Review – Avatar (movie)24 December, 2009
Short, non-spoiler review: Go and watch it for the CGI world of Pandora and the Na’vi. An amazing realization of an alien environment, the best so far. Ignore as much as possible the ham-handed plot that lacks all subtly and shows that Cameron does not understand what science fiction is.
Spoiler filled analysis after the cut.
Science fiction is, amazingly, about science but at no point in Avatar is science and technology actually engaged with.
Hard Science Failures (Earth):
We know that the world Pandora is just under six years travel time away from Earth, which means that there is some form of FTL travel. Does it even get a hand wave of “this is the Updownleftright FTL drive”? Nope. The greatest technical advance in human history and it just does not matter to the story being told. That is just the start of the problems.
Humans need masks to breath on Pandora otherwise “you are unconscious in twenty seconds and dead in four minutes” but from what is never explained. And whatever it is, it does not seem to bother bare human skin at all. What sort of temperatures are we talking about on Pandora? Length of day? Gravity? We are told, in a throwaway line, it is a light gravity world but how light? .95g? .9g? Less? And does anything the humans do show that they are operating under lighter gravity? Nope, not once.
The humans are here for ‘Unobtainium’ (and I fully endorse the use of that name) which . . . floats? It is apparently absurdly valuable for unknown reasons. It is worth throwing amazing amounts of resources across light years for . . . floating rocks? Really? And on the entire planet of Pandora there is nowhere to mine Unobtainium away from the natives? After all, the sensor suites of the evil corporation are shown to be able to find out where these deposits are. You know, I bet there is a lot of the floating rocks in the floating mountains! Why were they not blowing those apart? The evil corporation obviously does not care about the environment or natural beauty, so that would not stop them.
Everything the human use, by implication, is brought in to Pandora at beyond sky high costs. So, why did they bring Warhammer 40K style war walkers (with bayonets on their guns and combat knives!) and a helicarrier? How do those help get floating rocks back home? As the only time the soldiers proved able to do anything to the natives was when the natives stood around and took it or threw themselves onto the guns, so why were they even there? The big earth-movers certainly did not need protection from the native animals or the Na’vi, so what purpose did the squishy soldiers serve beside raising costs?
Social Science Failures (Earth):
On theme of that evil corporation, here we have an operation costing the GDP of the Western Hemisphere and who do we put in charge of it? A callow middle-manager with no discernible skills. Now, a grizzled mining exec who was focused on the extraction of the Unobtainium to the exclusion of everything else, that would have flown, but who would trust this sort of operation to such a nonentity?
The military being both US Military and effectively mercenaries hired out to the evil corporation. Why not just use mercenaries? Why involve the government? And why let an insane combat-junkie command when you want someone who knows how to manage resources and minimize conflict and losses (and, thus expenses)? Further, if they are national troops, where was the liaison from the government? In fact, where was the government liaison period? The idea that the government would let something of this scale and worth run without keeping an eye on it is insane.
When General Warwhacked decides that genocide is the only solution, the head corporate stooge just sits back and lets it go. Remember every missile fired, every gas canister fired is costing the corporation millions in cash and twelve years in time (once you fly the request to and the supplies back from Earth) to replace. So, how is shooting things a good plan? Either the military works for you or it does not. The Corporation runs everything except when it does not. Dog and cats living together!
Hard Science Failures (Pandora):
An alien race with natural carbon-fiber reinforced bones and a nervous system that can interface with the plants and animals of their home planet? Really? And the brilliant scientists the evil corporation recruited buy that this is natural? And they know how the Na’vi are put together, they can grow stable human-Na’vi clones with the same nervous system adaption.
Further, every other animal in the Pandoran eco-system has six-limbs and four eyes, the only exception are the Na’vi. Does anyone mention how strange that is? Does anyone mention that the Na’vi should not have evolved on Pandora? Nope. Weird alien animals look cool and the natives have to look like us, so, move along, nothing to see here.
An interconnected network of electrically communicating plants (and animals too, apparently). You would think there would be money in figuring out how they do it and how to adapt it to electronics. Anyone doing research in how to monetarize Pandoran biology? Nope. We are here for floating rocks damn it! Never mind that data is still pretty cheap to transport even across interstellar distances. And all of those cool mood lighting plants. You would think there would be a market for them to (or at least Earth-Pandora hybrid varieties).
The only way that Pandoran biology makes sense is if it was built for the Na’vi. Pandora is obviously the artifact of a civilization that had totally mastered bioengineering and had a group of people that wanted to live a low-tech, literally in-touch with nature lifestyle. They adapted themselves to Pandora and Pandora to their ideal culture and world. Why they did not build proper defenses against off-world caused disasters is unknown.
Because of the above, Na’vi culture works perfectly because it was designed to work perfectly. (Though I find our hero’s complete and utter mastery of the warrior-hunter’s path in 75 days slightly less than believable especially as even at the end he can barely string a coherent sentence together in Na’vi.)
Ultimately, Avatar fails as a science fiction movie for the same reason District 9 did, it fails to take its own premises seriously. Instead of telling an interesting story of exploration, conflict, understanding and resolution it tells a two-dimension story of ‘humans bad, aliens good’ (so, I guess it has more in common with District 9 than I first thought). Still, well worth seeing for the amazing visuals of Pandora, just realize this is a James Cameron psuedo-morality tale (created and financed by the corporations he seems to despise) and not a science fiction movie.