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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

“…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

– Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act V, Scene V

Sarah ConnorJames Cameron made two films that are high on my list of favorites: Terminator 2 and Aliens – not least because powerful women are central to the stories (even though he gave them the most conservative and clichéd motivation for heroism: maternal protectiveness).  He was a taut, visually inventive storyteller once.  But all his films after The Abyss increasingly resemble the Hindenburg: bloated, self-indulgent, lacking originality and subtlety in all but F/X.

The latest iteration, Avatar, is the culmination of these traits and a poster boy of the industry’s tendency to let CGI spectacle be the sole concern.  A quarter of a billion dollars went into the film, the GNP of a small country, yet they couldn’t pay a decent SF writer a paltry sum to give even a whiff of freshness to the story. The characters are stale broad stereotypes, the plot reheated canned slurry, the dialogue rusty nails scratching a cement slab. The borrowings are endless, starting with the ersatz Campbellian mythology that failed so abysmally to add resonance to Star Wars.  But the definitive stamp of hackery is that many elements are frank rip-offs of older Cameron creations.  The vaunted 3-D effects are devoid of unique payoff and the Pandoran life forms look like shiny hood ornaments.

The worldbuilding is equally shoddy.  As I said in SF Goes McDonald’s, scientific accuracy is not crucial in SF.  However, consistency and informed imagination are.  A moon as close to a gas giant as Pandora is would be awash in radiation and wracked by earthquakes and volcanoes like Jupiter’s Io.  Also, its independent biogenesis would give rise to life forms that would not remotely resemble us.  But let’s concede that point for the sake of audience identification.  Since all Pandoran animals are six-limbed and four-eyed, the Na’vi would share these evolutionary attributes.  This would actually make them far more interesting.

oceancoverThe clunky clichés and logic gaps of Avatar are wince-inducing even if you accept the film’s premises.  Here’s a species that’s essentially the “neocortex” of a sentient planet – yet they have… nuclear families and hereditary chiefs.  The conceptualizations of the avatars and of the Na’vi neural links to the Pandoran flora and fauna are too silly to dissect.  If the link worked as advertised, they wouldn’t need to hunt (or, conversely, killing an animal would have concrete physiological repercussions).  I discussed mind uploading in Ghost in the Shell. If you want to see a linked, communing ecosphere done right, read Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean or follow Odo’s individuation struggles in Deep Space 9. And if you want action with stunning animation, elegiac depth and heartbreaking stakes, watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime.

The Na’vi are sexed-up Ewoks and Pandora is a prelapsarian Eden where they can live dilemma-free with Stone Age technology.  Yet like all Others, they’re helpless until a White Alpha Male steps down literally from on high to rally them to battle, while in turn they enable him to reconnect with his inner Mother Earth anima.  Soft-focus imperialism and New Age fuzziness mix queasily with post-genocidal sentimentality about Noble Savages — a pernicious mindset that I described in And Ain’t I a Human?

It’s bad enough that films since the maturation of F/X have been aimed at 15-year-old boys.  Far worse is the fact that the most lavish Hollywood films have been made by their directors’ 15-year-old inner boys – tightly conjoined with plans for lunch boxes and video games whose complexity far exceeds that of the films.  Welcome to Infantileland, where crudity, banality and sloppiness rule, where clouds of sycophants allow directors to call themselves Emperor of the Universe or Master Jedi without a trace of irony.  In one of my visions of hell, I’m forced to endlessly watch Lucas’ Star Wars (except, perhaps, episode V), Jackson’s King Kong, all of Spielberg’s SF/F and Cameron’s Avatar.

Q'Orianka KilcherThere’s nothing wrong with adults enjoying Disney-level spectacle, as long as they don’t make it their moral, intellectual or esthetic measuring stick.  An artist with Cameron’s credibility and clout should undertake real challenges that inspire our innate desire to explore instead of recycling militaristic violence porn and preachy feel-good platitudes.  He did it incredibly well before, he can do it again.  And some childish dreams should remain dreams.  They work far better as beckoning beacons.

Images: top, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s Terminator 2; middle, David Switzer’s cover for Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean; bottom, Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in Terence Malick’s New World.

Update: The Huffington Post just re-printed this article. I’m donning my asbestos space suit!

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The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

96 Responses to “Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    Great piece Athena.

    Had Avatar actually been like Malick’s New World then there might have been some semblance of hope for it. Instead, the discussion of Avatar has essentially revolved around whether it’s okay to go and see big stupid FX’based films. The arguments against financially rewarding such horrors are self-evident but I find it distressing how easily people fall into the advertiser’s trap of painting people who would rather see something else as terrible ivory tower killjoys. Life is simply too short for bad cinema and it is way too short for a film as long as Avatar.

