Monday, March 22, 2010

I finally saw "Avatar"

And I cannot remember a time I was so disappointed. If you haven't seen it yet, or if you have seen it and liked it, you may want to skip the rest of this post.

There is a famous rejection letter that goes, "Your novel is both good and original. Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good." I have never seen a work in any medium that deserved that critique more than Avatar. Let's start with the parts that are good, but not original, more or less in the order I recognized them.

Call Me Joe "Call Me Joe (1957) is a science fiction story by Poul Anderson about an attempt to explore the surface of the planet Jupiter using remotely controlled artificial life-forms. It focuses on the feelings of the disabled man who operates the artificial body... Anglesey uses a wheelchair and is bad-tempered... He is allowed to stay on the station only because of his ability to establish a telepathic connection with and thereby control Joe, a creature designed to survive the hostile conditions on the Jovian surface." Ok, I'll come clean; I remembered the 70's comic book adaptation rather than the '57 original, but that's probably why it came to mind so quickly- the visuals of the wheelchair.

Double Star "Double Star is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction (February, March, April 1956) and published in hardcover the same year. At the 1957 Worldcon it received the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the previous year.
" In Double Star, the Martians’ standard greeting is “I see you”, and it is clear that by “see”, they mean more than vision, an understanding.

Dune “Dune is a science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert, published in 1965. It won the Hugo Award in 1966, and also the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. Dune is frequently cited as the world's best-selling science fiction novel.” Is it a coincidence that the production company that financed Avatar is named Dune Entertainment? You decide: Dune is about a planet that is the only source in the galaxy for something that sells for millions per gram; it’s being mined by evil offworlders. One offworlder accidently falls in with the locals- and isn’t killed out of hand because they receive a sign. So the daughter of a chief is assigned to teach him the ways of the planet and the people. Naturally, they fall in love. Passing a test of manhood- which involves riding a huge wild beast- he is accepted as one of the people, and using a mix of his offworld knowledge and his new understanding of this world, he becomes a war leader. They ride their beasts into combat against the high-tech offworlders and win.

While this is going on in the Na'vi scenes, we learn in the HQ sequences that the entire biosphere is one vast neural net. Two things about that- first, it renders nonsensical all the talk about Pagan spirituality, worshipping nature, etc. I don't care whether you're the Pope denouncing it or a Pagan approving it- either way, it's BS: the Na'vi weren't worshipping a forest Goddess, they were talking to a living biological organism! More powerful than human, yes- after all, it was established that it had tens of thousands more neurons than the human brain- but it was a living organism, not a deity. How many gods do you know who have had their brains mapped by a neurologist?

The other point about this revelation more directly applies to the story itself- that they handled it poorly, revealing the interlinked-mind effect waaay too early in the movie. It destroyed dynamic tension; had we not known until nearer the climax that this wasn't primitive religious woo, but a biological fact, the ending would not have been telegraphed so far in advance. Once you knew for certain that the planet was a living organism, then of course you knew it would fight for survival, that the Ewoks would swarm out of their trees and destroy the Imperial walkers with forest power. Oops, sorry, wrong movie- that the Eywa would use forest power to destroy the Marine powered exoskeletons.

And the really bad thing about a telegraphed ending is that it gives you too much time to think- a bad thing in a movie that is depending upon visuals to prevent you from noticing holes in the story. And let me say right here that yes, the visuals are stunning- I actually had moments of vertigo in some of the flying scenes. (You may remember that I'm not good with heights) In fact, in some ways they were too stunning; I began to wonder if they weren't using visuals to cover poor pacing in the story. That led to wondering other things, like the Hallelujah Floating Mountains... obviously they were just saturated with Unobtainium, and in a highly concentrated form- how many floating mountains do you know? Why didn't they start their mining there? They were undefended and indefensible, and disturbing a pterodactyl habitat wouldn't as bad PR back home as killing humanoids so similar to us that you can make human/Na'vi hybrids.

I began to wonder at the poor state of veteran's benefits they had in the future; not only did they not grow new legs for Jake Sully, they gave him that crappy wheelchair, when even now they're making experimental exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to walk again, and cost about the same as a good wheelchair- surely they'd be standard technology by then, if they're using bigger ones in combat. That got me wondering about the state of their technology- for example, why weren't they using drones, for minimally invasive observation? Radio controlled pterodactyls are easy enough to make, and real birds don't mind flying with drones Which got me to wondering about the Banshees the Na'vi were flying on. BS. Those wings weren't nearly large enough to carry the weight of a rider whose torso is nearly as big as your own. I'll spare you the science (unless you actually want to discuss it), but it just ain't gonna happen.

