“I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”


(Significant plot-related spoilers whited out in deference to spirgins; spoilers about ambience and background, not so much)

A little bit of classic Trek. A bit of Deathworld, a touch of Anne McAffrey’s Dragonriders. At least 50% glorious Roger-Dean-album-cover porn. Strong echoes of The Emerald Forest, a lameass mystical eighties-era John Boorman film about the plight of the Amazon. South Park pretty much nailed the plot with that “Dances with Smurfs” episode they ran a few weeks back. And most tellingly, am I the only one out there to remember an obscure 1975 novel by Alan Dean Foster called Midworld? About a planet sheathed in deep forest, and the six-legged fauna that lived there, and the ruthless Human industrialists who come to exploit its riches only to be fought by the gone-native descendents of an earlier expedition that had learned to live in harmony with nature? A novel in which it was ultimately revealed that the fauna and the flora were essentially part of a single interconnected network? Yes? Anyone?

I am talking, of course, about James Cameron’s Avatar, which I saw in glorious understated 3D last night, and which proved (for all the triteness of its plot) to be one of the more welcome diversions I’ve experienced over the past couple of weeks. It was frustrating. It was enjoyable. They got the some things right and some things wrong, and some things they got both ways at the same time.

The technology, for example. Anachronistic in that way it absolutely has to be, to convey a sense of verisimilitude to the modern gut. The critic in you insists that all these manual controls and B-52 cockpits— the very presence of on-site human pilots in a world of teleoperated meat puppets, generations beyond a time in which the skies already seethe with autonomous flying robots— make about as much sense as an F-16 with reins and a buggy-whip for a control interface. And yet the scratched paint and the scuffed windscreens feel so right, viscerally, that just this once I do not have the heart to complain.

Or the biology. Someone put a lot of thought into Pandora’s wildlife; it was beautiful to behold, it was amazingly diverse, it even seemed (for the most part) phylogenetically consistent. Across a wide range of species, everything from nostril placement to jaw structure was nicely suggestive of common ancestry. Except for the Na’vi, which are ridiculously anthropomorphic: tetrapod bipeds where everything else on the planet seems to have six limbs; binocular vision on a world where four eyes is the vertebrate norm. Evidently Cameron felt that his hero could not plausibly fall in love with a four-eyed banana-slug, but that a blue-skinned cat-woman just might pass muster. (I agree that the former premise would result in a much more challenging film, conceptually— but then, I like conceptually challenging films.) And while I have no problem in principle with the concept of planetary-ecosystem-as-integrated-network, did anybody give any thought at all as to the ramifications of hanging extra USB-equipped spinal cords off the heads of every piece of megafauna on the planet? Pandora is rife with obvious predator-prey interactions; how would those even evolve in a world where prey could forge a direct neural interface with their predators, force them to feel the pain of being consumed? Wouldn’t that pretty much have to result in completely different trophodynamic networks than the Wild-Kingdom stuff that we saw in the film?

Then there’s the question of how the good guys can move their Avatar-interface pods into a “flux zone” which scrambles all EM signals, without compromising the Avatar link itself. And I’m sure someone worked out some kind of superconductor handwave for the levitating unobtanium; would a line or two of explanatory dialog really have killed the pacing that much?

Characters vs. caricatures. No corporate honcho is going to be caught dead talking about “savages” and “blue monkeys”, even if that’s the way they actually feel; these people are more than practiced in the smiling empty comment, the statement that encourages and reassures but commits to nothing. They would speak of relocating the “natives” for their own good, perhaps; who knows what damaging side-effects this unobtanium might have on the unprotected indigenous people? Burke, from Cameron’s Aliens, was a much more plausible corporate slimeball.

And of course, as I’m sure I’m not the first to point out, there’s the whole problem of the Helpless Natives Who Need To Be Rescued By The Noble White Guy. Given the story’s premise, I certainly don’t deny that ol’ Jake would be an extremely valuable resource, with his inside knowledge of how the “sky people” operate. There’s nothing patronizing or condescending about giving him a vital role in the insurgency, the most valuable source of tactical wisdom available. A consultant. An advisor.

But a messiah? This guy who has spent a grand total of three months living with the natives, leading an assault with local implements, across terrain on which every other member of the tribe has spent their entire lives? This guy, this innocent, figures out the trick to taming the planet’s Top Predator all by himself, a trick that only five real Na’vi have figured out during their entire recorded history? (It’s actually a not-bad trick, if you don’t think about it too much. If you do, though, you start thinking about those spinal USB jacks again, and the vulnerability of even the most fearsome predator to sneak neural hacks…) The tale would have been better told if Jake had told them all he knew, and then been shunted off to the side and kept safe— an invaluable source of intel, too vital to risk in battle— while the native warriors took the lead.

Finally, I had seriously misgivings about the resolution at the end of the movie. It does not seem quite as definitive as Cameron would have us believe. The title of this posting, taken from another of his films, kinda sums up the problem as I see it.

But you know something? All that said, I’d see Avatar again. In a second.