  2. Athena says:

    Malick’s New World managed to invoke the wonder of seeing something awesome for the first time and didn’t devolve into White Man Savior mode. It was an eloquent bur restrained elegy for a lost, despoiled Eden, neither manipulative nor shrill.

    The after/taste of Avatar is like the cloying bubblegum that its CGI creatures so resemble. It fails even in its professed goal of creating a stirring spectacle. Yet it stands to garner nine Oscar nominations, has been hailed almost universally as “visionary” and friends tell me their children found it inspiring. Once again I feel like an exile from a parallel universe.

  3. ZarPaulus says:

    These days it seems like everything that makes humans look like bastards is called “visionary”. Kind of makes me glad that Warhammer 40000 isn’t mainstream.

  4. Athena says:

    All clichés contain a kernel of truth: despite their immense ingenuity, humans have not done well by each other and by the planet and its other life forms. However, being hit over the head with a facile screed, by a director in full-blown “do as I say, not as I do” mode, doesn’t win hearts and minds (to use another shopworn phrase and metaphor used in Avatar).

  5. I remember watching Princess Mononoke years ago and being amazed, thanks for reminding me about it, I think I need to watch it again. Sounds like it might be better plan than checking out Avatar. You pretty much tore it apart here, did it have any good points at all?

  6. Athena says:

    In all honesty, I can’t think of a major good point off the top of my head. In terms of minor items, I liked the Pandoran color palette (I’m partial to teal and related hues), I sympathized with Worthington’s wounded warrior and I found one brief scene touching: when Neytiri cradles Jake. This is the first and only time they meet in their real bodies and despite the Pietá/Niobe references it was one of the few emotionally resonant moments in the film.

    Do watch Mononoke Hime again. I do that myself from time to time, and the layers in content and style still amaze and move me. I wrote about this in The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade.

    Edit: Upon reflection, there was one other thing I liked in Avatar. There was little gender polarity among the Na’vi. Both genders hunted, both rode flying dragons… though Cameron spoiled it yet again by having Neytiri tell Jake’s avatar “Now that you have passed the test, you can choose a woman.” Yes, repeat no.

  7. Walden2 says:

    Having learned his lesson from the Terminator series by saying he took ideas for that film from some of Harlan Ellison’s work and then not crediting him – which he eventually did after paying the author lots of moolah – this time Cameron says he got his inspiration for Avatar from all the SF he read as a kid. So now everyone will have to sue him. :^)

    Some day I want to see a film that at least tries to portray a REALLY alien race and culture, but seeing as $237 million was spent for Avatar and they have to get back double their budget just to break even, I can understand why on a practical level they played it safe.

    But had Cameron really tried something different, he could have had a truly landmark film on his hands.

    Then again, let’s be honest that more people than not do not know SF and are easily inspired/manipulated. Look at all the people who think Sarah Palin should be the next President and you worry about weak SF? :^S

  8. Athena says:

    There are murmurs that Poul Anderson’s Call Me Joe was a rather, shall we say, direct influence on Avatar. The list of borrowings, as I said, is endless — I started a mental count during the film and lost track after I exceeded forty.

    Besides the two versions of Lem’s Solaris and the unstoppable killing machine of the Alien tetralogy, a convincing alien biology/culture is portrayed in a film version of Barry Longyear’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella, Enemy Mine.

    I don’t worry about weak SF per se. My worry is what it says about people’s ability to think critically, and their increasing susceptibility to manipulation — which leads to such phenomena as Palin.

  9. Eloise says:

    Athena, you said that

    “Malick’s New World managed to invoke the wonder of seeing something awesome for the first time and didn’t devolve into White Man Savior mode. It was an eloquent but restrained elegy for a lost, despoiled Eden, neither manipulative nor shrill.”

    In fact, when I saw the movie in the theatre, I felt that it was more than that. As it closed on Mataoka-Rebecca’s death, of a European disease, it seemed to me that it carried a subtle yet staunch condemnation of the White Man Saviour attitude and of its high-handed, all-knowing, holier-than-thou stance.

    Further than that, I think that Mataoka’s rejection of John Smith symbolises that thought, and that John Rolfe’s gaze, as he sees his wife’s life slowly ebbing away, carries the weight of sorrowful self-recrimination, as if he were saying, “What have I done? What have *we* done?”