Was I over thinking it by then? Hell, yes- I was losing my willing suspension of disbelief... but that's their fault. Grand visuals do not a movie make; it is the job of a storyteller to keep you so engrossed that you don't care about plot holes or a big helping of handwavium. There was no memorable dialogue- do you remember any great lines? The only complex, interesting character was Jake himself; the others were pretty much stock cut-outs. There was no B plotline to keep you interested between developments of the main plot. There were no mini-climaxes sprinkled throughout to maintain interest. (other than visual ones- but a touchy flower or an Archimedes screw winged helicopter bug are not a substitute for plot) Look at a previous hit scifi flic with groundbreaking visuals: Star Wars. Look how complex that story was by comparison, how many characters you actually cared about, how well paced the shocks were.

Ginger told me afterwards that the ending seemed to her to be kind of gratuitously happy; it rarely works out that well for messiahs. I agreed, but I had expected it by then. They had not treated the story itself honestly; I hadn't expected them to treat me any better.


Strange Attractor said...

I didn't think the ending was happy so much as naive. My two viewing partners didn't feel the same way, but because it was so much like a western I felt like I "knew" the humans would come back with more firepower and destroy the Na'vi.

All in all, Avatar is pretty, but dumb.

Steve Caldwell said...

I enjoyed the movie but it's like most big-screen sci-fi movies ... just put the brain in "neutral" and coast along with the pretty visuals and sounds.

Afterwards, I wondered about the planetary neural net and how come competing organisms hadn't tried "hacking" it for differential gain (malicious software like viruses and worms -- the software variety and not the organism variety).

We know from experience with a worldwide information network that malicious software does happens on Earth. So how come it didn't happen on Pandora?

DairyStateDad said...

I have to say, I largely enjoyed the movie. But that doesn't keep me from appreciating the fact that your critique is dead-on. Part of the former is that I lack the degree of exposure to serious sci fi that informs so much of your review.

One quibble--on the issue of the banshees' not having adequate wingspan to support the riders--would the lower gravity of Pandora and the different atmospheric makeup/conditions perhaps offer an alibi for that?

Chalicechick said...

I really loved how Scully almost dies because he can't reach the Oxygen in the non-handicapped acceesible lab. I could appreciate having a character survive almost the entire movie and nearly die because of bad engineering.

At the same time, the guy had been such a moron and so resolutly dedicated to chasing tail (literally!) rather than doing his job, I can't say that it would have been a great loss. As far as I can tell, the entire thing could have been prevented if he had actually negotiated with the Na'vi as he was supposed to be doing.


Joel Monka said...

CC- agreed.

DairyStateDad- That would be of less importance than one might think, because most of the formulae involved are dimensionless ratios, rather than being dependent upon the actual numbers.

The major variables in the formula for lift are air density, air velocity, and the coefficient of lift, which is a function of the wing shape. We can ignore both CL and air density, because with or without the rider, the Banshee is flying with the same wings through the same air. This leaves only velocity as the variable to be considered.

Lift varies as the square of the speed; so if you double the weight, you have to go 1.4 times faster... but the power required to push a body through the air varies as the cube of the speed, so to go 1.4 times faster, you have to work 2.74 times harder. If the power is being supplied by muscles, that ain't gonna happen. This is why birds have hollow bones; every gram saved is dramatically less work needed. This is also why you never see a bird carrying anything that is a substantial percentage of its own weight- an owl will carry off a mouse, but will eat a rabbit right there on the ground. And these are ratios, independent of the composition of the "air", so whatever Pandora's atmosphere, whatever its gravity, they still hold true.

This is true, by the way, for anything that flies, be it a feathered raptor or an F22 Raptor. A hang glider, with the same wing loading as a bird, flies at the same speed as a bird- in fact, curious birds often fly in formation with them. Airliners, with ten times the wing loading, have stall speeds ten times higher.

Using another dimensionless formula, we can deduce that the Banshees had a very high wing loading even without a rider. We saw smaller "birds", and they had proportionally the same size wings as the banshee- but size and weight do not scale up equally. Area varies as the square of the size, but weight varies as the cube. Thus a bird twice as large will have four times the wing area, but eight times the weight- and therefore double the wing loading. In real life, large birds have wings that are proportionally much larger to bring the wing loading back down; a Praying Mantis has wings that are actually smaller than his body, a small bird has wings double the size of his body, and a Buzzard or Albatross has wings four times the size of his body. The largest pterosaurs, not counting their long, swan-like necks, had torsos the size of a small man, and 35-45' wingspans!

And yes, this is all geeky stuff- but a well written script would have kept me captivated and not thinking about this kind of stuff.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Avatar was a Left Wing collection of cliches. Military bad! Destruction of the primitive and natural planet for greedy purposes! The evil villain of the movie, the American White male. The group of people I left the movie with all agreed we have destroyed our earth. I asked them to give me the keys to their cars and implored them to sleep outside of their luxury homes that evening, it was cold and wet and in the low thirties, they passed. The only thing this movie lacked was a speech by George W Bush.

limo hire said...

Avatar ...very disappointed movie...

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to find someone else noticed the Heinlein "I see you" reference.
You forgot one of the other sources of Avatar story line: Rocky & Bullwinkle and upsydasium :-). Personally, I'm gonna think of the movie as "Dances with Smurfs"