Avatar

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Avatar is visually stunning. It has precisely all of the elements you would expect from a modern science fiction epic. I give major credit to James Cameron for an original idea, although the plot itself is a pastiche of mostly unoriginal classic memes. My snarky tweet-length review is “a visually stunning remake of Disney’s Pocahontas“. That said, the film is on its way to become one of the top-10 grossing films of the decade, which until now has consisted entirely of remakes/reboots, sequels, and/or book/comic book adaptations (i.e. not a single original idea). (Note that a non-trivial factor in Avatar‘s opening weekend success is the higher ticket prices for 3-D and IMAX showings.)

A word of warning for my typography nerd friends (you know who you are): all of the subtitles are in Papyrus. Hey, at least it’s not Comic Sans, right?

I, like many other commenters, am very interested in the technical aspects of how the film was made, and I do expect that, like the motion control techniques invented for the original Star Wars, we’ll see a significant shift in how movies with fantastical elements are filmed. It also seems likely that some of the performance capture technology will be applied to video games, especially those with more immersive plots like single-player RPGs.

Another thing I’d add: the 3-D version isn’t strictly necessary to enjoy the visual experience of the film. While RealD, as a single projector polarized 3-D technology, is certainly better than the old red-blue systems, or the ones that required bulky electronic goggles to alternate flickering in each eye, I don’t think it adds a huge amount.

So, overall, I liked the movie, but I wasn’t blown out of the water, due largely to the tropeful plot. That said, it certainly got me thinking about a wide variety of topics, including racial issues, exobiology, and linguistics. I plan to see it again, probably in IMAX. Detailed thoughts below the cut (with some vaguely spoilerful comparisons to District 9).

Visuals

Simply put: amazing.

Basically, the entire movie is a special effect. The main advantage of this is that there are very few noticeable seams between the live action acting and the computer graphics, since much of the time only one or the other is visible onscreen. Compare to even the advanced effects in the new Star Trek, or the just-released Sherlock Holmes, and you can see the difference between quality special effects that are noticeable and totally immersive effects.

I went to see the movie with @Andrle and the both of us were totally immersed in the movie, which is impressive considering its length. A number of my friends have posted that they were similarly impressed.

One thing that I thought was interesting about the performance capture was that I could recognize Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, and Wes Studi in their Na’vi bodies, but I couldn’t really see Zoë Saldaña in Neytiri. This might be a function of having seen her in only one film, namely, the new Star Trek.

Technology

As I addressed above, I don’t think 3-D is necessary for an enjoyable Avatar experience. Part of the reason is that even the polarization method causes at times jarring depth perception problems, and I think it also encourages the direction and cinematography to overemphasize depth-of-field in making shots. On this point @kylejames and I disagree. I’ll grant that I know approximately jack about cinematography, but my sense is that you end up with non-standard shots, which can sometimes be used for interesting artistic commentary, but in this case I just found a little odd.

I fully expect the performance capture technology to catch on for other epic-style science fiction and fantasy films. Cameron is probably going to make a mint on the patent licensing (I’m assuming he has such things?), because this kind of digital puppetry is more flexible and easier to use than heavy prosthetics, and allows the actor more freedom. We might see this in the video game space as well, where motion capture is used heavily for character moves, but not much for character faces (as far as I know).

As for the in-universe technology, the 3-D holographic displays were particularly impressive, especially given how close we’re getting with current research. I think there tends to be a lot of back-and-forth between science fiction and actual research in this regard. Most of the rest was your standard space-marine fare; helicopter-like gunships, mecha suits, and ridiculously hefty-looking combat rifles with multiple ammunition types, etc. Overall this had a very Vietnam feel (the airships hitting the Home Tree was particularly reminiscent of a similar sequence from Apocalypse Now).

I had one criticism, which is that even given the mentioned value of “unobtanium” (ugh, really? To borrow a phrase from a friend, did someone forget to run find/replace on the script before printing?), I have a hard time believing it’s worth it to ship that much mass (in the form of military hardware) to an alien world. Mass is still really expensive to move (as far as I could tell, they were using sublight propulsion and sleeper ships). I suppose I can give them some credit and believe that more of it than I think was built locally, but that was never explicitly portrayed and seems unlikely given the absence of factory-scale manufacture that could produce the mining equipment and such.