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  10. Athena says:

    I completely agree with you, Eloise. The New World was wondrous and profound as visual poetry, as (non-didactic) parable, as philosophy. Carina Chocano captured its multifaceted uniqueness in her LA Times review.

  11. Caliban says:

    I haven’t seen Avatar and am not in a hurry. I stated to turn away from Cameron about 3/4 of the way through The Abyss. It started off great, although the “trembling hand” of the bad guy was, well, too heavy handed. But in the end what killed it for me were too many, and too silly, miracles. I liked the scene in the submersible where the couple gradually realize the sub is flooding and there is only one suit. She allows herself to “drown” and then get resusscitated–not sure if it would work with salt water in lungs, but dramatically it worked well. And then she is revived. Great. But then he goes two miles down, is stranded with no way back–and gets saved. And then they ALL go to the surface in a matter of seconds with no bends, and I just couldn’t take it. (And no, a throwaway line about the deep-sea aliens doing it was no good, it was a cheap way out.) Too many miracles, progressively stupider. If she had been saved and he had really died down there–now that would have been emotionally powerful.

    And then Titanic really killed any interest in Cameron as a director at all. The direction was leaden, the acting wooden. I had seen Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, doing a fabulous job, and here–I mean, did Cameron take lessons from George Lucas on how to ruin performances?

    Oh, I’ll see it eventually, but I am not really feeling very encouraged.

  12. Athena says:

    I agree, the drowning scene in The Abyss was affecting. But the back-to-back resurrections remind me of crime films where the villain is killed but keeps showing up with yet another weapon.

    Cameron did succumb to Lucas syndrome: he became a legend in his own mind and confused wish fulfillment with vision. Once you get infected with that, you turn gold into lead.

  13. Terraforming Tobias Holbrook says:

    The complaints about the inconsistency of the biosphere seem to be based on one assumption – Pandoran life evolved, rather than being designed by a Forerunner race. Given what we see in the film (which I liked, by the way), it isn’t inconceivable that it was designed.

    What annoyed me was the ‘Humans are bastards’ Anthropophobic tone of the story. What I want to see now is a film where humans come accross a primitive alien race practising sutee, slavery, child sacrifice etc… and decides they can’t allow it.

    Better yet, an epic where humans are the Forerunner race which uplifts various species around the galaxy.

  14. Athena says:

    That’s a cop-out, frankly, on the part of both Cameron and those who are willing to accept such lazy tactics. A race with such capabilities might as well be called Yahweh and his angels. As for the “humans are bastards” trope, this happens when you don’t want to put any time and effort into building complex characters, which is glaringly the case in Avatar even with its hero. Every character in the film is a one-note cliché.

    If you’re interested in “forerunner” SF that is complex and subtle, read Jack McDevitt’s Engines of God and Alex Jablokov’s Carve the Sky. I assume you’ve read the Culture novels of Iain Banks (the early ones — the late ones suffer from the bloatedness, sloppiness and self-worship that seems to have afflicted Lucas and Cameron).

  15. Dcartist says:

    Yes, you will need that asbestos suit! 8p

    Interesting review. Just wanted to mention that when Jake says he’s chosen, Neytiri says that she has chosen too, so I wouldn’t get offended about the line about Jake being able to choose a mate. As for the movie, it was very entertaining. It sparks conversation on lots of issues, and it’s nice if some 10 year olds learn to be sad about the death of a tree.

    I would hardly blame it for all the ills of Hollywood given Cameron hasn’t made a film in 12 years. It’s populist entertainment,the successful kind. Why hate?

  16. Athena says:

    You must have noticed that I don’t blame Avatar for all the ills of Hollywood, just for being a high-end representative of the ills. And I don’t “hate”, I just feel intense disappointment — because Cameron has the ability to make good, thought-provoking films.

  17. grendel says:

    Saw this on huffpo. Put aside the asbestos blast shield- it’s great to see that informed perspective, regardless of subject, is not completely dead in the world.

    (Although I’m not sold completely yet on THE NEW WORLD- I was completely bowled over on the first viewing, less sure on the second that it holds together. DAYS OF HEAVEN and BADLANDS, (despite the latter’s incidental theft from PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID- or was it the other way around- or strange coincidence?), are still his best. Maybe I’ll wake up on a third or fourth viewing.

    Either way, no asbestos. Just tell it.

  18. Athena says:

    Welcome and thank you for the morale booster!

    I saw the other two Malick films and liked them a lot. But for some reason, they didn’t make as strong an impression on me as The New World — perhaps because the latter was a “total experience”: luminous cinematography, ravishing music, mythic backdrop in addition to the complex issues it explored.