It’s been years now since special effects were enough to entice me into a theatre. Ever since the ascension of CGI, it’s been possible to render pretty much anything a writer can imagine. The highest production values have been devalued by the relentless onslaught of Moore’s Law. I didn’t care how eye-popping something looked; there had to be more to lure me in. No modern movie can succeed solely on the strength of its special effects.

But then I saw Avatar, and in terms of sheer technical virtuosity it just blew me away. Every frame is gorgeous. Every two minutes of footage looks as though it must have cost as much as any other whole movie to make. Every perfectly-rendered dust mote and shaft of filtered sunlight forces me to smile and widen my eyes despite my most jaded intentions.

I have a lot of problems with Avatar as a story. As a movie, though — as an experience — it has made me change my own rules, at least for now.

Avatar is a movie that succeeds on the strength of its effects.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 19th, 2009 at 10:40 am and is filed under ink on art. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

65 Responses to ““I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.””

  1. mwt

    That was a great movie. On the subject of influences, don’t forget what it owes to “Call Me Joe” (which is a LOT). One of my all-time favorite sf novellas. A good deal of it is in the movie. Even the 6-legged panther was there.

    I agree that the anachronistic and/or just-plain-wrong stuff actually worked to make the movie more satisfying on an emotional/feeling level, even if my brain was screaming, “No way.”

  2. Johan Larson

    An ending that leaves the door open for sequels would be to Cameron’s advantage. That would account for a less-than-definite ending. And Cameron has in fact been musing about possible sequels in various interviews, though I don’t think he has given out any specifics.

  3. Brian Prince

    Our shop did a handful of shots for it, though I won’t see the full film until Monday.

    I was impressed that the Venture Star came equipped with a stack of warmly-glowing photo-radiators, something essential to a big spacecraft but that I’ve never seen in a movie before.

    Although it does seem a little odd that hard SF elements like that are sprinkled onto a story that seems like it’s meant to evoke a pulpy planetary romance. I think Star Wars proved that you don’t need science to make space opera.

    I guess I’ll find out how well it all jives on Monday.

  4. Hannu Blommila

    Oh yes! I was immediately reminded of Foster’s “Midworld” when I saw the trailer. Haven’t seen the whole movie yet, but reactions to it over here have been pretty mixed…

  5. Laur

    I’ve just came back from the theatre, and I’d been blown away by this movie. Not by the story – I tried to outline it on the phone to my SO, only to realise it’s Pocahontas with blue elves. The effects were part of it, but it wasn’t that either. It was the fact that someone – Cameron – was able to take a whole world out of his head and show it on the screen.

    It’s hard to describe the feeling; it’s like a brand new chapter in the history of cinema has been opened, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. And that’s not idle talk. The business people love this kind of movie, because you need a big screen and 3d glasses to experience it properly. Not happening in your living room any time soon. Directors must love the new creative possibilities. Sure, now only a select few have access to the kind of money needed, but if this is the future, it’s going to get cheap. And I guess we’re going to get a lot more good-looking SF&F movies. Let’s face it, nobody’s going to queue up to experience the London fog in stunning 3D IMAX vision.

    Play that again, Cam? Definitely.

  6. Chris in NY

    Ridley Scott (whom I came oh so close to meeting a few weeks ago) has been planning to do The Forever War at some point. He finally has the rights. I’m wondering what influence Avatar will have on his design decisions.


  7. some Mike

    the funniest bit about avatar (for me) is that in 2003 or sometime around then, via some obscure news-for-nerds website, I found some links to unpublished film scripts. Downloaded them all, some of it quite weird (well one of them was by David Lynch, so it should be no surprise that it was weird). One of those scripts was by James Cameron and named “Avatar”. Thought it wasn’t SF by far, but might make a nice effects-porn movie.

    Now for the fun bit: Since, at the time, I was reading quite a bit of text on my brick-like so called smartphone, I put the text on my own webserver to download to the phone. I then forgot about the file. A little while later, I got an email from a very polite lawyer, asking me to please remove the file from the web as Mr Cameron was still thinking about making the movie. Note: no “takedown notice” no legal threats, just a polite question. I found this so surprising that I complied 😉

    Anyway, probably going to the movies to see it, to thank Mr Cameron in a roundabout way for being a nice person. Or if he isn’t (I don’t know him, after all), maybe that lawyer was, who knows. Whatever.

  8. Joe Ardent

    The other thing that bugged me, science-wise, was the fact that Pandora has a gravity field that is significantly lower than Earth’s (as given BY A LINE IN THE MOVIE, and by the fact that you have all this flying megafauna), but all the ballistic trajectories (stuff falling, people walking, etc.) are as though they are being accelerated downward at about 10 m/s^2.

    And I think you perhaps spared the hackneyed dialog just a little too much evisceration 🙂

    Still, as you say: I would see it again in a second. I’m already planning on it, in fact. I worked at Weta from 2006 to 2008; toured the set in New Zealand, read the script, saw the pre-viz, and wrote some code for it, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release for more than two years. I was not disappointed at all, and I was immensely proud of my friends for all their hard work.

