those creepy dead eyed kids. Gives us the crawlies even today, and we’re demons!

  85. #86 Carlie
    December 31, 2009

    It’s much easier for me to digest atrocious dialogue and inane plots when I’m watching a movie like Power Rangers, which revels in its big-budget cheesiness, than watching something like Zardoz.

    Exactly. Don’t act like you’ve made the most fabulous movie to ever hit sci-fi when you’ve just unleashed Spaceballs.

    Of course, this is a quote indicating how much he cares about what his audience thinks of it: ?When you?re making a movie that costs $200 million? your target audience is people with a pulse and $15 ? or even just $15.?
    …So maybe he does think of it all as Spaceballs.

  86. #87 charley
    December 31, 2009

    I would normally fall asleep during one of these CG extravaganzas, especially after working all day, but this one kept me awake. There’s my critical insight. I had fun playing with the polarizing lenses of the 3D glasses afterward.

    I expected more discussion of the obvious parallels to the US war in Iraq and the ambiguous “spirituality” theme. Was there a supernatural entity? Did the rationalist female scientist character have a deathbed conversion?

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that; all’s fair in fiction.

  87. #88 daveau
    December 31, 2009

    And to recapitulate: Not only was there no biological relationship between the blue dudes and the rest of the fauna, but how come they were mammals, with breasteses and everything? And how come 2 sexes? I have to agree with PZ; if we actually found this on another planet it would absolutely make me rethink the idea of god. Once I got over the obviously poor biology, ignored the plot and turned off my brain, it wasn’t bad. In fact there were some really beautiful visuals, like those little floaty seeds and I really liked the bugs buzzing around.

    Right up to where I got motion sick. So, a word of warning: if you got the cold sweats from the camera motion in Blair Witch Project, be careful with the 3D glasses.

  88. #89 Carlie
    December 31, 2009

    What’s funny is that conservatives are raging about how ultra-liberal it is, when progressives are decrying it’s “white people are awesome” message:
    http://hotair.com/archives/2009/12/11/review-avatar-super-mega-ultra-left-wing/

  89. #90 Ol'Greg
    December 31, 2009

    I don’t know if this is true, but I heard that Cameron said, in an interview, that when they were making the Navi, they asked “Would I do her?”, and when they said “Yes”, they had the design.

    That’s disgusting. It explains a lot about what sucked about this movie.

    Yet another vapid damsel in distress with a rail thin frame who succeeds via faith in her man. I already saw Pocahontas.

    The only thing I found interesting about this movie is that years from now I think we’ll look at the body of the aliens and comment on the preference of body style from this era.

    This movie was crap. Pretty crap, but crap all the same. A big expensive mash-up of racial guilt and every trite character cliche available in the movie lexicon… with explosions!

    That being said I told all my friends it was worth watching because it has lots of pretty colors and textures.

    The hype about it actually being some kind of challenging film needs to be dropped. It’s Rosseau colored Scifi-western hybrid with 3D explosions.

  90. #91 Zeno
    December 31, 2009

    Sure Avatar had a re-hashed predictable plot. Sure, you could see not only the ending, but every step in between coming from a thousand miles away. Did that make it unenjoyable? No. Does that warrant walking out of the theater, shocked and offended and angry? No.

    I certainly did not walk out of the theater shocked, offended, or angry. I walked out bored. It did not hold my interest or attention.

    And I speak as an ardent fan of Cabin Boy, one of the most entertaining movie experiences of all time.

  91. #92 daveau
    December 31, 2009

    Zeno@91

    So you’re the other guy who liked Cabin Boy…

  92. #93 Celtic_Evolution
    December 31, 2009

    And I speak as an ardent fan of Cabin Boy, one of the most entertaining movie experiences of all time.

    Ugh… really? Cabin Boy??

    Well, I suppose it did have one of the more memorably funny lines in any movie I’ve ever seen…

    “These pipes… are cleeeeeeeean!”

    That’s comedy gold, right there.

  93. #94 Paul Burnett
    December 31, 2009

    One complaint I haven’t seen here: Don’t drink fluids for an hour or two before the movie, and pee just before you go in – the damn movie’s 2 hours and 50 minutes long and with the previews you’re in your seat for over 3 hours – bladder contest time. At least Titanic had an intermission.

    Yup – Dances With Wolves merged with The Word For World Is Forest with a little bit of Dragonriders Of Pern thrown in.

    Anybody else notice the Na’vi had perfectly human teeth? They’re the only tetrapods in an otherwise hexapodal biosystem – obviously imports or significantly bioengineered.

  94. #95 The Pint
    December 31, 2009

    I managed to see Avatar in 3D IMAX and it was definitely worth the $15. Sure, the story was pretty derivative of every other “colonial conquer falls in love with noble savage” story out there with an eco-friendly/anti-war/anti-colonialism flavor (we’ve been referring to the plot as “Dances with Thundercats in Ferngully”). But the visuals were absolutely stunning and as long as you’re not expecting Shakespeare, it is still enjoyable. And Sigourney Weaver is dynamite. It was refreshing to see a scientist character who was female, outspoken & obviously smarter than everyone else there and not ashamed of that fact (definitely shades of the lead female character in the Abyss there).

    I think PZ’s right with the comparison to Star Wars in how Avatar is a milestone in film making technology – it’s not the most innovative story out there, but one has to give Cameron his due for the intensive level of detail in the creation of Pandora. You could actually see the difference in texture of animal skin and plant life. There were points in the film where I forgot to breath because it was so beautiful and the use of 3D was not over the top – no breaking of the 4th wall by having objects purposely thrown towards the audience and all.

    I’ve also heard that they’re planning on making a trilogy and I’m willing to give the plot a chance to be fleshed out. After all, the plot for Star Wars was crap, but Empire Strikes Back was a far better follow up. There are elements that I’d like to see later films flesh out more – the symbiotic relationship between the Na’vi, plants & animals, for instance. Maybe it’s just me, but I was seeing shades of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead in the relationship between plant and animal life on Pandora, or at least in the hint that the trees actually were retaining the consciousness of those who had died – I noticed a scene where Jake sees a Na’vi burial and the dead Na’vi seemed to be buried with one of the sacred tree seeds, which leads me to wonder if that has something to do with the trees being connected.

    I may see it again, just to see how the film looks in 2D. But I think it’s worth seeing, if only to participate in a what really is a turning point in film-making.

  95. #96 Kemist
    December 31, 2009

    There must be some kind of legal protections for digital likenesses being hammered out somewhere, because one thing this movie is going to do is start making that potential problem acute.

    I don’t think it’s much of a problem in this case. All of Cameron’s new tech is a souped-up motion capture thing, made to minutely catch an actor’s facial expressions. For motion capture, you need the actual actors. If you don’t, it’s not going to look the same – it just won’t look natural.

    Ah well, maybe it doesn’t matter much to the porn industry.

    There are 3D animators who proudly state that they don’t use motion capture – for that you need to create convincing choreographies by hand with your 3D characters (if you have one of Valve’s PC game, you can download their source SDK for free, and try it out on it’s Face Poser software – it’s relatively easy to use). It can work relatively well on body movements but it’s quite difficult to pull off with facial expressions.

  96. #97 aratina cage
    December 31, 2009

    Was there a supernatural entity?

    No, and that point wasn’t ambiguous about 2⁄3 into the movie.

    Did the rationalist female scientist character have a deathbed conversion?

    Conversion? I guess that is one way of saying it.

  97. #98 Hypatia's Daughter
    December 31, 2009

    As I mentioned on a previous thread, Avatar reminded me of Little Big Man (& SW VI: The Battle for Endor)>.
    Little Big Man was the first time I saw a vivid reconstruction of how the military are used as agents of cleansing on native populations for political and economic interests. Think of the Cherokee forced out of Georgia (the Trail of Tears) because gold was discovered on their land; or the pioneers who needed the protection of the cavalry as they settled native lands.
    Every generation needs to learn this truth anew.
    Avatar‘s lesson may be a rehash to us old farts, but it needs to be retold for the younger generation – made more palatable because it resembles their favorite addiction: video games.

  98. #99 Blake Stacey
    December 31, 2009

    What with the price of movie tickets these days, it’d probably be cheaper to stay home, drop a tab of acid and watch old Fern Gully clips on YouTube.

  99. #100 idragosani
    December 31, 2009

    I haven’t seen the movie and may wait for it to come out on DVD…

    I think the most ‘alien’ extraterrestrial I’ve read about is the “colour” from Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”. Lovecraft was sick of humanoid aliens that were always being depicted in early SF and thought something extraterrestrial would have evolved very differently than what we have here on earth, so he wrote a story about such a creature.

  100. #101 jaranath
    December 31, 2009

    I agree with PZ’s take and many others, though I think there are a few more little redeeming qualities, and one big one, hiding in it.

    PZ’s right to be reminded of Star Wars’ paradigm-shift; that is exactly and explicitly what Cameron set out to do, and he had a lot of tech built from scratch to do it. Heck, he even influenced theatres to accelerate digital projector adoption to help the movie look better.

    Despite some of the bizarre science gaffes, the movie was loaded with lots of great little, subtle science details. I chalk it up to Cameron hiring good science advisors, giving them lots of resources, and actually listening to them much of the time. And while it’s true that I think things like explanations for the neural interfaces were deliberately swept under the rug, Eywa is a lovely get-out-of-jail-free card. Avatar would be a Discovery Institute wet dream if it weren’t for the completely naturalistic nature of Eywa, the shamanistic spirituality, the librul anti-imperialistic greenness, the evil temptation of blue sideboob, etc…

    I also think “unobtainium” was a deliberate nod, a geek inside joke. Those in the know were meant to laugh, not gnash their teeth. Though I must admit it seems a bit contemptuous, too…

    The big thing, though, is the avatar concept itself. It’s virtual reality, and shown much SO much better than most Hollywood efforts I’ve seen. I have huge doubts about real, physical avatars, but I think VR of this sort might be our future. Who wouldn’t want to try out a completely new body like Jake did, disabled or not? To learn to run, swim, fly again for the first time? To me, this is the ultimate toy, and it pisses me off that if we ever do achieve it, it’ll be long after I’m gone. But at least I got to see a real glimpse of what it might be like.

  101. #102 Blake Stacey
    December 31, 2009

    Maybe they’ll release the Making of Avatar documentary on IMAX. The story of people from countless specializations collaborating to make a film would be far more inspiring than the story of the film itself, and the effects would be just as good.

  102. #103 Kemist
    December 31, 2009

    And how come 2 sexes?

    I don’t have a problem with that. Imagine how difficult it would be to reproduce if there were more. I mean, having two sexes already means that 50% of the population isn’t available to you for reproduction. Except if they all possess more that one sex.

    A species of hermaphrodite aliens would be cool.

  103. #104 Knockgoats
    December 31, 2009

    I hadn’t thought about this before, but there are some reasons to think intelligent social alien species might well have faces rather like ours: it makes sense to have any eyes near the top of the head (to maximise range of view), any ears on the sides (to optimise location of sounds), and the nose near the mouth (to warn if you are about to eat bad or contaminated food). The head as a whole will also be at the top of the organism, so the “features” will tend to be exapted for intra-specific signalling. Of course, the signals might be quite different – but again, many human emotional signals have a non-signalling function as well, such as baring the teeth in rage. SF plots could be built around the tragic misunderstandings between human and aliens due to a range of expression similar enough to each other to trigger responses, but with crucial differences!