  19. M says:

    Thank for expressing so well all the faults of the film. I watched it today and was so frustrated that I walked out before it ended. I was on ebert’s blog trying to comment on the film and I could not even get through that, such was my annoyance. The film was cliched, God it was cliched. The message, itself so absurdly simplistic, was then crudely communicated. One reviewer mentioned Cameron’s “audacious” imagination. Excuse me? I was so glad when you pointed out that any flora or fauna would probably not look anything like ours. That just shows a lack of imagination though as you also pointed out, commercial interests may explain that. The story… was obvious from the get go, it might as well not been there at all, such is our familiarity with it we could’ve filled in the blank ourselves. Anyway, I’ve babbled ceaselessly it must seem to you, I enjoyed your review and clear writing.

  20. Athena says:

    Welcome to the site! I was tempted to walk out myself — but I wanted to give Cameron the longest possible rope. As others on this thread (and at HuffPo) noted, I’m hard on him because I know he can do so much better if only he can bring himself to treat his audience as thinking, feeling adults, not surfeited brats.

  21. I just saw Avatar, and HuffPo capped a perfect day by locking comments on your review. Earlier this afternoon I had resolved to dig out Hunter of Worlds and see just how much Cameron owed Cherryh an acknowledgement for this one (the way he owed Fred Saberhagen for the Terminator movies, including the “liquid metal” soldier). I can’t find my copy, unfortunately, but the link was slimmer than I expected. But that’s only to say he borrowed all his ideas somewhere else.

    The movie sucks. Are we supposed to believe that the humans won’t be back, this time with a nuclear bomb that can’t be countered with three hammerhead elephants and an LSD-laced tiger? I’d say techno people can’t imagine a non-techno adversary who could beat them, but that’s not so; a hundred scifi writers have proven otherwise. Hell, Cameron proved otherwise in Aliens.

    I saw the movie in 2D, so the dazzle effect didn’t blind me to the mediocrity of the vision. Let’s hope someone uses the technology Cameron is so infatuated with to make a good movie.

  22. Athena says:

    Mick, welcome. As I said in the article, the list of first- and second-hand borrowings is endless, starting with Poul Anderson’s Call Me Joe. Cherryh is one of my favorite SF authors, and I read Hunter of Worlds but don’t remember it well. In truth, I found the 3-D blurry and distracting. It may have been cutting-edge when Cameron started work on Avatar, but 10 years is a very long time in the F/X field.

  23. Mick says:

    I never did find Hunter of Worlds, so I consoled myself with The Word for the World is Forest… a much more obvious ancestor than any of Cherryh’s novels, and a three-hour read. It contains most of the elements Cameron was grasping at, but it has two big “flaws”: its Na’vi are three-foot tall and fuzzy, and going native (Lyubov) doesn’t get a sex payoff. Cameron’s arrogant in assuming that he could tell that story (it is essentially the same story, with a hugely different victory at the end) better than Le Guin did. He could have had just as much fun with his toys telling an updated version of that story. I’d even have given him banshees.

    As an amateur in CGI, I have a problem with the technologics, too. Did anyone find the Na’vi bodies credible? Cameron spent a hunk of his play money on fully articulated faces, and it works most of the time, but the bodies appear to be boneless, almost exoskeletons. This is a common problem in CGI, because bones are abstract ideas inside a virtual shell: in other words, CGI skin IS an exoskeleton. Most distracting for me was the complete absence of a hip shelf of some sort. Muscles were glued on for the most part, witness the large pectorals that lay like armor on a few chests.

    Finally, since I’m wandering: My least favorite moment in the film, when Jake decided to harness the Last Shadow. He does it with pure human arrogance. On the one hand, he has been told that you can’t severe your banshee relationship; and he dumps his. Then he plays a trick any of the natives could have thought of: approach the Last Shadow from above. The biggest warrior achievement of generations is a parlor trick for a white guy.

    And why all this? Because he needs “shock and awe” to get the “savages” to take him seriously. And they are savages, in the old Hollywood interchangeable sense. They are Indians, Koori, and drummers of the Niger depending on which cliche he needs. There is none of the sense that Yes, there is something here and yes, the “savages” understand it better than you do. The movie doesn’t go the old Manifest Destiny route that we could use it better than they could, but it’s clear that they are the children of their world, not partners in it.

    That’s the kind of patronizing BS that makes this film NOT about seeing the new world differently. The entire episode of the Last Shadow could have been done from an inside perspective, as could the whole idea of Jake becoming Jakesuuli. The avatar switch is always troped as a white man getting “into” a Na’vi. Why not begin with having something hinky happen to Jake’s avatar before he even arrives at Pandora, some hint that “something” is interested in/meddling with it and that, however much Jake may seem to be the Messiah, the real Leader is the clone animated with his mind. Eywe chooses Jakesuuli, borrows Jake to animate him, and lets Jake stay.