  9. keanani

    As a spirgin, I can only comment on what I have seen of Avatar, that being the book I bought before the movie debuted, “The Art of Avatar”, by Lisa Fitzpatrick. I find the Na’vi quite beautiful, and reminiscent of characters in Hellboy II (the Elves, Abe Sapien), Pan’s Labyrinth (Pan) and LOTR (Elves) — as some of the illustrators and artists of Avatar worked on these movies–with their gorgeous bioluminescence and iridescent cyan blueness with purply zebraish stripes…and I don’t know why “race” is even an issue, or suggested, for the actors playing the parts of the characters are picked for their talent and suitability for the parts. Sam Worthington is a popular actor right now and seems to be getting a lot of lead roles in scifi, as is Zoe Saldana. Both of these actors had the right body type and face for their Avatar roles….not anything to do with skincolor.

    The movie has been likened to a video game, and as such would have to appeal to both fanboys and fangirls, so the lead actors Sam and Zoe playing the romantic Avatar Na’vi couple would appeal to both males and females who would find the striking and fierce “alien beauty” of Jake and Neytiri attractive.

    It is not at all a stretch to see why the Na’vi are “humanoid” in form and function, this being a movie that needs to attract people who are not into Scifi, for if legions of females can fall in love with LOTR Elves, such as Legolas, and females of ALL ages pine for the sparkly undead dead Edward of Twilight dreams…then the movie would need characters that were alien but somehow identifiable to the masses of humans who are more and more able to fall in love with that which is not “normal”.

    I don’t know Peter, but perhaps one day something like scramblers would be “lovable”, although I think the brain-hacking would be a problem, but I think that Jukka would have a better chance at finding himself attractive to human females with his red eyes and bloodsucking tendencies…albeit the bloodlust drive would need to be toned down, and there is that crucifix glitchy thing…for there seems to be a full-gale force of vampire-mania at the moment.

    Most importantly, I am sorry for what has happened to you.

    I read through most of the posts in the “border happening” below, and did not wish to dip my thoughts in that maelstrom of anger and negativity coming from all sides. I don’t believe in denigrating anyone for my beliefs. For what I stand up or speak out for. I suppose one of the reasons I have not visited and posted much is the anti-American sentiment and the self-flagellating Americans who whip up such negative and offensive mentality. I am not sorry for my nationality, heritage and ancestry, nor do I ever apologize for what someone else has done. How sad that some who posted below, condemn the many for the actions of the few. It would be akin to my stating that Canadians should stay out of my ancestral homeland of Hawai’i, for so many Canadians come to Hawai’i, and I “narrow-mindedly” bunch Canadians together based upon the derogatory, cursing, mean posted views of a few. The world has indeed become a scarier place, as we see what happened to Peter at the Canada-U.S. border, as well as the massacre at Fort Hood, and the four police officers slain recently. That being said, I feel what has happened to you, Peter, is terrible.

    I hope your New Year is filled with all that is good and beautiful and may happiness, love, peace and laughter light your path…

  10. Steven Sullivan

    Mr. Watts,

    You are not alone. When I first read reviews of Avatar describing Pandora and the Na’vi, I *immediately* thought of ADF’s ‘Midworld’. What a mighty mindblower of a flick THAT would be, with modern CGI!

  11. magetoo

    Whoa. Is that an actual still from the movie? Looks like someone owes money to Aaron Diaz for storyboard work.

    Thanks for masking out the spoilers, by the way (and thanks to the commenters for not having commented with their own spoilers yet).

    blue-skinned cat-woman

    I wonder if Google has picked up on the inevitable Rule 34 on this yet.

  12. Derek C. F. Pegritz

    Well, hot damn–THAT was the novel I was thinking of: Midworld! I was also reminded strongly of Timothy Zahn’s Manta’s Gift and Fred Pohl’s Jem, and even a bit of Eric Flint’s surprisingly amusing Mother of Demons–all of which manage to create perfectly sympathetic alien characters that were truly alien and not just tall, lithe, seXXXy cat-people. I loved the damn movie, though, even though it was about as “realistic” as a high fantasy novel. Realism be damned–it was freakin’ beautiful.

  13. Leona

    Saw this at scotiabank theatre on friday; fully expected it to be overdone crap, was totally shockingly blown away. Easily goes on my list of best movies.

    re “there’s the whole problem of the Helpless Natives Who Need To Be Rescued By The Noble White Guy”:

    I actually discount such effects off the bat before I even rate a movie. Doing so has a normalising effect. Otherwise there’s a ton of movies out there that, even if they did other things right, would just languish at a minus-infinity rating, by my book.

    Welcome to the most commonly-occuring side effect of the phenomenon that (as you well know) I keep whining about.

    Last but not least, I’ve kind of missed you. Glad you’re back, if only on your blog.

  14. VectorSphere » Avatar

    […] SF writer Peter Watts writes a much better version of my review. I’d forgotten to talk about the ending and the ecology. Comments […]

  15. Derryl Murphy

    I’d forgotten about Midworld. Good call. I’m curious about what Alan might be thinking about the film right about now.

    In the interest of playing the game that so many of us play in cases like this, perhaps the reason so many generations of the Na’vi never thought to drop down on the giant flyer from above was because Eywa (their goddess, the worldmind) wouldn’t let them think of that. As plausible as anything else, I guess.