  104. #105 Bill Dauphin, OM
    December 31, 2009

    Ol’ Greg (@90):

    I heard that Cameron said, in an interview, that when they were making the Navi, they asked “Would I do her?”, and when they said “Yes”, they had the design.

    That’s disgusting.

    It’s certainly a crude way of putting it, but I don’t know that the concept being expressed is disgusting. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and your comments about body morphology may well be spot on, but as a matter of visual design, I think the “would I do her?” test is a more serious comment than you’re giving it credit for:

    I suspect they’re not asking themselves whether she’s skinny enough to be do-worthy, but rather whether she’s human enough. From what I hear, it’s important that the Navi be not only emotionally relatable to humans, but also romantically/sexually interesting. The challenge they face (along with all SF authors and filmmakers who approach the question of human/alien sexuality) is to portray this in a way that doesn’t read as bestiality to a present-day all-human audience.

    I suspect this is the main reason so many “good” aliens in media SF are humanoids with familiar sexual characteristics: It’s not (necessarily) that their creators lack imagination; it’s that there are limits to how far they can stretch the imaginations of their audience.

  105. #106 Alverant
    December 31, 2009

    Well I loved the movie. I thought it was well executed. Sure it followed the same sort of plot of Dances with Wolves, but I didn’t see that movie so it’s irrelevant to me. Not everyone has read/watched all the books and movies mentioned here.

    It’s not like there are that many original stories out there. Every story rip offs another story; Greek myths, the christian bible, etc everything takes a piece here and a piece there and adds their own piece to make it different. Get over it. It’s been this way for thousands of years and putting too much of a twist will drive people away.

    As for the too-humanoid Navi, yeah, I had a problem with that, but if they were really alien the viewing public won’t be able to identify with them and we couldn’t have the romance subplot that’s expected in a film. My personal theory is that the Navi are aliens themselves who underwent gene therapy to live on Pandora, perhaps modified by the planet-mind itself.

    As a side note, I’d like to point out that the female protagonist saved the hero’s live twice during the climax. How many other movies did that?

  106. #107 Sven DiMilo
    December 31, 2009

    Anybody remember reading the SF short stories of James White back in the day? Now that guy could think up some aliens. Not even no tits on em.

    I could spend alot of time being an over-analytical creep and nit-pick the movie to death… but for fuck’s sake I went to the movie (much as I go to most movies) to be entertained… and I was entertained thoroughly. End of story.
    If I want to watch something with bio-naturalistic or scientific integrity I’ll go home and find something on the Discovery channel.

    Really? Really? That’s your attitude? Who gives a fuck as long as it overstimulates my amygdala enough to temporarily obviate ennui?

    For some reason, I find this whole discussion wearily depressing. You (and not just you) have drunk the koolade: they are dishing out what you are buying and you are buying what they are dishing out. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of money and stoopid.

    I haven’t seen the movie; I’m an elitist snob who will probably never see the movie. There is actual art out there, a lot of it, on which my 2 hours and 8 bucks can be far more frutfully spent. And a lot of it is not even boring!!!

    And now I have said my say and I will take my elitist snob self out to shovel some snow, secure in the knowledge that my shit don’t stink.
    Kidding. Sorta.

  107. #108 Ol'Greg
    December 31, 2009

    Making the character as fuckable as possible is a great idea for a porn.

    Yeah, it’s screwed up priorities. There, did I say it nicer that time Bill?

    And so she saved him. Almost every female hero-mate does that. It’s how she proves she’s special enough to be “the one” the hero scores with.

  108. #109 daveau
    December 31, 2009

    Kemist@103-

    I was thinking of one gender, or at least a variation of two. Hermaphrodites is great. At least marsupials, or egg-layers, or something outside the box.

    But, if what PaleGreenPants says at 67 is true; it turns out in the sequel that they are really humans from the future, well, that explains the lack of imagination there.

    I also want to throw “The Dragonriders of Pern” into the mix.

  109. #110 Alice Shortcake
    December 31, 2009

    I’m still waiting for someone to explain why the Na’vi aren’t mammals!

  110. #111 Ol'Greg
    December 31, 2009

    I’m going to add that I don’t think this movie is *worse* some how than others really. It’s just not better. It was billed as better, and it’s not. Hence I say these things.

    It’s very trite. The lead female character is just one of the handful of flat stereotypical plot-drones, she certainly isn’t the only one.

    It’s basically enjoyable, like I said, if for no other reason then it has pretty shades of deep green, blue, and violet spread throughout with smatterings of bright red.

  111. #112 Sven DiMilo
    December 31, 2009

    it makes sense to have any eyes near the top of the head (to maximise range of view), any ears on the sides (to optimise location of sounds), and the nose near the mouth (to warn if you are about to eat bad or contaminated food). The head as a whole will also be at the top of the organism

    Good ideas, Kg. Just to clarify, though: all this stuff evolved (heads and the ‘faces’ on them) to be at the front (anterior) of a moving organism. (‘Cephalization’ is the term given to the evolutionary concentration of mouth and sensory structures at the leading end of a motile animal.) This all happened Preacambrian. It all ended up at the “top” of dinosaurs and mammals that are upright, bipedal, or necked much, much more recently.

  112. #113 PZ Myers
    December 31, 2009

    Where do cephalopods fit into this optimal body plan schema?

  113. #114 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    PZ’s point about this being a tech demo drives a lot of what got on screen. It was less a movie than a ride to the other side of uncanny valley. The only way to tell if you’ve gotten to the other side of uncanny valley is by seeing Sigourney Weaver’s face on a body that’s ten feet tall and blue and saying “so what” instead of laughing, or being repulsed by something you can’t quite explain that makes it look just wrong. Bizarre aliens are safely on the easy side of uncanny valley. Caricature and broad cartoony animation is safely on this side of uncanny valley (named by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970), and Polar Express from Zemeckis is sunk at its bottom. By inviting a comparison with realism, animators upstage their character’s performance: any discrepancies from raised expectations are disproportionately magnified. To get a character within 85% of acceptable realism is hard enough–you’ll have to spend at least that much money again to get that last 15% on the screen–and that’s just making the motion and facial capture work, building on every available shred of technology available, and justifying a major investment in exhibition technology in theaters.

    We’re the beneficiaries of an arms race going on between movie theaters and home theaters. The last time this happened we got Cinerama, 70mm widescreen spectacles with 5.1 sound, because people who said they’d wait until they could see it at home off of rabbit ears in black and white with two-thirds of the frame chopped off and listen to it out of a single tin speaker weren’t going to be convinced to leave their home for anything.

    Star Wars changed everything again, not as much because it was so much better than anything else, but because movies would never be the same again, and that’s the bar Cameron aimed at with Avatar. Watching it in 2D is like watching it in black and white. People with storytelling talent more to your liking will stand on the shoulders of Cameron and his team. Oh, and the fact that my 8 year old son was impressed that he felt like he was watching a science fiction film instead of a fantasy film, and is not interested in the prospect of becoming a space grunt, was a satisfying bonding experience.

  114. #115 Sven DiMilo
    December 31, 2009

    you know as well as I do that cephalopods are but sport-model gastropods. Just turned out to be faster to go backwards when in a real hurry. A hunting ammonite had everything up front, you bet.

  115. #116 Bill Dauphin, OM
    December 31, 2009

    Ol’ Greg (@108):

    Making the character as fuckable as possible is a great idea for a porn.

    There’s a difference between “[m]aking the character as fuckable as possible” and making the character(s) possibly fuckable. The latter is a matter of concern in any story that presents an alien character as a love interest for a human, even if there’s no explicit depiction of sex in the story. Any romance between characters who are impossible as sexual partners will read to the audience as either tragic or sexually sick; if neither of those is the reaction you’re trying to evoke, it behooves a storyteller to make the characters of romantic interest be sexually plausible as well.

    Yeah, it’s screwed up priorities. There, did I say it nicer that time Bill?

    Having not seen the movie, I can’t comment on its priorities… but I want to make it clear that I was not saying you had put anything “crudely”; I was referring to the coarse mode of expression in the original quote. I suspect if they had said soemthing like “once we had a design that was plausibly sexually interesting to our human characters (and our human audience), we knew we had the right design” instead of what they did say, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s the stupid frat-boy flippancy of the comment that makes it controversial, and not (IMHO) the actual idea being expressed about storytelling.

    Ahh, but maybe I’m just being too generous in my interpretation. It’s happened before.

  116. #117 trikeabout
    December 31, 2009

    Well, I find it interesting that people have said pretty much the same as me way back in comment 13 about the Na’vi possibly not being from Pandora…

  117. #118 Bill Dauphin, OM
    December 31, 2009

    BTW, I’ll probably drop out of this conversation without warning at any time (including possibly right after I post this). It’s not that I’m engaging in drive-by commenting; I’m just traveling, and my access is limited.

  118. #119 Feynmaniac
    December 31, 2009

    Saw it in IMAX 3D. The visuals alone made it worthwhile.

    It never ceases to amaze me how these major Hollywood films have such great CGI effects while at the same time being so clichéd, tame, and predictable in their storytelling. The special effects have advanced far while storylines really haven’t. There are some exceptions of course, but they’re too rare and the entertainment industry isn’t really friendly to those who attempt anything really new or intelligent (e.g, Joss Whedon has just had his third TV series canceled).

    I was however able to enjoy Avatar, partly because my expectations for major films is low. The anti-imperialist message of the film was nice, though (as others have mentioned) the Mighty-Whitey-who-marries-the-chief’s-daughter-and-becomes-the-tribe’s-best-warrior I could have done without. The Na’vi are based on the Native Americans and it’s not subtle. The movie awakens American guilt for the conquest of the Natives (with a splash of African and Aboriginal tribes for the European and Australian markets).

  119. #120 Ol'Greg
    December 31, 2009

    I thought the plot would have been more interesting if he couldn’t fully transition into the avatar body and had to be kept alive in his human form wasting away in the decaying sky people techno-cocoon.

    Or also if she never forgave him and he just had to deal with that.

    Lots of things could have thrown some kind of a wrench into the plot though.

  120. #121 Paul
    December 31, 2009

    I also think “unobtainium” was a deliberate nod, a geek inside joke. Those in the know were meant to laugh, not gnash their teeth. Though I must admit it seems a bit contemptuous, too…

    Based on the myriad Cameron quotes out there, like “my audience is anyone with a brain and $15…or just $15″ and the one where he snidely mentions the sky over the Titanic not mattering because the movie made lots of money, I definitely tend towards hearing it as the latter. It just comes across as “I know I’m going to get rich off this movie, I don’t have to try to think of anything interesting, new, or plausible”.

  121. #122 lesferdinand
    December 31, 2009

    Saw it in 3D without any expectations (was shocked by how bad the trailers looked without the 3D effect) and was pleasantly surprised by the technical quality. But that’s only fun for 30 minutes max. The rest was one tortured wait for the credits to roll. The most impressive feat is that Cameron was able to use so much time to tell so little.