    I’m back at my fundamental complaint, that Cameron can’t imagine a creature more admirable than his cool, high-tech self with its ‘posable thumbs’ (as my dogs call them). The queen of Serpent’s Reach is the great one of the story, not the little girl she protects… Cameron’s Aliens Mom is just another primitive maternal instinct acting out its drives. Eywe is an idea he likes, not the way he imagines “real world” could work.

    Avatar is such a long, sad walk from Aliens. One of the great things about Aliens was the implacable otherness of the creatures. And the great confrontation at the end is between TWO mothers. Only one of them has witnessed her nursery torched. We are completely “with” Ripley, but the alien POV is there, in the weave of the story. Avatar is a white fantasy, not as bald as Don Davidson’s, but almost as oblivious. If only Cameron had evolved from the early film, rather than drifted downstream.

  24. Athena says:

    I agree with everything you say. Le Guin is a storyteller who has continuously scaled ever greater heights of complexity and subtlety — and The World for Word is Forest is clearly among Avatar’s sources. Another obvious reference are C. J. Cherryh’s Hisa from her Alliance/Union universe.

    But to your larger point: all of Avatar is crude clichéd condescending shorthand. The “taming” of the Last Shadow reminds me of the equally contemptuous (to both audiences and characters) handling of the Kobayashi Maru episode in the Star Trek reboot. The Kirk who does that is a smartass jerk, not the flawed leader of the mainstream ST universe. Today’s Hollywood directors don’t trust their audience with adult fare. And yet, if you judge by the response, people seem to want to be bashed over the head with shoddily made blunt hammers.

  25. Michael says:

    Friend,

    You speak my mind exactly on this movie. It was a cheap thrill while it lasted, but great disappointment over all. Cameron obviously does not really believe in the Gaia Principle of a powerful, omniscient planet–since Pandora has to be saved, with great destruction and loss of life, by a good-hearted (read “in love”) renegade Marine–but he figures his StarTrek-educated audience will buy the notion without resenting its subversion.

    This is, sadly, just another “Our violence is holier than your violence” Hollywood knockoff. No questioning of the use of force to bring peace. In fact, at our theater the movie was preceded by a truly grotesque recruitment ad for the National Guard, with grandiose LOTR-esque music.

    You are right about Mononoke Hime.

    Thanks,
    Mike

  26. Athena says:

    Very much so, Mike! Despite the superficial “pacific” message, violence is glorified in Avatar. The manipulativeness is ghastly — and frightening, given the overall response to the film.

  27. Theresa says:

    Found this through HuffPo.

    Thank you for this. You have voiced some of my concerns very well, especially the planetary aspect. I boggled at the poor science. (and I am no scholar)

  28. Athena says:

    You’re welcome, Theresa! The “science” is so wrong and inconsistent that the movie should have been classified as fantasy. But then, it would have to be compared to the much superior Lord of the Rings.

  29. intrigued_scribe says:

    I just recently saw Avatar myself, and while I admit I highly enjoyed its best elements, I also noticed instances of the less-than-plausible science that are eloquently underlined here. Thanks for sharing this. :)

  30. salmon says:

    Jar Jar Binks meets Pocahontas… that’s hilarious! I just saw Avatar and thought it was the Ewok scene in return of the Jedi and Pocahontas mixed in a blender. I find you to be a little esoteric and nit picky when it comes to the scientific facts but u r right on.

  31. Athena says:

    Yes, it’s clearly the Ewok scene, while the felling of the Great Tree is taken shot by shot from the destruction of Fangorn by Saruman in LotR.

    Ignore the bogus science, just look at it as a story — it fails the tests of originality, complexity, subtlety and, most important, honesty.

  32. tigtog says:

    @ Terraforming Tobias Holbrook,

    The complaints about the inconsistency of the biosphere seem to be based on one assumption – Pandoran life evolved, rather than being designed by a Forerunner race. Given what we see in the film (which I liked, by the way), it isn’t inconceivable that it was designed.

    But if a Forerunner race designed all the rest of the life of the planet with six limbs and four eyes, what logic would lead to them creating the Na’vi along a different body plan? Six limbs gives superior traction and four eyes gives superior vision, why would putative Forerunners not want their sapient tool-using species to have that advantage?

  33. Athena says:

    Welcome to the site, Viv! As to your question (and spot-on answer): it’s called (un)Intelligent Design.