    As far as the movie went, I loved it. I acknowledge its weak points and imperfect characterizations and script, but to hell with that. This was a universe I got sucked into.

  16. Johan Larson

    If the prospect of a return in force by Earth forces bothers you, consider that a counterattack directed at Eywa would be very difficult, since destroying an entire planetary ecology is hard. Earth has had at least five extinction events (depending on definitions) and is still going strong. Also, the logistics of supplying a military force across light-years are daunting.

    Still, if you are willing to accept the notion of war at interstellar distances, the door is open for a sequel: Avatar II: Eywa’s Revenge, in which Eywa launches a preemptive attack by dispatching an aggressive colonization package to Earth. Some portions of the Earth’s biosphere is destroyed while others are converted (“awakened”) to be part of Eywa 2.0. Most of the plot focuses on the fight between the converted H. Sap. population, and the valiant resistance fighting the Green Borg.

  17. Enric

    With Avatar high technology is becoming the content, not just the form, of cinema.


  18. TheLurker

    I agree utterly. Family were umm-ing and ahh-ing about seeing it, and I simply said: This is not a DVD movie. Big screen, 3D EXPERIENCE.

    @John Larson: Now THAT is something I’d like to see.

  19. gwern

    Larson: as depicted, Eywa is extremely stupid. (She/it has to absorb an entire human mind *and* be pled to before it will round up some animals?) And the tree/terminals seem reasonably distinct.

    So bring along a few hundred metal rods or just rubbish tough enough to survive re-entry, orbit spy satellites for a few weeks, and drop a rod on each tree-terminal. Now Eywa is no longer a problem. Just to be safe, nuke all the big trees so no pesky natives can beseech Eywa to do something. Now neither is a problem. And all this from orbit where they can do nothing whatsoever to stop you.
    You don’t need to destroy the entire ecology, although if you have interstellar capability I’m sure you could drop a few asteroids on Pandora and do that, any more than you need to destroy every computer in the world to eliminate the Internet; you just need to knock out the routers.

  20. Charles

    re: the hexapod/tetrapod issue — to be fair, a) this faux documentary on Pandoran life suggests that while most animal life on the moon is hexapodal, not all of it is, and b) I believe the flying mount species is tetrapodal as well. Of course, that still doesn’t answer the question of why the Na’vi have nostrils right over their mouths, or how they evolved an upright posture, etc.

  21. Charles
  22. Jeremy

    If you have interstellar capability you can just throw relativistic trash out of your ship and do a great deal of damage.

  23. White is for Linking « Torque Control

    […] of Avatar: Alan DeNiro, Annalee Newitz, Peter Watts, Paul […]

  24. Will Sargent

    Okay, I have some half-assed no-prize attempts for the logic gaps (NB MASSIVE SPOILERS):

    1) Na’vi don’t have any common morphology with the rest of the world.

    It’s by design. Eywa, by means unknown, was aware of humans well before they travelled there, and started designing a human like species that could reasonably interact with both humans and the local environment. It didn’t get it entirely right, assuming that humanity fetishized and was in service to feline traits, and would therefore fall victim to the “it’s a kitty!” meme when seeing the Na’vi.

    As far as I remember, no-one mentions how old the Na’vi are, and the Na’vi only have the memories that Eywa provides for them. They could easily have been created recently, and had their history back filled for them.

    2) Local fauna seems suspiciously susceptible to neural hacks.

    Again, this is by design. Note that we don’t see fauna using this hack on each other; only the Na’vi seem able to insta-domesticate large animals. The fauna uses these receptors for communicating with Eywa primarily — Eywa has root access, but has granted some extra privileges to the Na’vi.

    3) Ending ambiguous / Eywa vulnerable to orbital strikes

    Yes and no. Defeating a local installation (and exposing the assumptions of the local management for the shortsighted idiocy it is) is going to prompt a review before it prompts any other action. That review is going to state, unequivocally, that the wealth of Pandora lies in its biological technology. They hit it with rocks, they destroy the very thing that makes Pandora valuable. They destroy or piss off the Na’vi, the interface that Eywa has provided to communicate with humans, then they lose any hope of getting Eywa to demonstrate or customize biology.

    Also, there are elements in the story that Eywa is playing a long game, and watching very carefully. Those convenient spirit babies? They’re essential for the plot, but you can argue that the reason they’re there is because Eywa was watching Jake disobey orders to run across the field. From the moment he was outside, it was clear this guy was a loose cannon that could provide more intel if managed properly.

    Frankly, the implications of Eywa should scare the Powers That Be shitless. The great mass of biosphere doesn’t consist of plants or animals, after all — it consists of bacteria and viruses. It’s clear that Eywa is a totality, and so the Powers That Be, unless they’ve been exceedingly careful (or even if they have) have introduced custom tailored bacteria, spread anywhere there’s humanity. If they hurt Eywa badly enough, it may just wipe out humanity.

    Also, there’s the interesting possibility of gaining a new ally. Humanity has space travel. Eywa does not. Given the opportunity to work with a planetary intelligence that is presumably capable of terraforming new planets, humanity may be more than happy to work with Eywa to provide atmosphere, food and shelter without going to the cost of building it itself. Eywa has very different concerns than humanity, and if humanity managed to trust it, they could probably do a bunch together.