  122. #123 Peapoh
    December 31, 2009

    I thought the visuals were intriguing but the dialogue and well, pretty much everything else were painfully cliched and predictable.

  123. #124 C. Cedric
    December 31, 2009

    You guys are all missing the boat. This was World of War Craft and the Night Elves forest and they were battling the humans. The Eudistylia polymorpha (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Eudistylia_polymorpha.html) were fabulous, along with the Polyorchis (Polyorchis penicillatus), and GFP cnidrians that produced all those spectacular blues and greens. Any gamer will make the call.

  124. #125 PZ Myers
    December 31, 2009

    Can’t be. Night elves and humans are both Alliance.

  125. #126 astronomer24
    December 31, 2009

    Wise Bass,

    Where did you find the hand book? That would be sweet to read.

  126. #127 Leon
    December 31, 2009

    PZ:

    Actors generally sign over all rights to the use of their image in a particular film in exchange for whatever contractual compensation they receive. That way, the film company can use the image in perpetuity to exploit the film…

  127. #128 SteveM
    December 31, 2009

    I don’t have a problem with that. Imagine how difficult it would be to reproduce if there were more. I mean, having two sexes already means that 50% of the population isn’t available to you for reproduction. Except if they all possess more that one sex.

    A species of hermaphrodite aliens would be cool.

    John Varley’s Titan gives us centaurs with 4 sexes with a ridiculously complicated reproduction scheme.

  128. #129 zeroangel
    December 31, 2009

    What’s this stuff about the main character’s soul being transfered into his avatar at the end of the movie?

    Was that handled in some kind of plausible way or was it stark religious-style dualism?

  129. #130 kurt
    December 31, 2009

    “jake’s plugging himself into that pterodactyl was definitely not consensual and was kind of exploitive. ”

    I know right? I leaned over to my wife and said “Why do I feel like I just watched a rape scene?”

    That scene was… ethically tone-deaf.

  130. #131 Xenithrys
    December 31, 2009

    @11:

    On another note, anyone else get the feeling that Peter Jackson only does well when somoeone else provides the story material?

    Avatar isn’t a Peter Jackson movie, although Weta Digital in Wellington NZ did the special effects.
    I was disappointed the Pandoran botany was largely earthlike: ferns, palms, bryophytes. I could hazard a guess at some genera even. But the bioluminescence was very cool.

  131. #132 daveau
    December 31, 2009

    zeroangel@129

    The movie made it seem like they were just transferring data from one body to another. Didn’t seem spiritual at all to me. If there was blatant religious subtext, I would have had an issue with it. But of course, I had turned off my brain by that point.

  132. #133 dinkum
    December 31, 2009

    Sven DiMilo:

    Anybody remember reading the SF short stories of James White back in the day?

    Hospital Station, baby. My first contact with methane-breathers…although Cherryh went even further with it.

  133. #134 blf
    December 31, 2009

    In yesterday’s Grauniad, Hadley Freeman wrote a brilliant column, The noughties are defined by fakery. It ties together Avator, fake science, and Palin. It’s such a good read it’s quite hard to excerpt:

    The noughties are defined by fakery

    And the most embarrassing example has been the rise of ‘fake science’, which values naivety over facts ? a bit like Sarah Palin

    Hadley Freeman, The Guardian, Wednesday 30 December 2009

    Much criticism ? positive and negative ? has already been ladled on Ego ?James? Cameron’s latest film, Dancing with Smurfs, aka Avatar. But one point that has not been discussed is how much Sarah Palin would enjoy it.

    On the one hand, considering that this movie features the most simplistic racial stereotypes since Star Wars’ Jar Jar Binks did his best Butterfly McQueen impression for George Lucas, Avatar is an obvious winner for Palin. After all, she is the woman who, according to her father, left Hawaii University because there were too many Asians there for her liking: ?They were a minority-type thing and it wasn’t glamorous, so she came home,? said Chuck Heath.

    On the other hand, as Avatar comes weighed down with anti-war sentiments, topped with some environmental awareness waffle (if discussions about trees having ?energy? count as environmental awareness…)…. Sarah, of course, doesn’t really believe in silly-billy man-made ?climate change?, describing it instead as ?doomsday scare tactics pushed by an environmental priesthood?. Doomsday? Priesthood? Has someone been reading Dan Brown?

    That this decade should be summed up with the epithet of Fake is not so surprising, though, considering [among other things the] fake election of a fake American president in 2000.

    Yet perhaps the most embarrassing, not to mention damaging, fakery has been the rise of ?fake science?, which stems entirely from a fear of science and leads inexorably to no science at all. We saw this on a terrifying scale when George W Bush banned federal funding for stem cell research…

    … [Michael] Specter [in Denialims] generally keeps his palpable anger at bay, it breaks through in his chapter about the MMR jab furore, with particular ire reserved for certain well-known names connected to it; namely, the actors Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, and [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. …

    Fake science values naivety over knowledge…. Palin… is qualified to speak precisely because she is unqualified. She is untainted by biased things such as facts and experience. And that is why she would like Avatar: its depiction of ?the noble savages? is, no doubt, a well-intended argument against the destruction of rainforests, but add in a couple of orange brush strokes and you have a Gauguin painting. It is patronising, simplistic and offensive, like Palin and fake science.

    Last year … Palin sneered at the allocation of federal funds to projects such as ?fruit fly research?. Unfortunately for her these silly fruit fly studies have led to a greater understanding of diseases such as, um, autism. Isn’t science annoying?

  134. #135 jaranath
    December 31, 2009

    Trikeabout@117:

    Yes, I think you Have Something There ™, if Cameron bothers to try plugging the science hole at all. With sequels, who knows? But much as I loved this movie for my aforementioned reasons, I can’t bring myself to care enough about the placeholder plot to care about learning where the Na’vi come from. Cameron failed–no, decided not to, I think–make that part interesting enough in the first place, and I doubt he could or would if he followed it up later.

    Likewise, it might be interesting to explore the consequences of the movie’s events on Earth: What happens when (apparently) they lose this critical resource? There’s a line in the movie that implies the public is not happy about the corporate treatment of the Na’vi…will their violent expulsion help or hurt public sympathy, especially when it implies many humans may literally face starvation? Maybe even extinction, if Earth’s ecosystem is as bad off as they imply? And could Pandora offer a “true wealth” to Earth over the fool’s gold of unobtanium by, say, giving Earth a new, adaptable ecosystem they could transplant to save their dying world?

    I might be interested in exploring questions like these if the story was written by someone else. Someone like, say, Whedon, who can write and who isn’t afraid in the middle of a story like this to have a sympathetic character say something like: ” You won, alright? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That’s what conquering nations DO. It’s what Caesar did, and he’s not going around saying ‘I came, I conquered, I felt REALLY bad about it.’” Cameron, not so much. But then, part of his intent was to blaze the technical trail. It should be a lot cheaper from here on in, so that maybe the likes of Whedon will get to play with the new toys.

  135. #136 Alverant
    December 31, 2009

    Feynmaniac: It never ceases to amaze me how these major Hollywood films have such great CGI effects while at the same time being so clichéd, tame, and predictable in their storytelling.

    It’s simple. For all it’s claims of being art, Hollywood is still a business with an eye for making money. Wowing audience with great FX brings in viewers. Challenging the audience with something new in terms of storytelling scares people away. When people want to be entertained, and movies are entertainment, they usually want something they can relate to and understand without much thought. Would the movie have been better if Jake was forced to stay a human, not only being rejected by his mate and her people but by his own for his treasonous acts? Of course not and if that did happen people wouldn’t have liked it.

    Hollywood story telling is a business decision, nothing more and taking chances in that area is too risky for the businesses there. It’s that simple.

  136. #137 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    If all Hadley Freeman got out of Avatar was

    environmental awareness waffle (if discussions about trees having ?energy? count as environmental awareness?)

    then he’s either an idiot or he hasn’t bothered to even read a description of the film, let alone view it himself. The article is as brilliant as this idiot screed from Forbes, whinging that Avatar is an anti-capitalist film that could only be a product of capitalism.

  137. #138 Alverant
    December 31, 2009

    jaranath, I don’t think unobtainium is that much of a critical resource. If it was really really important (ie to Earth’s survival) then 1) it would have been mentioned and 2) no government would trust private enterprise to mine it without explicit military support. The fact its purpose wasn’t stated and the Company hired mercenaries tells me that the element is useful but ultimately a luxury item we can do without.

  138. #139 PPF
    December 31, 2009

    Best description I’ve heard of the movie is that its like a roller coaster: you see all the twists, turns, and drops coming a mile away, but that doesn’t make it less fun when you get to them!

    The unobtanium thing was profoundly stupid, though…they spend a bunch of time with on-the-surface-plausible homology of the animals, but can’t write anything better than a straight-faced reference to ‘unobtanium’? Seriously, I think The Core was the last movie that did that, and I believe its one of the worst films I’ve ever come across.

  139. #140 Jeffrey P Goldberg
    December 31, 2009

    If I saw that situation for real, I’d be an intelligent design creationist, because it’s obvious that the intelligent aliens did not evolve from the animal stock on that world.

    Imagine Earth but with no living primates except for humans. The fact that family that the sapiens there belong to wasn’t transparently obvious doesn’t argue for creationism.

    The real problem (other than toe nails and breast and all of that) is Gaia. There was just more cooperation among species than natural selection would support.

  140. #141 Marcus Ranum
    December 31, 2009

    That this kind of thing is becoming possible is only goodness. Because it means that the inevitable progress of technology will put the capability in everyone (who wants it’s) hands in a decade. Personally, I can’t wait to see what happens when any creative genius with a computer and $400 of software can create a plausible feature-length digital play using digital actors. Liberate creativity!! Some day we may look back at Avatar and LOTR as the beginning of the control that major studios had on cinema, the same way that www, print on demand and digital media are liberating those who want to write from the gateway that the publishing industry has managed to emplace since the days of the printing press.

    Obscifi-geekdom: I wish someone would make a scifi movie a la Peter Hamilton. Man meets aliens. Aliens immediately get down to the process of trying to eradicate man, using wormhole tunnelled nuclear weapons. “eew! kill it!” I mean, seriously, why do we always assume that the first interstellar encounter would be anything more than an abrupt swatting? I always figure you don’t even need to figure out what the aliens look like because all you’d ever see is the hammer falling, never the hand or tentacle or effectuator behind it. And, for fuck’s sake, I want to scream whenever you get some low-techies taking out obviously superior technocracies (Independence Day) Isandlhwana was not the norm, damn it.

  141. #142 Blake Stacey
    December 31, 2009

    John Varley’s Titan gives us centaurs with 4 sexes with a ridiculously complicated reproduction scheme.

    And Asimov’s The Gods Themselves has the Soft Ones, who have three sexes, though the reproductive process isn’t that complicated (three individuals fuse, and during the period of “melting”, there’s a chance that conception can occur).