Exobiology

They had a really amazing science advisor, or team of them, because I found the flora and fauna of Pandora to be remarkably consistent, with a few exceptions. I found myself throughout the movie wondering how a standardized biological neural interface would evolve, and be preserved across species.

One of my complaints is that they were fairly consistent about showing most of the megafauna as having four forelimbs and two hind limbs in pairs… with the notable exception of the Na’vi themselves. What happened to theirs? I assume the real reason was a desire to have the characters be more human, and be more easily puppeted by a two-armed human actor, but it was still a glaring hole in an otherwise believable alien biosphere.

I was initially annoyed that the Na’vi didn’t look more arboreal, particularly wondering why they would have evolved bipedalism, given that they still lived in a large tree, but this feeling was assuaged when they later revealed that there were savanna-dwelling Na’vi. If one assumes a parallel evolution on Earth, this makes more sense, and then the humanoids would have later returned to the jungle.

I thought the flying creatures were very cool; I’d say someone did some extensive research into the recent transitional fossil finds of flying dinosaurs and the first birds. However, instead of four wings consisting of all four limbs, these had the wings on the four forelimbs with the rear legs as landing gear.

The planetwide neural network on a world orbiting Alpha Centauri is nothing new – and it was probably done before I was exposed to the concept in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, my favorite turn-based strategy game of all time.

Linguistics

In theory, this is probably the aspect of the film I’m most qualified to speak on, but I’ll let my actual linguist friends @kobutsu and Comma get into this topic a little more. If you want some crazy detail on the Na’vi language, check out this LDC post.

I love constructed languages, and my interest in tlhIngan’ Hol (Klingon) and Quenya (Elvish) as a kid are a non-trivial component of why I took any linguistics coursework at all. I also very much enjoyed recently reading In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent.

Overall, the Na’vi language sounded believable… which I think is its biggest problem. It was designed to sound like what Westerners (particularly American English speakers) think tribal languages sound like. This falls more under the category of cross-cultural perception below.

My biggest linguistic complaint was how much colloquial American English was used. I understand that they need the characters to speak in a language moviegoers can understand, even though the film is set almost 200 years in the future, but there was to me an excessive use of colloquialisms. If there’s anything that the sudden rise of the Internet and mobile communications has taught us, it’s that the pace of language change (sorry prescriptivists) can be viewed right in front of us. On the other hand, it’s often obnoxious when science fiction decides to go overboard on word invention. (Note: I am a total Neal Stephenson fanboy and really enjoyed Anathem.) Given that, I would have expected a little bit more technology-oriented slang than we saw, but on the other hand, most of the background characters were ex-military employees of RDA, so maybe all the military slang fits better than I think.

Plot

Umm… well, the film has one, so there’s that…

I’ll chime in with just about every other internet blag and say that this movie is Pocahontas combined with Fern Gully, right down to living in a tree, communing with nature, and stopping big scary futuristic bulldozers.

As I said in the introduction, I give Cameron credit for penning an original story. Unfortunately that story consists entirely of standard tropes, monomythic plot devices, and unoriginal plot “twists”, all mashed together.

It’s not so much boring-unoriginal as comfort-food-unoriginal. I think it says something that we’re culturally attracted to the same plot elements over and over again. I guess the question then is (and I’m sure people much smarter than me have debated this already) is whether those things seem true because they speak to something innate in the human experience, or that we’re all just acculturated to accept them as such. In this film, this manifested as nothing being terribly surprising, but at the same time, it didn’t really bother me much.

I did have a problem with some of the character development; in particular, it was unclear to me why Michelle Rodriguez’s standard tough-as-nails female-in-a-male-world character had a change of heart. They portrayed that she did, but I didn’t know enough of her background to know why she had a problem with the military plan. I also got the sense that the one lead soldier was supposed to be more of a villainous character… I wonder if some of his development got cut?