    That is, of course, until Eywa figures out how to do space travel by itself and domesticates humanity. Which wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

    4) Midworld!

    Yeah, not so much to me. What this reminded me of was John Varley’s Titan. It’s not the big blue guys that are the heroes — you might recall that, dude, they lost. Eywa stepped in directly once it felt threatened — and ONLY when it felt threatened. It was perfectly happy to see thousands of Na’vi die as cannon fodder. This was a story about an alien intelligence that was carefully hiding its capabilities and getting a good handle of the abilities of the opposing team. The fuckwittedness of the local corporate entities to underestimate Eywa so completely has gone a long way to ensuring that Eywa already has the upper hand in the next round they play.

    Or, you know, Ferngully in Space. Either way.

  25. Will Sargent

    Also, see the encyclopedia: http://www.pandorapedia.com/doku.php

    The Youtube article asks the same questions about morphology, and mentions unobtainium as a superconductor. Interesting.

  26. Michael Grosberg

    @Will Sargent:
    Ah! now I know what Avatar also reminded me of – Varley’s _Titan_, where the natives, the Titanides, were indeed designed by the world mind to interact with humans.

    I thought Eywa was going, at some point, to gain control the flux vortex and have some energy weapon available to it. While the charge of the hammerhead-rhino beasties was impressive, I was underwhelmed. You have a world-mind in a movie and all you can think of doing with it is to round up some animals? That’s… not very imaginative.

  27. external hard drive

    This movie was the best I have EVER seen. The graphics were beautifully detailed, the acting was captivating and the scenery was breath-taking. Gotta thank my boyfriend for taking me.

  28. Ciprian

    Avatar: Science Behind Pandora


  29. London

    To me, it looks like Pocahontas in space. When I say this to my boyfriend, he replies “With mechs!” which is true but still not very compelling. Cheesy love stories can put me off even mechs.

  30. Ilya

    You have a world-mind in a movie and all you can think of doing with it is to round up some animals? That’s… not very imaginative.
    Notice that Gaia in Varley’s “Titan” was equally unimaginative. Which I thought was very reasonable. If for your entire multi-megayear existence you NEVER had any kind of opposition, tactical thinking does not come naturally.

  31. Johan Larson

    There are at least four things humans could do with Pandora/Eywa.

    1. They could try to join it.
    2. They could try to fight it, either to subdue it or to wipe it out.
    3. They could leave it alone.
    4. They could trade with it.

    And there is no reason why all of humanity has to adopt one strategy. Multiple factions, one per strategy, would work fine: Communionists, Eradicators, Isolationists, and Traders.

    One could base a very smart sequel on the political maneuvering and conflict among these four groups, plus Eywa with its own agenda.

  32. Michael_gr

    @Ilya: my problem isn’t with Eywa, it’s with Cameron. I was hoping for some kind of transformative moment – something more grand than a fight scene with some beasties. There were floating mountains, and that unobtanium thing, the strange flora, the flux vortex, the neural connections… none of it was used in the end. I think Cameron was holding back, to make the movie more accessible to the general public.

  33. Peter Watts

    One of the guys I saw the film with, very smart dude, pointed out that the hoop-shaped rock formations in the flux zones were very reminiscent of the contours of a magnetic field — and that rock reinforced by such fields might be less susceptible to erosion (hence, persist even while adjacent strata were weathered away). Also that levitation of room-temperature superconductors is what you’d expect in a strong magnetic field. All of which we see on the screen; none of which is so much as mentioned in the dialog.

    To quote from his e-mail: “In a way, Cameron seems to have done what some of best almost-hard SF has always done – do the amazing physics and detailed backdrop, and then shove it all into the background and tell great stories in front of it.”.

    Which I can almost agree with. Except for the “great story” part.

  34. Freyr

    Re: Helpless Natives Who Need To Be Rescued By The Noble White Guy

    Well, it’s not all that patronizing when you realize that Jake used his knowledge of their beliefs as a means of manipulating the Na’vi to do what he wanted. He approached the problem with an alien mindset, hence why it makes sense to us but evidently doesn’t happen often with the locals. Knowing that was the only way to get them to listen to him, Jake played on their unquestioning respect for the Last Shadow to bend them to his will. It just so happened that his will was good. Another person could have used that influence to get them to leave the region, like the humans always wanted.

    Re: No corporate honcho is going to be caught dead talking about “savages” and “blue monkeys”, even if that’s the way they actually feel

    That only applies to humans. This are a truly different race, so political correctness about racism becomes fuzzy. And while he might not be using such words on a news interview, I don’t see how it’s implausible when he’s talking with similarly bigoted jarheads and underling scientists who are lightyears away from the nearest news network.

  35. Will Sargent

    The language log has started deconstructing Na’vi, the language: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1977

    The science back story smooths out some edges as well — Pandora is around Alpha Centauri, and so has been receiving TV broadcasts since the 1930s. The spacecraft is based around anti-matter conversion, which is only possible due to unobtanium, the most efficient superconductor known. And the flux and antigravity are products of the intense electromagnetic fields unobtanium generates.