  142. #143 Multicellular
    December 31, 2009

    Great review PZ. Essentially my exact thoughts. I thought the movie sounded like Dances with Wolves in Outer Space and that’s essentially what it was. However, like you, I enjoyed the hell out of it. I also was disappointed about the portrayal of the alien protagonists – I suppose in order to get the audience to connect to them they have to look somewhat human. I did really enjoy some of the other biologicals, and thought they showed some forsight by making the animals have multiple notrils on their torso. But for some of the animals all Cameron did was rip-off marine life form morphologies. Still, it was entertaining and the biological “internet” idea was interesting.

  143. #144 Slaughter
    December 31, 2009

    The kids gave me “The Hangover” for my birthday Dec. 24, and we watched that the other night. Sounds like it was time better spent than watching “Avatar.”

  144. #145 Patricia Queen of Sluts, OM
    December 31, 2009

    Just because no one else has mentioned it, I’ll chime in. I found the cremation scenes towards the beginning of the film to be horrible, and I had to leave my seat and sit in the lobby until I was sure it was over.

    The rest of the film was worth my cheap ticket ($6.50) for the beauty and color.

  145. #146 jaranath
    December 31, 2009

    Good point, alverant…probably not apocalyptically essential, then.

  146. #147 eddie
    December 31, 2009
  147. #148 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    the element is useful but ultimately a luxury item

    Right, corporate greed can finance such an expedition where science’s curiosity is a failing, an expendable luxury when it isn’t just a pain in the ass.

  148. #149 skeptical scientist
    December 31, 2009

    I took the use of the name “unobtainium” to be away of dealing with the physical implausibility of the material by lampshading it. Those people who are likely to care about the implausible science of this world may be appeased somewhat by the name. It’s the writer’s way of asking us to take the implausible physical properties as a given and move on. That’s how the term unobtainium is always used.

    In any case, the movie was clearly fantasy, and not science fiction. Watch it in 3d to enjoy the eye candy, and don’t worry about the childish and predictable plot, and you’ll have a good chance of enjoying it. If you expect more from it, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed. Personally, I got exactly what I expected, and loved it.

  149. #150 DesertHedgehog
    December 31, 2009

    I’m glad someone else out there liked James White. His “Hospital Station” was a key intro to *alien* aliens. (Cherryh was brilliant at that, too— at least in her early career) White’s “All Judgment Fled” is still one of the best First Contact stories around.And why hasn’t anyone filmed “The Watch Below”?

    But my response to “Avatar” dates me, I’m afraid. I grew up in a time when stories of the Raj or the Zulu Wars were about British heroism, and the Romans in Britain were the Good Guys. I still believe those things.

    If Earth-humans need the Mysterious Substance to maintain Earth-civilisation, then…well…the aliens are pretty and blue and cute, but…it’s a hard thing having to be an Alien.

    And why should we be concerned about aliens, anyway? I mean— the Evil, Alien Esquimaux came down from space to devour humanity (does *no one* remember Hayden Howard’s “The Eskimo Invasion”?) and the loathsome, unhuman Andaman Islanders came from the Hell Dimensions to do pretty much the same (don’t get me started on the vile, batrachian Manxmen or the Gonds).

    The alien female character in “Avatar” is hot— exotic version of deliciously thin Estonian teen supermodel clones. But other than that— the politics of the film annoy me. (At least “Distict 9″ got the Nigerians right)

    And I still want to be a colonial administrator somewhere.

  150. #151 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    skeptical scientist @149:

    the movie was clearly fantasy, and not science fiction.

    Let’s hear your definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy and why you think Avatar belongs in one camp and not the other.

  151. #152 aratina cage
    December 31, 2009

    The real problem (other than toe nails and breast and all of that) is Gaia. There was just more cooperation among species than natural selection would support. -Jeffrey P Goldberg

    Eywa, not Gaia. Who says it is natural selection? Maybe it is all artificial selection done by Eywa.

  152. #153 Jade Margery
    December 31, 2009

    As a huge fan of hard scifi, even I can forgive the scientific gaffs. I mean, it’s fantasy people, what do you expect? Batman carries shark repellent, hobbits are resistant to ancient evil overlords trapped in tacky jewelry, dragons can fly (despite insufficient wingspans and solid bones) and the Na’vi can do a mind meld with pterodactyls and trees. It doesn’t need to be believable to be fun.

    And it is fun. Even in 2d, some of the scenes just took my breath away and by the end of the climactic last battle I actually cried at the sheer prettiness and choreography of it all. I’m an art nerd but still. I didn’t even mind the ‘white man saves natives’ angle… it seemed kind of logical that he would be the best person to direct a battle against his own kind, since he would know how best to take down the machinery.

    Amusingly right after seeing it my boyfriend and I were checking our email and there was a news story on Yahoo: HIDDEN MESSAGES IN AVATAR: New movie could have hidden messages promoting environmentalism, anti-imperialism, anti-war sentiments, etc.

    Yeah, those messages weren’t hidden. They were in ten foot high neon letters powered by veggie fuel.

  153. #154 Shatterface
    December 31, 2009

    ‘Yeah, those messages weren’t hidden. They were in ten foot high neon letters powered by veggie fuel.’

    Still too subtle for The Grauniad though.

    I stopped reading that rag when they compared Spielberg with Leni Riefenstahl.

  154. #155 jaranath
    December 31, 2009

    I dunno, DesertHedgehog. It makes me think of Marc Hauser-like moral grammar. Assuming all else is equal (and all cows are spheres…), if Person A must kill Person B to survive, is it better to kill or let onesself die? I suspect most would say “die”, regardless of whether they’d personally kill in real life (“…I felt really bad about it…”)

    Of course cows aren’t spheres. But I could see the mix of the “real” moral issues, if we knew them, coming out in favor of letting the humans suffer. But then as alverant pointed out, unobtainium probably wasn’t THAT important.

    Y’know, kicking these questions around…all the more reason I’d like to see a movie messing around with ‘em. Haven’t seen District 9 yet, if it does that…

  155. #156 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    If you’re not in the mood for bright, pretty pictures and familiar plot themes, stay home and read a book. If you’ve decided in advance you’re going to hate a movie, don’t waste your time watching it just to stroke your ego. You’re not the target audience.

    It would be nice if they could tell us such things in advance. Put on the poster “warning: generic predictable plotline, stereotypical characters, rounded off with a simplistic moral message. The movie is about pretty visuals”

    My problem wasn’t that I decided to hate the film before I saw it, it’s that I had expectations of it in the complete absence of any knowledge of the film. The original Terminator movie (well directors cut) stands as one of the great sci-fi stories of the silver screen. James Cameron has earned some reputation for making good films…

  156. #157 IanW
    December 31, 2009

    The movie was visually spectacular in 3D, and the way it involved you in that alien world was truly something new, no question about it. But the whole avatar concept is highly problematic. How could a human mind experience what an alien mind had evolved to experience, and how would such an interface be constructed? And the last scene, where Jake has his consciousness transferred into the alien body by the earth-mother is may be theoretically impossible, depending on your view of consciousness.

  157. #158 eddie
    December 31, 2009

    Thanks Carlie and Endor, up around 65aways. It’s not anti-colonial when the white guy is better at being native than the natives. It’s white supremacist. Imagine if Apocalypse Now! was made like this: Col. Kurtz goes native and, instead of wasting time pretending to be a petty king, he led the Vietnamese (or Laosians) in their fight for independence…

    Imagine if they could make the same movie as this, with the same sfx, but actually have the natives, as in vietnam, doin’ it for themselves. Cameron would be lynched for supporting al kaida.

  158. #159 eddie
    December 31, 2009

    HIDDEN MESSAGES IN AVATAR: New movie could have hidden messages promoting environmentalism, anti-imperialism, anti-war sentiments, etc.

    No. Those were what the white supremacist message was hidden behind, as with DWW, AMCH and the others.

  159. #160 RossM
    December 31, 2009

    Here’s a comment on the white supremist angle from an indigenous person: http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/3201437/Avatar-recycles-indigenous-stereotypes

    Sample quote from the commentator:

    He pointed to indigenous leaders like Sitting Bull in the United States and Rewi Manga Maniapoto in New Zealand.

    “The white guys and the neo-liberals save the people rather than the indigenous people saving themselves.”

    He also thought it was surprising the lead human took only a few months to learn the ways of the Na’avi.

    “It took him three months to learn all there was to learn about his society. There is an assumption that indigenous beliefs are simplistic and it doesn’t take long to master them.”

  160. #161 Andrew
    December 31, 2009

    @124 Eudistylia? I thought it looked more like Spirobranchus. At least it’s a terrestrial organism that most people haven’t seen, but hard to give a lot of credit for creativity when they’re just using existing organisms.

    @103 Multiple sexes could mean more opportunities for mating. On earth, fungi effectively have huge numbers of sexes and can mate with an individual that’s not an exact match for mating type. Life on earth has found stranger ways to reproduce and survive than mammals like us are familiar with, and I’d expect alien biology to be weirder yet.

    I was pleased with the quality of the CGI plants; they were the most realistic I’ve ever seen, but was extremely disappointed with their diversity/alienness. The forest understory was full of aroids, bananas and ferns that were taken straight from earth. I’m not happy to see that the films botanical consultant was unable to think creatively enough to accept blue plants:
    http://www.pe.com/localnews/highereducation/stories/PE_News_Local_S_pandora.363155094.html

    The star probably has a different spectral output than our sun, and the atmospheric composition is different, so the wavelengths of light available to a photosynthetic organism may well be quite different from our own, and could potentially favor non-green photosynthetic pigments. Even on earth, deep sea algae use red and brown pigments to more efficiently harvest the wavelengths of light that penetrate the water.

    Animals were pretty good in their alienness, and the Na’vi were pretty terrible as others have said. At least they were a step above Star Trek style humans-with-a-facial-deformity, but a step below Star Wars with it’s occasional non-biped (Jabba the Hutt).

    For those commenting on breasts on a non-mammal, how do you know those lumps are breasts? Although Cameron didn’t think very far outside of the terrestrial biology box (and surely intended the lumps to be breasts), you’re falling into the same trap if you’re assume they are breasts.

  161. #162 aratina cage
    December 31, 2009

    It took him three months to learn all there was to learn about his society.

    Sounds like someone didn’t watch the movie. Jake made some good guesses (along with some major mistakes), but he still could hardly speak Na’vi even at the end of the movie.

  162. #163 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    I see others want to criticize Avatar for being fantasy rather than SF. I don’t see it as great SF, and is far from hard SF, but I don’t see it fitting neatly in any of the fantasy categories listed here.

    By the definitions listed in that article, Avatar strikes me as a space opera, military SF hybrid. What tips it for me the Isaac Asimov quote the article starts with, “…science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” You can successfully argue that upsidasium, and wireless remote control of bodies with consciousness transfer via some universally connectible planetary matrix, are not possible, but they never ever try to explain events away with magic, as would be done in something classified as science fantasy.

  163. #164 Kevin B
    December 31, 2009

    Hey. If Cameron’s aim was to make a movie that would earn billions of dollars (literally billions, I expect), then he succeeded. If his aim was to make a movie that was an accessible and entertaining experience for vast numbers of people, then he succeeded.

    If his goal was to make a film that would be looked at as a turning point in how movies get made, and a definite influence on many of the movies that followed–well, we’ll have to wait a few years to see how film historians view it.