    Besides, even if a Forerunner race dropped quasi-preformed lifeforms on Pandora, they would still have to co-evolve for the entire ecosystem to work. Otherwise, total disaster would ensue — as illustrated by the introduction of foreign flora and fauna to functioning local ecosystems, which is a far milder case compared with the wholesale “seeding” of a planet (prominent example: rabbits in Australia).

  34. Walden2 says:

    You think James Cameron’s thinking was limited? Check out this comment from a higher up at Avatar’s distributor, Twentieth Century Fox (isn’t it time to change that name, too?) and be grateful to some degree that anything with any kind of a brain or nonterrestrial thinking ever gets made:

    “This isn’t a Twilight, where you have this built-in rabid fan base. This has no source material that’s familiar to anyone. Then throw in a running time of two hours and 40 minutes. It was never designed to beat the opening of Picture A or be the biggest this or that.”

    - Chris Aronson, senior VP of distribution at Fox. Entertainment Weekly magazine, page 19, January 8, 2010.

    Is this guy too young to remember Dances With Wolves, where Hollywood types thought it would bomb because it was so different for them (and went on to win numerous OScars) or just too limited in mental resources?

  35. Athena says:

    File under Clueless AND Brain Dead. This is another illustration of “We want fresh, as long as it’s exactly what we know” compounded by the insularity and parochialism of the (sub)culture. But what did we expect from Fox Entertainment, the embodiment of what Colbert called “truthiness” (TM)?

    Wikipedia: In satire, truthiness is a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. // By using this as part of his routine, Colbert satirised the misuse of appeal to emotion and “gut feeling” as a rhetorical device in contemporary socio-political discourse.

    Also, check out this link: The Avatar that Almost Was. It confirms that Cameron totally sold out to people like the Fox guy you quoted. Which proves my point that he had the resources and the ability but lacked the nerve, despite his clout. So much for being The King of the World. More like a vassal.

  36. Walden2 says:

    Wow, Project 880 did sound better if not perfect. Clearly someone at Fox did their best to water things down for mass consumption.

    You find the best articles on Avatar, Athena! BTW, in my latest Avatar piece which I just sent out, I mentioned the possibility of Eywa infecting Earth with returning humans as a way of defense and to spread itself to other worlds. I didn’t know it was in the original script until now. Is this a good sign? :^)

  37. Athena says:

    I’m torn over that particular point, Larry! Part of me wants to say yes — but is agreement with Hollywood brains ever a good thing?? Let me ponder some more on this.

  38. Bryan Allen says:

    Athena, I’ve admired your postings in the past, and this is another thought-provoking one. That’s not to say I agree with what you said, entirely, but I very much value your viewpoint.

    After looking at a few blog posts on the net discussing “Avatar”, I’m surprised I haven’t yet seen references to two movies relevant to the story being discussed here: “The Emerald Forest” and “At Play in the Fields of The Lord.” Mathiessen’s APITFOTL is one of only a few books in my life (I could be categorized as “voracious” in the area of reading) that took me by the scruff of the neck and did NOT allow me to put it down until I had finished it, in one sitting. Highly recommended; the movie was less gripping, but still OK. “Emerald Forest”, save for a somewhat weak/hokey ending (Stanislaw Lem always seemed to have problems with endings, so it has good company) is quite riveting.

    We earth animals (not just humans) have a powerful neurological bias towards recognizing negative things with much more adeptness than positive things. Carrot: OK, nice, crunch crunch, but forgotten tomorrow. Stick: LOOK OUT! RUN AWAY! (and NEVER forgotten.) This is discussed quite engagingly by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson in episode 149 at the Buddhist Geeks website (I’d post a URL but it’s long, and many are rightfully wary of tinyURLs.)

    I find it illuminating to try and spot GOOD drivers on the freeway; bad drivers are ridiculously easy to spot, but good drivers are far more subtle and take far longer to identify. Same for content in movies, I think, especially when our perceptual filters are so fine-tuned to find what we DON’T like: racism, sexism, thuggishness, cheap hand-waving tricks that don’t pass Screenwriting 101 (BSG wrap-up episode, anyone?), and so on. So what was GOOD about “Avatar”?

    I will offer that I received a small insight from “Avatar” on the subject of Space Invasion: “Invaders need Space, defenders don’t.” A bit more on this below.