  36. Sheily

    Was linked to this post, and I wanted to just leave a quick comment expressing my gratitude for how eloquently you brought so many of my disorganized mixed feelings about this movie to speech. It’s easiest to wail on the white guilt fantasy plot of its faults, but I certainly agree that every fault you mentioned is frustrating while simultaneously, the effects and substantive research make the flick.

  37. Charles

    I personally find it suspicious that a globe-spanning superintelligence just “happens” to live on a world loaded with unobtanium. “Naturally occurring” my ass. Yet another reason to trade with Eywa — it can manufacture large deposits of a room-temperature superconductor. (And to be nitpicky, it should probably be unobtainite instead of unobtanium, because it’s a mineral, right?)

  38. Charles

    re: hoop-shaped rock formation — that’s addressed in this excerpt from the Avatar field guide:

    Oh, not to toot my own horn, but here’s the piece I wrote on the science of Avatar: http://www.space.com/entertainment/091221-avatar-science.html

    I only went off what I saw in the film — other news stories on Avatar’s science apparently had access to more information, e.g. the spaceship the humans used to get to Pandora:

  39. Athena Andreadis

    I agree with all your reservations and then some, Mr. Watts: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

  40. Hugh Fisher

    After predator-prey interaction over neural links, what about parasites evolving to take advantage of these conveniently unprotected (at least on all the species we see) neural links? All those body snatching / mind controlling parasites from a variety of horror/scifi movies would really work on Pandora.

  41. Ilya

    No corporate honcho is going to be caught dead talking about “savages” and “blue monkeys”, even if that’s the way they actually feel;

    That’s only true in our current culture, because such attitudes are generally frowned upon. If in the future prevalent views toward “the Others” had for some reason reverted back to 19th Century, then corporate honcho’s talk would be entirely natural — as everyone would think and talk that way.

  42. Neal Asher

    I haven’t seen it yet but my first thought on seeing some of the clips was ‘A WHEELCHAIR!’ Come on…

  43. Steve

    Glad to see some people remember Midworld and other quality science fiction. I have not seen the movie. I’d like to but the story described is so predictable and its seems such a clear combo of Midworld and Call Me Joe that I’m really bothered that no reviews are mentioning this.

  44. Peter Watts

    @neal: they actually explained that right off the top: it’s simple enough to fix a broken spine in this future, but you can’t afford the operation on a grunt’s salary. In fact, the restoration of Jake’s legs what the carrot they used to get him to accept the gig

  45. Chang

    AH, I was all set to see it on opening day and then I had to sit on hold for a few hours then verbally abuse some Canadians t get back $3,000. Best birthday ever! Glad to hear it’s not as bad as I expected.

    DId you read RED CLAW by Philip Farmer yet? Lot of bio-skiffy in there that is cool though it may not be scientifically exact. Plus it’s god nude warrior ladies and spaceships. Best of everything!

  46. Neal Asher

    I wondered if it might be something like that. Certainly an explanation was needed. But still it doesn’t gel — the Japanese are developing exoskeletal suits now with the aim of putting Zimmer frame and wheelchair makers out of business. I look at the robot tech in the film clips too…

    Been better if he’d been in a pair of motorized trousers — bit like those in the Wallace & Gromit cartoon ‘The Wrong Trousers’.

  47. ceti

    At this point, Earth is dying, maybe Ewya can save her. That’s all.

  48. johnny b

    Wow! I thought I was the only one that saw the correlation between Avatar and Fosters Mid-World/Mid-Flinx!!!

    I “guess” I could see some parts of Varleys work in Avatar but it seemed more directly related to Mid-World. (Kudos to anyone who has read Varley!)

    It’s well known that Cameron and Foster have a working relationship………..I can almost see the meeting or Skyped phone call that took place during the script writing process….

    Cameron- “Ugh, I think we are a green light for Avatar, Alan.”

    Foster- “It’s only a green light when I get my bank, bitch!!”

    (Perhaps not quite so “ghetto” but close…. lol)

    Like someone else mentioned- I don’t CARE if it was jacked from Foster. I never thought (in a million years) I’d get to see Mid-World come to life!

    What “eye candy”!

    The visuals were close to what was described in Fosters book, (or what I saw in my minds eye)……….I could not ask for a better “copycat Mid-World” than Avatar…..

    Honestly, I’m 45 years old and NEVER thought I’d see a movie again that blew me away like watching Star Wars, Alien, Close Encounters & Raiders for the first time.

    Understand, I saw Star Wars in ’78…………It’s been a LONG time since a movie “moved” me………..After “Titanic” I thought James C was “done”….(lol). (IMO, Titanic was a POC. I’d rather watch Cameron in a mini-sub ala Grey Lady Down over that poorly acted hunk of “Leonardo Di-CRAP-dio”. )

    How will Avatar 2 play out?

    Unfortunately, “Avatar 2” will be about 10 minutes long…………..

    Peter Watts comment, (and quote from Aliens 2) – “I say we take off and Nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure…” is totally accurate.

    Surely the “Humans” have successfully created a “clean” bomb that rivals the power of any Hydrogen bomb if they can travel through the Stars?

    A couple bombs later and humanity gets there precious “fools gold” and the left over natives will get T-shirts and Nikes, (lol) .