    Meanwhile, Cameron can bask in his financial and critical success.

  164. #165 Gregory Greenwood
    December 31, 2009

    OK, I am going to stick my head up over the parapet on this one a bit. I can’t help but feel that some of my fellow Pharyngulites are over analysing this movie. And over analysis is inevitably the death of enjoyment of any work of fiction. Was the whole White-guy-saving-the-day bit a little nauseating? Yes, but it is a bit much to assume that this element was added to the film as part of an evil conspiracy to propagate some white supremacy ideology. It probably didn’t even cross Cameron’s mind that this element would be interpreted this way. While ignorance could be argued to be no defence, would it really have been better if the Sully character had been Black or Native American? It would still be a story about a technologically superior outsider saving ‘primitives’. Although I do accept that a Caucasian character in such a role has a particularly unfortunate resonance given contemporary events and the events of recent history.

    This film was hyped as a revolution in film making. As PZ pointed out, from a technological point of view it delivered. Trouble was too many people expected equally revolutionary story telling and characterisation from a movie that is a mainstream blockbuster. Hollywood just cannot afford (or possibly simply lacks the commercial courage) to take such risks.

    I went into this movie expecting to disengage my brain and enjoy beautiful big budget spectacle. I was not expecting Citizen Kane in space. As a result I enjoyed the movie, and I think it succeeded on the level it was intended to succeed on.

    I think that movies such as Avatar and the Starwars movies should be considered a sub-class of Sci-Fi. They are obviously not hard, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov Sci-Fi. They are not even really soft, squishy pseudo-Sci-Fi. I think of them as Sci-Fantasy. The science elements are really only there because futuristic imagery strokes whatever centre of the geek brain is responsible for the feeling that something is extremely ‘cool’.

    Look at George Lucas. While I cannot speak to the expanded universe, in his actual films he never even attempted a scientific explanation of how the Sci-Fi McGuffin of hyperdrive works. He never discusses the interior workings of lightsabres beyond the idea that it involves crystals of some kind. While my understanding of the physics of light is limited to say the least, I think it safe to say that these ‘Laser Swords’ do not act in a fashion consistent with lasers, what with the limited blade length and the ability to spar as if with two physical blades. Lets not even start with the whole ‘Force’ business. The point here is that these stories are presented as fables. The scientific ins and outs are less important than the over arching story being told. It is just a pity that, much as I love Starwars, even I must admit that George Lucas has a terrible ear for dialogue.

    Science fiction is a broad church (I probably shouldn’t use the ‘C’ word. Boo hiss!). There is room enough for both hard Sci-Fi and Sci-Fantasy in the hearts of geeks like me.

    That said, I would like to see a more adventurous attitude among film makers toward science fiction as a genre. Will we ever see a decent adaptation of any of Ian M. Bank’s Culture novels hit the big screen? Personally I doubt it. Why do I doubt it? Because Hollywood tends to ignore many promising avenues of more cereberal story telling, not just in relation to Sci-Fi but in general, because it would challenge the complacency of Joe Public. It would make him/her think, and Joe Public does not like to be made to re-examine their beliefs. Any movie maker brave (some might even say foolish) enough to make a mainstream movie like this would doom the film to unprofitability and would have effectively committed professional suicide.

    Imagine, if you will, a serious, thoughtful treatment of such things as the place of genetically or cybernetically enhanced humans or cloned or otherwise engineered humanoids or self aware androids in a not-too-far-distant future. A treatment that goes beyond even Bladerunner or GATTACA and deals with such things as sexuality between humans and what, for want of a better term, I will call meta-humanoids.

    A treatment that deals with homosexuality (homosexuality between average looking men too. Not the for-some-reason-more-palatable-to-the-powers-that-be lesbianism between really rather improbably attractive women) in such a context. Maybe even a completely new form of sexual congress made possible by technology such as, um, lets say the direct linking of multiple minds via some kind of wireless interface of nervous systems to facilitate a collective sexual experience. Then there is the birth of hybrid children and the examination of society’s reaction, both those parts that accept such things and those who get into a frothing, fundie fit at the very idea. A treatment that deals with the concept that a neat, artificial (and extremely convenient) social distinction between such beings and ‘true’ humans could easily be used as a justification for slavery, oppression, casual violence and common or garden bigotry.

    What if the principal force behind discrimination against the meta-humanoids was a religious group that was a very thinly veiled reference to contemporary Christianity. Maybe the speculative future government itself was a suitably oppressive Christian theocracy. Maybe the heroine of the peice starts out a true believer in the official line but progressively comes to realise that it is all a lie. That her entire life up to that point has been based upon a series of carefully constructed fabrications engineered to maintain a fiscally advantageous status quo whatever the social or moral cost. First she shakes off unthinking adherence to authority, then we witness her path toward – whisper it – atheism.

    Taking all or even some of these elements, I cannot imagine a major studio executive having the fortitude to even contemplate commissioning such a movie. A film like this might get made by as a small, independent or art house peice but even then the cast and crew would probably get death threats. Movie making is not just about artistic merit or scientific credibility. It is also about politics. If a movie rubs too many people with power up the wrong way it simply never gets made. It is sad but true.

  165. #166 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    Hollywood just cannot afford (or possibly simply lacks the commercial courage) to take such risks.

    All the more reason to lament the paint by numbers cinema we are experiencing. And it doesn’t have to be that way either. If people are going for the visuals anyway (as has been alluded to many times), then why not supplement it with at least a half decent story? Lord Of The Rings was 10 hours of great visuals, but it still managed to pull out a decent story and it grossed billions.

    So no, I don’t think that’s an excuse. And if it’s used as an excuse, it’s as bad an excuse as a creationist trying to make sure a school “teaches both sides”.

  166. #167 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkD9oPuO_ZXJ3kp7Woq8jiLZTGNrn19t9w
    December 31, 2009

    Oddly enough though, no bugs.

    Actually, in point of fact, there is one part where a centipede like bug *does* crawl around one of the plants, on the right side of the screen. Maybe you where spending too much time trying to look at the blue girls tits to notice? lol

    As for PZ’s statement of body plan… Find me a squid that wanders around on *land*, where gravity limits it to staying there, and you can whine about people claiming there is a reasonable “body plan” for land based organisms.

    And, to the “everything is too human”, in general, people, its hard to find stories that don’t include something that is “similar” to humans in them, when its not specifically humans. Its just not that easy to write what isn’t in the human experience, or model that in to emotion, and have it any more believable on paper than it would be on the movie screen.

    I do agree that movie plots are a problem. We have ones with limited, cookie cutter, plots, which is about 95% of them, but no one much bitches when they make 50 identical films, not sci-fi, which differ only in the jobs the people hold, where they live, and how they keep running into each other, before they finally land in bed together. A sci-fi movie though… maybe its tech overkill. You spend so much time going, “Oooh! Ah!”, at the non-real elements, which *seem* so horribly different, that the fact that the plot was recycled sticks out like a sore thumb?

    Truth is though, can you honestly say that “any” work of sci-fi/fantasy made doesn’t have some elements, out of necessity, including human like characters, which wouldn’t “feel” recycled, if you had to jam them into 2 hours, and break half the more interesting bits off in the process of making it fit? One reason we get crap stories is because *real ones* don’t fit well in a 2 hour movie. The best you could manage, if you could *ever* convince some place to let you do it, would be to break up a real book into 2 or even 3 movies of that length, provide them running back to back, then let people watch the story as it *should be*. Sadly, for that to get even close to the level of visual perfection in Avatar is going to require that digital TV become ubiquitous, screens become comparable to movie screens in viewing size, for those in their living room, and the data be sent as “3D”, complete with a decent set of glasses.

    The problems being, despite the realization that people will watch miniseries – Digital isn’t completely every place yet. 3D would require twice the bandwidth. *And*, you can’t do polarized 3D, so you have to use shutters, or those horrid red-blue things.

    Now, as I see it, the glasses you get in theaters are cheap crap, and I wish you could buy ones with some “peripheral” vision, i.e., that wrap a bit both directions. Short of watching it in an IMAX, where you have an entirely different issue (not seeing everything going on), they are a pain in the ass. The red blue don’t work for anyone with color blindness, so suck for a certain percentage of people. And, some people can’t stand the shutter system either, since they have light sensitivity, like my mother, and almost *anything* that flickers drives her completely nuts. In short, we get good stuff on TV, which can never match the level of a theater, and crap in the box office, where the “cost” is too high to put out what *should be* done.

    The PC vs. console market is ironically the reverse. PC can do *more* than the console possibly can *ever*. You can update memory, graphics, CPU, storage, etc. Something like Eve Online, can go from, in 2005? or when even they started, looking like a 1980s Star Trek game, “Dude, you are the green boxes and the Romulans are red triangles, but first click the menu and go to star port 42, to reload your torpedoes.”, to where it is now, and will, in the near future, include walking around “inside” the space stations, in full 3D. What will turn out to be feasible with NVideas newest designs, or scarier, with the 80% increase AMD expects by ridding itself of the FPU, channeling all math through a “built in” GPU, and fitting more basic process cores into the chip, from the space saved, who knows. Expect the XBork4 to catch up 4-5 years after the PC people are already going, “Yes, but I can get 16 cores, while its got only 4.”

    The consoles advantage? Its a damn movie theater. You get what you buy a ticket for, and very little else of consequence, which is never the “best” possible, and, unlike the theater, you end up paying to “buy” the new projector, when the movies improve.

    Its kind of funny that, while some moron is still trying to figure out how to “hack” an XBox360 version of Avatar to make the females have exposed breasts, I could be installing the latest processor in a new machine, downloading a Na’vi model, and actually “making” Avatar porn with it (assuming I developed the animation talent by 2013 or so, when I could buy such a machine. lol)

    Basically, I find it annoying that people will shell out $20 for crap on a console, just because it lasts longer, an they can turn it off for a while, and don’t have a problem with doing that, while probably “undermining” the chances of PC technology to improve at the rate that had driven the console people to **work** to get better tech on them, but you’re going to whine about paying $15 to see something vastly superior technically, 15 feet high, in 3D, on a movie screen? In a sane world, we would be paying only for the best in “both” camps, and the developers would be looking at some way to make that plausible.

  167. #168 IanW
    December 31, 2009

    Ken #163 Oh, don’t get me wrong. The movie was a fine work of art, and I appreciated it as such. Even its cliche theme appealed to me. I know some native americans (White Mountain Apache tribe, AZ), and it resonated with them as well. The bond to nature and the earth, and all that. They were not insulted my it. They also have some forests here that could pass for Pandora in the summer.

  168. #169 Gregory Greenwood
    December 31, 2009

    Kel, OM @ 166;

    ‘So no, I don’t think that’s an excuse. And if it’s used as an excuse, it’s as bad an excuse as a creationist trying to make sure a school “teaches both sides”.’

    Likening me to a creationist are you? Thems be fighting words!

    I am not saying that the reason is a good one. I am saying that this is the reason that Hollywood makes these types of, shall we say, ‘artistic judgement calls’. We can be angry about it. We can rant and rave about it, but there is little we can do to change it except not go to the movies and that only works if you can persuade a couple of million others to follow suit. Mamon is the principal deity in Hollywood. That which is profitable is king. The Lord of the Rings movies were great peices of story telling but they were also commercially successful. If they had had the former but not the latter then Hollywood would have written the project off as a failure.