Cross-Cultural Issues

For once, as a WASPYSM (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant YUPpie Straight Male), I’m eminently qualified to speak on a cultural topic… because it generally seems that this movie is about white guilt. :oD It’s all about the early exploration and colonization of the Americas Pandora while searching for gold unobtanium and dehumanizing/reeducating/relocating/oppressing any amerindians Na’vi who got in the way of “progress”.

This critical discussion at IO9 covers the topic with more expertise than I could, although I don’t think I agree on all points. At least, in my experience of cultural sensitivity (largely developed during my undergrad time at Swarthmore), the “becoming their leader” thing is not what I find interesting. I would agree that District 9 had a much better (and more real-world relevant) portrayal of alien-human interactions. A great discussion of the racial issues in that film, from back in September, can be found in Swarthmore History Prof. Tim Burke’s blog.

One thing that’s mostly absent from Avatar, and the linked discussion, that was a key component of the relevant history is the religious conversion aspect, that a non-trivial amount of cultural suppression was justified through the claim of saving souls. While aspects of the Na’vi religion were portrayed, they also got heavily scienced, in that their perception of god (well, the earthmother deity Eywa) is in fact a manifestation of a physically measurable planetwide neural network. When their “soul” departs the body, some aspect of the individual is stored in that network (making the destruction wreaked on the sacred groves all the more devastating, because the sacredness is real).

I can see why this topic has parts of the right-wing blagosphere up in arms. The movie does not pull any punches in its statement of white guilt, its statements on the environment and resource management with regards to industry, or its statements on private military corporations and the military-industrial complex. I think Cameron tried a bit hard to update the politics; there were a few blatant Bushisms that I found pulled me out of the movie (I heard “shock and awe” used once, and there were others that I now do not recall).

Conclusion

Overall, the film got me thinking, which for me is a sign of well-executed entertainment. We definitely need to figure out our own racial history as a species before we encounter other intelligences (or more intriguingly, create our own artificial ones).

It was visually impressive and enjoyable, and I will certainly see it again. I would recommend the movie highly, in spite of my complaints above.

What did you think?

Posted in Movie Reviews, Reviews Tagged with: , , , , , ,
6 comments on “Avatar
  1. Kit says:

    Just two quick observations:

    Regarding unobtainium, I actually liked that; it was refreshingly snarky, as well as being a plausible name in-setting. It was also nice because it was not the MacGuffin. Similarly, regarding “shock and awe”, why wouldn’t that phrase stick around for 150 years? Both “unobtainium” and “shock and awe” are things we have here and now, and I rather preferred that the movie didn’t do what so much near-future scifi does, and pretend that current vocal would just go away. Sure, drop current slang, but things like “shock and awe”? That’s gonna stay.

    Regarding Na’vi limbs, the lemurs you see early on go some way to explaining what happened, if not why; their paired forelimbs had fused to the elbow, and they were the most likely nearest-relative to the Na’vi, so.

  2. Arthur says:

    I disagree that “unobtainium” is a plausible in-setting name. In real life any magic material would almost certainly be named after some property it had or something it was used for. The “unobtainium” name is something we use for things in fiction that are impossible (hence we can’t obtain them in real life); anything that actually becomes possible becomes by definition not-unobtainium, and would be far more usefully classified and named after something that it actually did or was.

    Also, Tim Burke is a history prof, not an econ prof.

  3. Nicolas Ward says:

    I was basing that conclusion in some part on the fact that the audience at the showing I went to groaned at that one.

    I hadn’t noticed the articulation on the lemur-things, I’ll have to look for that in my next viewing.

  4. Kit says:

    Which one? Unobtainium or shock-and-awe? Or shock-and-d’awwww?

  5. Brian Barker says:

    And before “Avatar” and “Star Trek” there was Bill Shatner speaking Esperanto, in the horror film called “Incubus”.

    See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F77k6SQX7iQ&feature=related

    As an Esperanto speaker I found it terrifying! His Esperanto pronunciation that is, not the film.

    Your readers may be interested in http://www.lernu.net :)

  6. Nicolas Ward says:

    Whoops, I had it in my head that he was econ so I didn’t even think to check. Thanks, Arthur. Fixed.

Nurd Up!

Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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