    God, I HOPE James doesn’t decide to let some other idiot director do Avatar 2 and 3!


    Alien 3, Terminator 3 and 4! (lol)

    As far as I’m concerned T:3 & T:4 were sub-par and T:2 STILL ranks as the best of the Terminator films……and I think everyone would agree that Alien 2 was “booyah” above any other Alien movie to date.

    Other things noticed?

    #1. I was “jazzed” to see such a good movie with a decent message and looked around after the movie was over to see my fellow “humans” reaction hoping to see a nod or a “knowing” smile……some obligatory emotional reaction to the obvious message.

    What I heard was, ” Dude, that was %$^&^ COOL! I heard the video game sucked!”

    “Good movie! God, it was too long!”


    Yes, the special effects are phenom and it WAS too long but I hope the “message” still gets across….?

    Younger people just don’t realize how Star Wars changed things……….how many of us can remember a time before “The Force”? The day Star Wars came out the Pope probably cringed in terror…………(LOL).

    Recall, although Star Wars wasn’t the best acted film, (It was obvious Luke was related to Darth Vader. How do I know? Watch the last 2 SW Episode’s! Haden Christensen and Mark Hamill BOTH can’t act there way out of a box! LOL ), and had it’s “quirks” and “holes” in the script the MESSAGE (and ground-breaking effects) saved it from being a “curiosity” Sci/Fi film.

    All and all, Avatar is almost exactly like Star Wars was in ’78, (for me).

    Ground breaking technology, great fighting sequences, basic characters general audiences can all relate to, wrapped up in a “Karma gone native” message.

    We are watching history being made people! Pay attention!

    The next “update” to blow our minds will be 3 dimensional, holographic, interactive, movies………….?

    I wonder if I’ll be alive to tell a theater employee, ” I’d like to play the part of Indiana Jones please….” (Hell, they will probably use Fords CG image 50 years from now! Think “Indiana Jones Meets the Giant Tarantula” LOL)

    Thumbs UP Cameron! Thumbs UP! Go see it people!

  49. johnny b

    oops! Forgot to mention one thing.

    My ancestors lived this movie- only they didn’t “win”.

    I’m part Cherokee……..

    (Although we sure are “winning” now….anybody want to go do some gambling? lol)

  50. david g swanger

    I believe Cameron has said that the antiquated weapons & vehicles are used because more sophisticated devices were more vulnerable to the flux vortex.

    Also, he’s said that there’s a reason why the Na’vi are so humanoid, which will presumably be revealed in the future. Panspermia? Monoliths? Hainish-style gengineering? We shall see…

    Speaking of LeGuin, The Word For World Is Forest is surely in Avatar’s DNA. It’s closer than any of the other parallels cited, with the exception of Midworld. It’s nice to see a director whose influences include written as well as cinematic sf.

    Brian, above, mentioned what he thought was the oddness of hard sf mixed with pulpy planetary romance. But that’s a mix that’s characteristic of Poul Anderson, say, the Flandry novel The Rebel Worlds, with its symbiotic creatures, or Dune. Again this is a rare sf movie done by someone who grew up immersed & marinated in genre sf ; to indulge in a little ethnocentrism, whatever you think of it, it’s clearly a movie made by someone who’s One Of Us.

  51. Ross

    Actually I think Cameron may have taken a cue from David Langford. Specifically,

    The Dragonhiker’s Guide to Battlefield Covenant at Dune’s Edge: Odyssey Two

    Avatar = Dances With Dragonrider Pocohantas Smurfs of Midworld

  52. Regarding Avatar and sexy banana slugs | The Skwib

    […] Regarding Avatar and sexy banana slugs Posted by Mark A. Rayner on January 13, 2010 But is it art?, Odd Science Yeah, what Peter said… […]

  53. enmimano.org/enchan : Asombro

    […] en mi cara de las que no se quitan. La historia no tiene nada especial. En otro sitio he visto una definición perfecta: “Pocahontas con elfos azules”. El guión hace agujeros por todas partes cuando no está […]

  54. Jesus
  55. Chris in NY

    This may be (to me anyway) the most solid episode of Saturday Night Live I’ve ever seen. Sigourney Weaver in James Cameron’s Laser Cats 5 is not to be missed. The whole show, though, is pretty damn fun. Musical guest, The Ting Tings.


  56. Avatar « Lost in my Mind, Exploring this World

    […] noble savage and white guilt tropes (those aren’t necessarily bad, though), and I do see why people have objected to the hero being a white American who not only assimilates into Na’vi culture […]

  57. Hljóðlegur

    Avatar will become a classic, because it rapes every blockbuster movie I ever saw. If only Indiana Jones were in there somewhere.

    Question: why did Sargent Fury blow the hell out of Yggdrasil when the Unobtainium was right underneath it? Because it would be more convenient to laboriously haul 10000 tons of biomass off it later rather that using the already existent root system as a way to shore up mine shafts you could probably just drill under it?

    And what was Sgt Asspain doing in that movie? Did they kick him off Hamburger Hill? Really, he was unintentionally hilarious.

  58. Chris in NY

    “If only Indiana Jones were in there somewhere.”