    I agree with you that by any measure of cinematography, artistic expression or skill at story telling the Lord of the Rings movies were all an order of magnitude better than Avatar. I am just pointing out that the studio’s criteria of success are most likely different from ours.

  169. #170 'Tis Himself, OM
    December 31, 2009

    Marcus Ranum #141

    Isandlhwana was not the norm, damn it.

    The thing to remember about Isandlwana was that the British commander, Lord Chelmsford, severely underestimated the Zulus. When the British encamped at Isandlwana they didn’t entrench (Chelmsford claimed it would take too long to do properly) or even laager (encircle) their wagons. The Boers had warned Chelmsford that the Zulus were good warriors and, more importantly, soldiers.

    Warriors fight individually, soldiers fight as units. The British were used to fighting warriors and knew that small numbers of trained, well equipped soldiers could defeat much larger numbers of warriors. The British forces, particularly the British regulars, were experienced soldiers. So were the Zulus. The impis (Zulu regiments) were well drilled in formation fighting and had frequent 50 mile forced marches.

    At Isandlwana the Zulus showed they were a match for the British. Interestingly, the Zulus suffered slightly fewer casualties than the British, even though the Zulus were armed with spears and knobkerries (clubs) while the British had Martini-Henry breechloading rifles.

  170. #171 Carlie
    December 31, 2009

    Was the whole White-guy-saving-the-day bit a little nauseating? Yes, but it is a bit much to assume that this element was added to the film as part of an evil conspiracy to propagate some white supremacy ideology. It probably didn’t even cross Cameron’s mind that this element would be interpreted this way.

    I don’t think anyone’s suggesting it’s an evil conspiracy. In fact, I think the main point is that it obviously didn’t enter his mind, and it never will unless people point it out. That’s the whole theory of privilege – it’s entirely unexamined and unrealized bias that one would never even notice if it’s not pointed out. Besides that, though, the point still stands that if you’re spending that much on a movie, it would be nice to spend a little bit of the budget on the writers.

  171. #172 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    Just wanted to point to an interview with Joe Letteri detailing Weta’s role in Avatar, especially as it relates to the work pioneered with Gollum. It’s a candid evaluation of how much is tech and how much is artist, what I like to call lab coats vs. berets.

  172. #173 Gregory Greenwood
    December 31, 2009

    Carlie @ 171;

    ‘I don’t think anyone’s suggesting it’s an evil conspiracy. In fact, I think the main point is that it obviously didn’t enter his mind, and it never will unless people point it out. That’s the whole theory of privilege – it’s entirely unexamined and unrealized bias that one would never even notice if it’s not pointed out. Besides that, though, the point still stands that if you’re spending that much on a movie, it would be nice to spend a little bit of the budget on the writers.’

    You make a lot of good points but I still cannot help but feel that what we are seeing here is an orgy of over analysis of a movie that was only ever intended to be a bit of fun with a few rather obvious anti-war and anti-commercial exploitation messages thrown in.

    Is this movie an expression of ‘unexamined and unrealized bias’? I can see that argument if you choose to directly equate this fictional alien race to indigenous peoples from our own planet’s storied history of colonial oppression. I think that part of the reason why Cameron chose to make this as a sci-fi movie was to be able to say that exploitation of nature and resource warfare is wrong without getting overly mired in real world politics.

    The Na’vi are depicted as a tribal culture and their apparel and general culture is suggestive of Native Americans but they are not Native Americans, they are a fictional race. Talking about racism by means of a ‘mighty whitey’ plot element in relation to a fictional species on a fictional moon just strikes me as an analysis bridge too far. I do not mean to offend anyone, and I certainly do not seek to trivialise racial discrimination in the cinematic medium, but my own opinion is that Avatar should be viewed as a fairly innocuous sci-fi action movie. It is not brilliant or genre defining, but I do not think that it is significantly pernicious or socially harmful either.

    As for your point about spending more of the budget on the writers, I fully support you on that one.

  173. #174 Sven DiMilo
    December 31, 2009

    The white guy’s the hero for the same reason the alien has breasts (or, for that matter, is “female”).

    target audience

  174. #175 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    Likening me to a creationist are you? Thems be fighting words!

    Likening you to a creationist? No. Likening the notion that something needs to be LCD to sell to the notion that the science classroom should be about giving evangelicals what they think is reality. Nothing against you at all.

    I am not saying that the reason is a good one. I am saying that this is the reason that Hollywood makes these types of, shall we say, ‘artistic judgement calls’. We can be angry about it.

    Exactly what I’m saying.

    . We can rant and rave about it, but there is little we can do to change it except not go to the movies and that only works if you can persuade a couple of million others to follow suit. Mamon is the principal deity in Hollywood. That which is profitable is king.

    Again, agreed. Though ranting and raving about it is in my mind better than pretending that it should be taken on it’s visuals as opposed to story.

    The Lord of the Rings movies were great peices of story telling but they were also commercially successful. If they had had the former but not the latter then Hollywood would have written the project off as a failure.

    Indeed. But that’s my point, it wasn’t a failure. It was a commercial and critical success. It went off into what really is an (albeit large) esoteric genre, gave a semi-faithful retelling to keep most fanboys and fangirls happy, went for 10 hours over three consecutive Christmases, and it still made billions.

    All I’m saying is evidentially it doesn’t have to be LCD, which is why I’m ranting and raving about a missed opportunity to make it at least somewhat interesting in any way other than visually.

    I agree with you that by any measure of cinematography, artistic expression or skill at story telling the Lord of the Rings movies were all an order of magnitude better than Avatar. I am just pointing out that the studio’s criteria of success are most likely different from ours.

    Indeed. It seems you’re talking about the is and I’m talking about the ought. I’m sure we could all think of countless films that were landmarks in technology that still told a decent story. Jurassic Park is one that comes to mind. Wasn’t at the level of palaeontology professors, yet still managed to turn out something novel alongside what was a wonderful visual and auditory masterpiece. The Matrix is another good example, it really pushed movie-making forward yet was pretty much taking philosophical thought experiments and making a film out of them.

    So yeah, I’m with you in seeing that the bottom line is profitability and that isn’t necessarily in line with telling a good story. I personally just don’t think that should be an excuse, hence my ranting and raving. Though when it’s all said and done, it was a pretty impressive visual experience and well worth seeing on the big screen.

  175. #176 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    I don’t think anyone’s suggesting it’s an evil conspiracy.

    Yet in The Last Samurai, somehow the embodiment of the legendary Japanese culture was Tom fucking Cruise. Explain that!

  176. #177 eidio
    December 31, 2009

    Many people have commented that the reason for the humanoid aliens is so the audience has an easier time relating and empathizing with the “good guys.” This is true, but there are a couple other reasons as well. First is the love story. It would be hard, I think, for most people to accept Jake falling in love with an 8 foot croco-duck. Certainly, you don’t NEED a love story, but this is Hollywood. Also, the Avatars were supposed to be grown from human and Na’vi DNA, presumably so that humans can plug-in via futuristic neuro-magic. So it makes sense that the Na’vi would need to be human-like if we are going merge our DNA and plug our consciousness into another body and move around naturally.

    I actually really liked it. Yes the plot was predictable, but most movies follow the same basic formula for plot advancement. And just because you know what will happen next doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. If that was the case, there would be no movies based on well known true stories, books or plays, and no one would ever see a movie twice. Suspense is not a product of content, but of craft. I felt Apollo 13 was incredibly suspenseful even though everyone knew the outcome. It’s about tapping into human emotions, drawing you into the story so that even though you “know” how it will turn out, you’re still on the edge of your seat, rooting for the good guys. And my opinion is that Avatar did a pretty good job of that.

  177. #178 hence
    December 31, 2009

    Avatar?s story is not as simple as some make it out to be. Sure, it?s never overly complex, or very original, but it is executed so well that it becomes interesting in its negative space. My mind started spinning early on when I tried to figure out why, or when exactly, Eywa chose Sully to be her champion. Was it his childlike openness, his near idiotic bravery, or simply that she could seduce him that made him stand out to her.

    Also, how unhappy was Neytiri about her life before Jake came along. What did she mean when she told him that the trees of voices sometimes answer prayers. (OK, that is perhaps par course in this type of story, but I liked how it was only implied). Also implied was the motivation of Tsu?tey. His character really shines because he constantly put a lot of justified animosity aside for the wellbeing of his people. Perhaps Neytiri couldn?t love him because he was too concerned with that.

    The wakeup scene at the trees of voices really made me think about the times I had tried to bulldoze someones cherished belifs (if only in some stupid online debate). I?m not appologizing for having done that, and I?ve also got precious things in my worldview that I would strongly defend. But it was nice to experience a little of what it must feel to have something you hold sacred under attack.

    Cameron?s films are always about improbable love, and he is very good at talking about (or milking, depending on your outlook) that. In Avatar, however, he also manages to raise some interesting questions about the general course we have plotted as a species. What?s a good balance between growth and sustainability, search for new knowledge and making do with what we already know, dominance and cooperation, etc. Perhaps it doesn?t delve deep into any of that but at least it is there.

    At the end of the movie I wanted to find out what happens next. Perhaps a little silly but I can?t call it bad storytelling when something has that effect.

  178. #179 John Morales
    December 31, 2009

    Meh. Fantastic graphics, silly silly story-line.

    Those weren’t aliens, they were people.

    hence,

    My mind started spinning early on when I tried to figure out why, or when exactly, Eywa chose Sully to be her champion. Was it his childlike openness, his near idiotic bravery, or simply that she could seduce him that made him stand out to her.

    Nah, the reason for it was that it was in the script.

    eidio,

    It would be hard, I think, for most people to accept Jake falling in love with an 8 foot croco-duck.

    Well, it’d've been an 8-foot croco-duck with breasts, so no worries there. ;)

  179. #180 Kevin B
    December 31, 2009

    Meh. The “aliens” in District 9 were also people. Other than their appearance, they were carefully written to be human-like.

  180. #181 hence
    December 31, 2009

    John Morales,

    Nah, the reason for it was that it was in the script.

    Indeed it was. But like I said, a well executed story can be interesting in its negative space.

  181. #182 Feynmaniac
    December 31, 2009

    Yet in The Last Samurai, somehow the embodiment of the legendary Japanese culture was Tom fucking Cruise. Explain that!

    “I mean Hollywood is crazy, The Last Samurai starring…Tom Cruise? He’s the last samurai? Give me a break, that movie was offensive, I mean hollywood is crazy. First they had The Mexican with Brad Pitt and now they have The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. Well I’ve written a film, maybe they’ll produce my film. The Last N*gger On Earth starring Tom Hanks” – Paul Mooney

  182. #183 Carlie
    December 31, 2009

    Seriously, I think The Core was the last movie that did that, and I believe its one of the worst films I’ve ever come across.

    I adore The core. I used it once for a geology final – made the students watch it and they got points for every scientifically inaccurate thing they found.