    I practically shouted out in the theater “Knock down the shuttle!” during the scenes where the Earthlings are about to bomb the Tree of Life (or whatever that thing was called) since I knew there was NO WAY to replace that puppy and if you lose both of them (I think they brought two shuttles?) you are stranded with no way home. A tactically-savvy commander would NOT have been using such a critical part of his supply lifeline for such a stupid task! But that points out that having a 25-trillion-mile supply lifeline is just SO fragile.

    With the knowledge the Na’vi gain from the earthlings, the presence of some sort of substance that can, for gosh sakes, FLOAT MOUNTAINS, and a planet-wide natural internet, it’s a short walk indeed to the Na’vi repelling the earthlings. With the smaller gravity well of the moon they’re on, the conveniently nearby large mass of a Jovian planet, some metallurgy, and a sped-up Manhattan Project, the Na’vi could trash Space above their planet with debris and radionucleides and then spend the next few millennia lobbing small dense stealthy bullets towards the course of any incoming Earth starships. You can see them coming! A thin sliver of tungsten impacting your starship at relativistic speeds would Terminate your voyage! And if you went to do an orbit insertion maneuver and found low, medium, various Molniya, and synchronous orbits all cluttered with radioactive trash, it’d be a true “oh, crap” moment for any starship crew.

    Finally, for all those who notice that the moon Pandora is way too close to the gas giant, well, welcome to my world: I’ve been cringing for decades at how attack aircraft (or spaceships!) are displayed in movies so INSANELY close to one another, both in the air(space) and on the ground. It’s just not visually striking enough, apparently, to have one or two in the scene; ya gotta have dozens. Once I accepted it’s just (lazy?) director’s shorthand, I relaxed a bit about it, as I’d counsel everyone to relax a bit about Pandora being too close to the gas giant.

  39. Athena says:

    I’m pleased to welcome the pilot of the Gossamers here! I read and liked Matthiessen’s non-fiction (The Snow Leopard and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which I managed to nab before the Viking lawsuits) but not his fiction and I didn’t see Emerald Forest. So I can’t judge how much of either is reflected in Avatar.

    Humans (and all terrestrial lifeforms) are indeed wired for pain avoidance and cannot regulate pleasure responses very well — hence the various addictions. Regarding the Na’vi defense shield, what you describe is possible only if they get a crash course from Stone to Atom age in less than a generation’s time. Who would teach them? Also, the humans can easily nuke the planet down to bare rock from space, then send robots to mine the desirable ore.

    It will come as no surprise to you that I loathed BSG so much that I didn’t write a review for it. The mere act of contemplating it made my brain go into cramps.

  40. Bryan Allen says:

    At the end of “Avatar” the Na’vi have the earth base, which I presume contains the entire content of human knowledge (Pandora node of Earth’s Internet.) They may not have a spaceship YET, but you can bet there’s a honking big radio-telescope in the vicinity that the earthlings have been using to send back all those scientific papers and expense reports. SOMEBODY on Earth is really pissed about what’s happening on both Earth and Pandora, so getting ongoing knowledge and intelligence beamed to Pandora is likely. A lot of the Earth scientific staff stayed behind on Pandora, perfect to be the teachers, translators, and implementors of tech defense/offense.

    Soon Pandora sends a very detailed video to Earth showing how it will build surprise packages for Earth, utilizing Earth knowledge but carrying no passengers, which will impact Earth at some substantial fraction of light-speed UNLESS…

    Invaders/miners need to slow down; defenders don’t.

    Will stockholders back on Earth say “let’s nuke the place” when they can see videos on YouTube fresh from Pandora detailing just how much hurt the Pandorans will heap on Earth if it dares to put another spaceship even close to any of the Centauri stars? Methinks that may be why it’s named Pandora.

    Having majored in Bio, I cannot see the Pandoran ecosystem being anything but a manufactured construct. Every creature has an INTRA-SPECIES-COMPATIBLE mind-meld plug? Come on. Idyllic jungle-moon, or trip-wire?

  41. Athena says:

    Bryan, you mean inter-species-compatible, I presume. Intra, though still silly, would be less unlikely — although, oddly enough, the Na’vi are not shown as telepathic nor do they plug into each other. However, as I said in an earlier exchange, even if the Pandorans were constructed, they would still have to co-evolve to form a functional ecosystem.

    My question about who would teach them pre-supposed no avatars — that is, how would Pandorans acquire space-age technology without interference, after Earth became aware of their resources? Once earth knew of the resources, their time window evaporated. This question has never resolved well on earth between cultures of differing technology levels even with teachers “gone native”. But contact Cameron — given how much he had to water down his original script to make it palatable, he might be amenable to input.

    Humans and all other animals indeed engage in all-out fighting in defense of their home. But they still need to slow down if their families and food are in the middle of the conflict, as would be the case with Pandora.