    Don’t know about Indie, but how about Dragonriders of Pern?


    Colbert covered mountaintop coal mining last night. Obama stopped it, reviewed it, and made a compromise in West Virginia.


  59. Genetics News » More Pandoran Biology

    […] Peter Watts commented a bit on Pandora’s biology in his review of the movie  Someone put a lot of thought into Pandora’s wildlife; it was beautiful to behold, it was […]

  60. Brian Dunbar

    .. how would those even evolve?

    The answer seems obvious, at least to me.

    Evolution is improbable. The reasonable SF explanation is that Pandora – the entire ecology from microbes to the hawt blue-skinned cat-people bipeds to the planetary mind was designed.

    Might be a zoo. Might be a study-project. Or a toy, or a by-product of a singularity.

    Whatever it is I would not want to be the Terrans when the Designers drop by to check up on things and find it’s been trashed by nukes or chunks of relativistic rocks.

  61. Peter Watts


    Yeah, all that sounds good, and I’m willing to believe that Cameron et al have thought this through. After all, the screenplay dialog never bothered to explain those amazing floating mountains, even though the mechanism had obviously been worked out (and was even implicit in the geology of the area). And Cameron has apparently stated outright that the anomalous humanoidity of the Na’vi will be explained in future installments. So I can wait to see the mysteries resolved.

    What sticks in my craw is that the fact that neither of the scientists we saw so much as mentioned that these things were mysteries. I don’t care if they were botanists; you don’t get through first-year undergrad without learning the basics of evolution, and any first-year undergrad would take one look at Pandora and know that the cat people were seriously out of place. A second look would tell them how completely incompatible that whole ubiquitous neural-interface thing was with every other trophodynamic element in the biosphere. It’s just as you say: this would be like coming across evidence for Creationism. You’d expect a least one or two comments along the lines of “Man, someday we’re gonna have to figure out why the Na’vi look so much like we do”, or “Why do you suppose the herbivores never figured out how to plug into their predators’ USB ports?”

    And that’s a shame, because otherwise the scientists depicted in “Avatar” are head and shoulders above the caricatures you generally find in other Hollywood films.

  62. Anthony Docimo

    >Pandora is rife with obvious predator-prey interactions; how would those even evolve in a world where prey could forge a direct neural interface with their predators,

    well, my hunch is that it cuts the other way just as easily – imagine ambush predators who can paralyze their prey just with a hook-up (from a whip-like organ)

    and if Jake had been shunted off to the side, you can imagine the howls of protest there would be — comments like “and the white guy gets the natives to go off and die, while he sits in comfort”. (there’s no way to win where Sully’s concerned)

  63. Anthony Docimo

    I doubt Eywah is a world-mind — recall that Pandora has continents and oceans….Eywah likely is a continent-mind.

    in the sequel, might humans offer a rival continent-mind the opportunity to help quash Eywah?

  64. Adam

    I think if Eywah (sp?) may well have something to trade earth….pandora’s toxic atmosphere is (according to the backstory I’ve read) rather similar to that currently on the polluted earth of the story (lots of co2 and sulfur compounds). Apparently they even use the masks on earth at times. So pandora offers a chance to restart the biosphere with life that can live on earth.

    As for just nuking the place on orbit, I really don’t think that will happen. Sure it’s technically feasable, but I really doubt it’s politically feasable. The story hinted all over the place that while earth was desperate for pandora’s mineral wealth, the company was not given free reign to obtain it. Look at the expense of the avatar program, which had obviously gone on for years and who’s main purpose was to get along with the natives. Look at how they let sully have one last go at diplomacy, and how they fired teargas before using incendiaries (not that the military officer himself really cared, but it was obvious someone back on earth cared enough that they had to keep up appearances). Plus, the earth populace probably carries its share of white guilt and guilt over the ecocide of earth…probably the politicians wouldn’t authorize the flat out destruction of Pandora. Especially when they probably would think a competent military adviser backed up with reliable force or a better job of diplomacy could do the job.

    Think of a modern world comparison…our society is willing to tolerate oil companies displacing, harrassing, and occasionally killing natives in the jungle, and destroying the environment in the immediate vicinity of their operations, but there’s no way we’d let them carpet bomb the neighboring tribes for their own convenience. Heck, even heartless corporate executives would probably hesitate to do that, because they wouldn’t be able to rationalize it away to themselves or to their stakeholders and customers.

  65. Graham Mitchell

    Yeah, I did find the “savages” thing a caricature – I think it’s much more compatible with the kind of language oppressor-types used to use, before mass communication and public relations, both of which presumably exist on this world. I don’t know – maybe they figure they can get away with it being five light years from Earth.

    I don’t think they’re in any danger of being bombed from orbit by a corporate security force with limited resources (they did have to jury-rig mining explosives, after all), but you just know an organization like the RDA wouldn’t just leave it at that. They’d probably send a force back and make damn sure to do it right this time.

    I think the prolemuris (the tree-swinging things) with the branching arms are the missing link between the four-limbed Na’vi and the six-limbed everything-else, but I do feel that they’re more of a quick justification for having wanted to make the Na’vi relatively humanlike rather than a natural progression.