  183. #184 skeptical scientist
    December 31, 2009

    skeptical scientist @149:
    the movie was clearly fantasy, and not science fiction.
    Let’s hear your definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy and why you think Avatar belongs in one camp and not the other.

    I won’t try to defend my definition, since it’s purely a semantic distinction in any case. However, I will explain my views, so that you may better understand my comment. The last thing I want to do is get in to a debate about whether Avatar is sci-fi or fantasy.

    For me, science fiction is set in something that could plausibly be our universe. There may be new technologies which we have no idea how they work, but the fictional universe is recognizable our own. Fantasy makes no attempt to be set in our universe, and the laws of nature are quite different from the laws in our own universe – they permit magic and gods, demons and the supernatural. Avatar, with its magical floating mountains and planet-wide nature god, strikes me as more fantasy than science fiction.

    That said, no proposed dividing line between sci-fi and fantasy is ever going to be agreed upon, and certain parts of the gray area between the two will always be controversial. In the end, Orson Scott Card’s “fantasy has trees, and science fiction has rivets” distinction is likely to be closer to how works are viewed than any definition that tries to get at the root of what separates the two.

    I’ll end on a rather cheeky note: Avatar has both trees and rivets, but the trees play a much bigger role than the rivets, so it’s definitely fantasy. *wink*

  184. #185 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise

    I must admit that the last time I enjoyed a film with Tom Cruise in it was Minority Report.

    Suffering through trailers waiting for Avatar in Imax3D, he popped up in some POS action flick with wall2wall guns&explosions over-driving the subs, and I started trying to calculate how much money I could make selling the Imax Sensurround 3D Experience of stomping the shit out of that $mug $cientoogy $umbitch. If only there was a way to make him feel my contempt.

  185. #186 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    I actually liked The Last Samurai, pretend Tom Cruise isn’t in it and the movie is pretty interesting.

  186. #187 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    And agreed on Minority Report. Again a film showing that reasonable big budget science fiction doesn’t have to be LCD.

  187. #188 skeptical scientist
    December 31, 2009

    Addendum: I just noticed your (Ken Cope’s) “I see others want to criticize Avatar for being fantasy rather than SF,” comment above. I did not mean my remark as criticism, and I very much enjoy both genres, as well as works that blur the boundary between them. I just meant that I feel people criticizing Avatar for its implausible science are missing the mark, because that wasn’t the point.

  188. #189 Dave
    December 31, 2009

    You know what movie I thought was really predictable and derivative? West Side Story. That was clearly based on Romeo and Juliet. Sure, they retold the classic story in a novel and interesting way but as soon as I realized what was going to happen, I walked out.

  189. #190 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    Avatar, with its magical floating mountains and planet-wide nature god, strikes me as more fantasy than science fiction.

    Granted, it’s not drastically important, but thanks for playing.

    Cameron didn’t portray floating mountains as explainable by magic, but as a physical consequence of what made that world and its Maguffin desirable, internally consistent with the rules established within the narrative, without explicitly resorting to magic.

    The planet-wide nature god was clearly presented as being not only non-magical, but hackable. I’m with PZ as to the ID angle. If sequels don’t explore the back-story as to how the world came to be (via some pre-cursor civilization that wanted to plug itself into some sort of back-to-nature sensorium via technology-indistinguishable-from-technology per Arthur C. Clarke), then my credulity will also be over-strained.

    Just because it’s wish-fulfillment doesn’t make it mere fantasy.

  190. #191 Anon
    December 31, 2009

    There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are really, really good, and the bad guys are really, really bad. Like straight from the associate of arts degree program at the local Cartoon Villain College.

    Sounds a lot like this blog.

  191. #192 John Morales
    December 31, 2009

    Ken,

    Just because it’s wish-fulfillment doesn’t make it mere fantasy.

    There’s nothing ‘mere’ about fantasy.

    If sequels don’t explore the back-story as to how the world came to be (via some pre-cursor civilization that wanted to plug itself into some sort of back-to-nature sensorium via technology-indistinguishable-from-technology magic per Arthur C. Clarke), then my credulity will also be over-strained.

    Um, it coped (heh) with an interstellar-capable hyper-corporation being defeated via bows-and-arrows? (cf. “Rock Beats Laser” at TVTropes)

    In terms of internal consistency, the real-time consciousness-transferrence schtick was my biggest annoyance. It’s straight-out mind-body dualism.

  192. #193 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    I will refrain from writing ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’ 100 times, although I should have after #190, even though there isn’t anybody here who didn’t know what I meant to write.

  193. #194 Kel, OM
    December 31, 2009

    In terms of internal consistency, the real-time consciousness-transferrence schtick was my biggest annoyance. It’s straight-out mind-body dualism.

    Honestly I didn’t get that impression, I thought it more Cartesian Theatre. The whole Gaia hypothesis neural network to me at least tried to give it a materialist grounding imho.

  194. #195 Ken Cope
    December 31, 2009

    There’s nothing ‘mere’ about fantasy.

    Violent agreement, overflowing bookcases as testimony.

    Oh, plus, it was arrows plus dragons and a planetary consciousness.

    John, I’m with Kel on this one. There was at least a physical substrate (the ‘sacred’ tree and its resinous fibre-optics) for consciousness-transfer, with which I had far less credulity issues than the wireless Avatar hookup across vast distance through spooky magnetic fields.

  195. #196 John Morales
    December 31, 2009

    Kel, much the same thing. The protagonist’s consciousness (the Cartesian Homunculus) moved back-and-forth between the two physical bodies.

    Leaving aside the magic sufficiently-advanced technology that supposedly transferred the neural output of the body in the coffin to the body on the ground, it’s quite clear that we have an instance of two bodies, one consciousness that flits between them¹.

    If it had been internally-consistent, the ego of the human would’ve just been copied into the Avatar, at which point the two would diverge.

    ¹ As the final scene made clear.

  196. #197 Patricia Queen of Sluts, OM
    December 31, 2009

    Anon #191 – Get stuffed.

  197. #198 keir
    December 31, 2009

    Saw the 3D movie, enjoyed it very much. I did have one odd thought – with two bodies to sustain, Jake would get to enjoy eating twice as much without suffering the consequences! Hmmm, speaking of food, when will the Simpsons do a parody of Avatar with Homer as the lead character Jake? You know its coming.

  198. #199 Owlmirror
    December 31, 2009

    Some thoughts about the “science” behind the avatars:

    In twenty-whatever, a breakthrough is made: Penrose was right, and consciousness is quantum (cue rolling of eyes and palming of face from anyone who actually knows physics and/or neurology)(quit yer groaning, eggheads: this isn’t science, it’s technobabble). Experiments with twin studies show that if a target brain is sufficiently similar to a source brain, you can share consciousness via (*handwave*) quantum resonance (*/handwave*). All those twins that (sometimes appear to) “share thoughts” are an unconscious and natural result of this quantum resonance, which is implemented as actual <tech> in cloned avatars.

    So this is why the avatars have to be grown using the DNA of the operator: to get a brain that can be quantum synchronized with the operator brain, it has to be a clone/twin of that brain. It also explains why the avatars can operate in the vortex, where radio stops working: they’re not using radio to transmit the remote-control signal from the operator to the avatar.

    At the end, Eywa rejiggers Jakesully’s avatar brain so that it becomes the quantum source instead of the human brain, because Eywa knows the <tech> and has been using it for eons.

    Some of the comments about the Na’vi being humans from the future also gave me another thought: they’re not from the future, but descendants of some humans who crashed there and died (Ooh — some humans and a cat (why not?)). Eywa took their DNA and manipulated it and crossed it with some of the native life forms, resulting in the first Na’vi. OK, I’m not sure that the timing can work for that, now I think of it (the film takes place only ~150 years from now, so how can there be enough generations?), but it’s an amusing notion nonetheless. And it could work if the time-travel is added in.

  199. #200 Ken Cope
    January 1, 2010

    descendants of some humans who crashed there and died (Ooh — some humans and a cat (why not?)).

    “And this is mine, and this is mine…”

  200. #201 Kel, OM
    January 1, 2010

    Leaving aside the magic sufficiently-advanced technology that supposedly transferred the neural output of the body in the coffin to the body on the ground, it’s quite clear that we have an instance of two bodies, one consciousness that flits between them.

    I see no difference between the scenario in Avatar and what was in The Matrix. They both posited an external reality being fed into the brain, a.k.a. like a powerful demon – yet both quite clearly operated on a materialist notion that the mind is a product of the brain. It was one conscious in both cases, and in both cases the consciousness was in the physical body. It’s just that in the case of Avatar, the external reality is feeding in and hijacking the stream of conscious that exists in his regular body. Hence the need for the exchange of conscious at the end which I can only assume was some neural rewiring.

    See, this is why I’m coming down hard on the movie. It had great potential to explore some cool concepts and in the end the sci-fi elements only served as a means to push the storyline forward.

  201. #202 John Morales
    January 1, 2010

    Kel,

    It’s just that in the case of Avatar, the external reality is feeding in and hijacking the stream of conscious that exists in his regular body.

    Nope. The meat-puppet is comatose when not ‘inhabited’, they make a big point of it.

    (I will admit, however, that Owlmirror has mostly sold me on it with most impressive technobabblic handwavium. No need for time-travel, though — Eywa used the very first human expedition (which was apparently lost with all hands) as templates and provided a perceived history for the Na’vi).

    Now, when will we get to see Death World?

  202. #203 Paula Helm Murray
    January 1, 2010

    We saw it last night at an IMAX 3-D theater. I bought into the whole thing until the ‘unobtainium.’ That ran me off the rails and the rest of the film until I had to give up gave me a ‘gee whiz that’s cool but how does it really work?” feel.

    Then at about an hour I started developing a visual headache that I knew would lead to throwing up if i stayed so I lasted 1:20 into the movie. But by that time my internal plot bunnies were barfing on my shoes going “They used THAT? That used WHAT? TRITE!” (I’m in the middle of plotting out a fantasy novel and was likely a good thing I was getting vertigo…).

  203. #204 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkD9oPuO_ZXJ3kp7Woq8jiLZTGNrn19t9w
    January 1, 2010

    Sigh. Give me a break. Cruises character was the “observer”, who was left standing to bring back the message of the “last samurai”. How you can get it that bloody wrong…

  204. #205 Gregory Greenwood
    January 1, 2010

    Kel, Om @ 175;

    ‘It seems you’re talking about the is and I’m talking about the ought.’

    I think you have hit the nail on the head there. We are talking at cross purposes. I was saying that we can only get so worked up about something that is, for the time being, a well entrenched element of the Hollywood process of film making, and you were saying that things ought to be better than this with commercially viable movies created with real thought to their artistic merit.

    For the record, I agree with you on that wholeheartedly. In an ideal world where Hollywood was not populated by grasping, avaricious morons but was instead a haven for the genuinely creative and intelligent, the movie industry would prize character development and story telling more highly than wall to wall explosions and shiny visuals.

    Special effects would actually function as an aid to story telling rather than an end in themselves and next generation CG technology, like that used in the creation of Avatar, would function as a means of freeing the imagination and allowing a truly talented film maker to create whatever his or her imagination could conceive rather than simply acting as a glorified tech demo.