  42. Walden2 says:

    According to the Pandorapedia (hey I’m just the messenger here):

    http://www.pandorapedia.com/doku.php

    They use some form of quantum entanglement on the starships and presumably at the moonside base, too. It may be technobabble but at least it isn’t complete handwavium.

    I agree that if Eywa is at all “smart”, it will find a way with the help of those humans who stayed on Pandora (and I am willing to bet considering how crappy things are on Earth in 2154 in Avatar’s reality that all but the most hostile survivors did not go back home) to keep itself safe from future harm to the best of its abilities.

    I wrote a more detailed piece on Avatar that will be appearing on Centauri Dreams in about a week or so (the news from the latest AAS meeting is coming first there and rightly so) where I discuss not only what Eywa might do to protect itself in the future (those connections remind me of fiber optics) but also the possibility that the company RDA might use one of their precious starships to ram into Pandora at relativistic speeds to obliterate all life there, which it could from the kinetic energy of the impact alone.

    Such an attack might be too fast for Eywa or humans on Pandora to detect in time, though if they were smart they should plan for it. I can imagine if the company succeeded in such an attack that they might claim that one of its starships had technical problems and accidentally hit the moon – oops, their bad.

    In the original film Alien and its sequel Aliens (which Cameron did), the Company had no problem getting rid of whoever got in its way in pursuit of utilizing the aliens for its own purposes (bioweapons). The administrator in Avatar reminded me of the weasely corporate drone in Aliens.

  43. Athena says:

    Ooookay, Larry, you made me read most of the article so you owe me big time. On the ships they use quantum entanglement for communications, matter/antimatter for fuel, and both are subluminal. So far, so-so good. But, as both you and I said, all the Company has to do is detonate a neutron-type bomb in Pandora’s upper atmosphere or find a way to even slightly perturb the gas giant primary. Neither alternative would pose the slightest danger to humans.

    As for the characters, Cameron has a half-dozen stock characters that appear in his SF films: the tough Latina, the weasely corporate honcho, the wishy-washy sidekick that grows a spine… The only difference is that in previous films he gave them enough quirks to make them quasi-3D, which he didn’t bother to do in Avatar.

    Last but decidedly not least, if these issues aren’t addressed well in the film, it doesn’t matter how much handwavium the Pandorapedia contains.

  44. Stagyar zil Doggo says:

    Hi Athena,
    Enjoyed your skewering. Two links you might enjoy:

    Moff’s Law
    and
    PocahontasAvatar

  45. Stagyar zil Doggo says:

    By the way, threaded comments appear in progressively smaller font sizes as you drill down. (I’m using Firefox 3.5.6 on WinXP).

  46. Athena says:

    Both your links are absolutely brilliant commentary! Thanks for adding them to the conversation.

    I think the font decrease must be WinXP specific — I also use Firefox 3.5.6 but for the Mac, and the font size stays constant throughout the thread.

  47. Doug Keenan says:

    Thank you, thank you! For such cogent analysis only now piercing the “easily the best movie I’ve ever seen” din. This movie seems aimed at ignorance, as if the only way to appreciate the visuals (meh) is to disable the rest of the brain. Have you seen the recent “Sleep Dealer?” Much more interesting approach to “avatar” technology even if the CGI isn’t as fancy.

  48. Walden2 says:

    What would most SF fans do without Handwavium? It’s more vital than Unobtanium and Nosuchthingium.

    I have to admit I had to make an effort to connect with most of the humans and one had to sympathize with the Na’vi, but I cared much more about Cameron’s characters in most of his earlier films.

    Well he can always leave in hot I mean tough female Latino characters, especially if they wear war paint. :^)

  49. Athena says:

    Doug, exactly! See Stagyar’s Moff’s Law link for a great response to the injunction to turn off your brain while watching Avatar. I think the “best movie” din, besides the fanboy noise, is partly a desire on the part of the critics to appear hip (which leads to the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome), partly the unfamiliarity with those who only read/watch specific genres with the fact that all the Avatar concepts are so shopworn they are see-through.

    Another regular visitor and contributor to this blog, mentioned Sleep Dealer as favorably as you did. Unfortunately, it came and went so fast that I missed it. But it’s on my DVD list!

  50. Athena says:

    Agreed on all points — in terms of character development in Avatar not only did Cameron paint by the numbers; he also used kids’ crayons. Regarding tough Latinas, Vasquez was the real item in Aliens. I suspect that BSG’s Kara Thrace was partly based on her before Moore turned her into a (gag) angel.