    Perhaps most importantly, film makers would be able to create their dream worlds without having to worry about interference from the sphere of politics and without needing to constantly consider whether any sects of fundies will get into a hopping rage because the film fantasy somehow impinges on their religious fantasy

    People like yourself and I have harboured such dreams for a long time. Here’s hoping that one day they come true.

    As for The Last Samurai, I have difficulty watching that movie because it seems to be little more than a vehicle for Tom Cruise’s massive, continent-crushing mega ego. He manages to out samurai the samurai having spent mere months learning sword craft that takes a life time to master. I know that such ‘time compression’ is a necessary element of movies (everyone in Hollywood seems to love the training montage), but I find it more palatable in relation to the fictional Na’vi then I do when it is applied to a real world culture.

    I find it particularly interesting that, although he supposedly immerses himself in the Samurai warrior culture, he never adopts the Samurai top-knot (I do not actually know the correct term for the hair arrangement), even though it possess great symbolic value in that culture. Apparently, embodying the last remnants of Samurai culture is simply not worth messing with ‘Cruise Cut’ (I apologise for that awful pun, I just wasn’t strong enough to resist).

  205. #206 sunioc
    January 1, 2010

    Catballou and Andrew, As I said, Cameron himself admitted the breasts thing was fanservice in an interview in playboy. “Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’ even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.”

  206. #207 Matrim
    January 1, 2010

    You know, it really bugs me when people throw out the old “don’t over analyze it” or, even worse, “if you just turn your brain off you’ll really like it.” I’m sorry, but if THINKING about a movie detracts from the experience, I’m going to say it sucks. Yeah, blanket statement, I know. But if simply considering the issues involved in a movie causes problems, then the filmmakers failed. Sorry, but that’s kinda how it is.

    You can appreciate effects, but don’t try to pass your effects reel off as a movie by slapping a weak story on it.

  207. #208 Owlmirror
    January 1, 2010

    And as a followup on my #199:

    It thus follows that the coffin-like thingy he gets into contains (or is) a quantum entangler, and the shiny colorful thing we see him sliding through to waken as the avatar is a quantum tunnel.

    Spooky action at a distance !!

  208. #209 mo
    January 1, 2010

    The film is actually deeper than many people here think. You are just fan-dumb.

    The science is even quite accurate:
    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/43440

  209. #210 Owlmirror
    January 1, 2010

    The film is actually deeper than many people here think. You are just fan-dumb.

    Your wanking is noted.

    The science is even quite accurate not entirely idiotic

    Fixed.

  210. #211 mo
    January 1, 2010

    It is at least better than in any other big-budget (involving inter-solar-system travel) science fiction movie; and the details in it are nerdgasm inducing (I, as a biologist in training got one from the “dragonskull”, which is correctly articulated for what it does with it. A little bit like in teleosts). hence, fan-dumb.

    Some of you naysayers did not even watch the movie. Ol’Greg wrote the female lead is a damsel in distress, but she is the most badass “good” character. Cameron has a preferance for strong women characters.

  211. #212 Pastor Farm
    January 1, 2010

    I just got back from the movie and allow me to say that my low expectations served me well. The film’s story and dialogue happily lived down to just about every one of them.

    But now I will feast on some crow. I enjoyed it immensely despite myself. There was a palpable joy of film-making in practically every scene. As a silent film it would be among the greats. The depth and lushness of Pandora/Gaia was nothing short of stunning and it wasn’t just a cynical tech demo. There seemed to be real love that went into the creation of this world and it was gorgeous as a result.

    Was it stupid? Yes! Were there any three-dimensional characters? God, no. And the movie’s message practically punched you in the face while screaming wildly in your ear, “LISTEN TO ME!”

    But there was a undeniable charm that provided the sense of elevation that only the best movies do.

  212. #213 Craig
    January 2, 2010

    I adamantly agree with this review. In fact the most consistent description of this film is it is Ferngully meets Dances with Wolves with all the same bad cartoon villains. Furthermore I was taken aback by the serious overtones knocking science and technology. Honestly I would love to see these neolithic nightelves survive in the vacuum of space the way humans do.
    I will have to say though that the production values were outstanding (they better have been for a $300 million movie), and I have found myself dreaming of being put in the pilot seat of one of those mechs the marines were using. God I would love to just equip it with one of those guns and take it out to a range with a rusty battle tank waiting at the end of it, and give it a formal sendoff before it gets taken to the scrap heap. *BOOM*BOOM*BOOM “YESS!”

  213. #214 Modoc
    January 2, 2010

    http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/staticfiles/NGS/Shared/StaticFiles/Photography/Images/POD/g/gelada-fangs-711063-sw.jpg

    We have lipless monsters on this planet, too. Not even those critters were creative.

  214. #215 Gregory Greenwood
    January 2, 2010

    Matrim @ 207;

    If you are talking about me, when I said the movie was being over analysed I was specifically talking about the claim that it harboured a white supremacist undertone. Please try carefully reading the post in question before commenting on it in future. I find that it helps a great deal.

    As for your point that this is not great movie making, you are right. But some of us can enjoy caviar and still like to eat the odd hamburger from time to time. Not every movie has to be Citizen Kane, you know.

  215. #216 Eidolon
    January 2, 2010

    Just saw the flick and had a good time. Christ on a stick folks, there are deep thoughtful movies with complex characters. A few combine action and introspection – damn few. This film was not intended to be either of these.

    It tells a simple story, much like the beloved “Wars” and “Trek” movies. Don’t be such silly prats and go on about how inaccurate the science is. If you use that criteria, best drop any story that involves interstellar travel as well as any fantasy based film as well. Spock is impossible, as is transportation via phone lines. For that matter, you can rule out about any action/adventure film. The 3D Imax was stunning, BTW.

    As Greg @215 points out, you don’t always dine on haute cuisine. I can also enjoy simpler fare at the local tavern.

  216. #217 Owlmirror
    January 2, 2010

    For those who are bothered by the implicit “white male superiority/privilege” mentioned in some of the comments above, I thought of a retcon which is consistent with everything portrayed in the film.

    One of the things we saw was that Eywa can in some way communicate with the animals and get them to act in concert. So what if it is not the case that Jakesully learned everything about their culture in three months because he’s a white male, but because Eywa was going out of the way to make things easy for him?

    In this scenario, Eywa realizes that the humans are damaging the planet (open pit strip mine seen in the beginning), and are causing and planning further damage. But Eywa is also aware of the avatars; human-Na’vi hybrids. This is why Eywa intervenes to give the sign that Jakesully is “chosen” (the ctenophoroid-seed scene): not because the planetary network particularly likes him (for being a white male), but because the planetary network wants to use him (as a human with military knowledge against the other humans). Indeed, Eywa may have manipulated the animals that chased/attacked Jake, so as to separate him from the others and get him into a position to be rescued by a Na’vi.

    During the three months that Jakesully is learning to be a Na’vi, Eywa is “helping” him along, just a little, by making sure that animals and plants co-operate with him. Eywa is perhaps also “monitoring” and “reprogramming” him at the same time: Every time he hooks his hair braid up to some animal or plant, the connection is two-way, and Eywa learns a little more — and maybe tweaks Jakesully’s emotions a little more.

    So the penultimate event where Jakesully bonds with the toruk is perhaps suggested by Eywa, and definitely facilitated by Eywa inducing the toruk to co-operate. Without this, Jake would have been either chomped or tossed down.

    This is a lot of handwaving to explain something which almost certainly was the result of nothing more than the expediency of telling a rather simplistic story where a tough guy learns enough about a culture to be able to do something that impresses the people of that culture enough to get them to follow him, but what the hell anyway.

  217. #218 Gregory Greenwood
    January 2, 2010

    Eidolon @ 216;

    You said what I said, only better. I take my figurative hat off to you sir. Or madam, as the case may be.

  218. #219 Ken Cope
    January 2, 2010

    Owlmirror, that doesn’t strike me as too much of a retcon. They opened the door to the probability that Jakesully’s meteoric ascendancy was orchestrated when Neytiri got her fresh steed.

  219. #220 ixat
    January 3, 2010

    “Sure Avatar had a re-hashed predictable plot. Sure, you could see not only the ending, but every step in between coming from a thousand miles away. Did that make it unenjoyable? No.”

    No, what almost killed it for me was the bludgeoning soundtrack, the lazy dialogue and the painful stereotypes. I’ve seen the movie twice so far because of the sheer beauty of the visuals, but I can’t turn my brain off completely, I’m sorry. I can’t abide by the people who try to let Cameron off the hook by saying that “oh, it’s not that kind of movie, the point is the visuals.” If one thing is done really well in a film, nothing else can be? Listen, I’m not asking for David Mamet here, but is “you’re not in Kansas anymore” the best they could do? Couldn’t they have at least played with the Mighty Whitey trope a little bit? Couldn’t they have made the Na’vi just a little less stereotypically Injun? I want nothing more than to have loved the movie without reservations, but every moment like that was like a poke in the eye. To the people who imply that if I couldn’t keep myself from cringing so many times, it was because I didn’t try hard enough – get real.

  220. #221 cleve hicks
    January 4, 2010

    I love this website, but I think you folks are crazy. Avatar had a brilliant plot, and was only predictable because we humans are so predictable about spoiling whatever paradises we happen to stumble acrss (I’ve been witnessing it happen recently in the northern DR Congo). You really don’t think the Belgians in the Congo didn’t act like the nasty Colonel Quaritch, nor did the US generals in Vietnam as they were napalming everything around them? Avatar was more realistic than a lot of you think, sorry to burst your bubbles. It is also hands-down the most creative attempt to breathe life into an alien planet in the history of films.
    As for the claims of racism, that is ridiculous. If you read ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’, you will see that it was a white customs agent in Antwerp named Morrel who almost single-handedly exposed and put a stop to Leopold’s atrocities against the Congolese in the early 1900s. Is it racist to point that out? He was the only one with the power to do it (the Congolese fought bravely but they were outgunned). In the movie, Eywa knew it would take someone (Jake Scully) with inside knowledge to bring down the company.
    While you are all quibbling about supposedly ‘bad dialogue’ (I heartily disagree), you are missing the brilliant sci-fi idea of a giant, planet-wide symbiotic network of trees and animals.
    That’s all I have to say, I have got a thesis to write up.

  221. #222 cleve hicks
    January 4, 2010

    Er, that’s Jake SULLY …

  222. #223 Carlie
    January 4, 2010

    A little late for throwing it in now, but this is the perfect place for the newly-hatched Moff’s Law.

  223. #224 Will Von Wizzlepig
    January 5, 2010

    For my $11, Avatar was 2.5 hours well spent. Filmgasm. I would have gone back in to watch it again if I’d had the time.

    The movie was so seamless in its integration of real and CG, the creatures and people and world all interacting and behaving in a completely convincing fashion… it’s crushingly beautiful.

    To be able to lose yourself in an environment that feels like it could actually be real, that’s worth $11 right there.

    If nothing else in the movie ever goes above “just ok”, well, they have pretty in spades, and that’s more than enough for me.

    Sorry to the folks who needed a rollercoaster to have its own Mission Statement, I wish you could have enjoyed it as much as I did.