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.



  1. I perceived the unobtainium differently. They never said or implied that it could “float” (levitate). They just showed the one piece on a display base that appeared to levitate the piece. When they picked it up off that base, it did not seem to float away from their hands…
    I missed the true science element a little bit also, but I felt he made up for much of it with so many pleasing visuals and the surprisingly engaging story. I also somehow felt less like he “skipped” the science, and more like he had decided the viewers already knew enough about sci-fi that he did not need to use too much screen time explaining the science. Strange, I know, but it’s just the impression I got form it all.

    • But they never explained anything about it beyond it was valuable and that is not just bad science fiction, it is bad storywriting.

      As to floating, something is keeping the floating mountains of Pandora, well, up there, floating. As Unobtainium is the only thing on Pandora that does not exist on Earth and floating mountains do not exist on Earth, it seems like a logical conclusion.

      • Well other than a world wide interconnected web of plantlife, that can apparently connect you to your offworld ancestors.

        Given we see major electronic disturbance in the region of the floating mountains and no where else, despite the obvious presence of unobtainium elsewhere, it suggest something else is responsible for them.

        • We may not have electrically powered plantlife but we sure have electrical systems, but point taken.

          If the flying mountains are being held up by something other than floating rocks, the elctro-magnetic fields involved probably should have torn the Earth flyers apart rather than just interfere with the communication systems.

  2. The Na’vi consider seeing, in the sense of grok or ken, to be fundamental in tribal life and in navigating Pandora. If you allow yourself to see Avatar as it was meant, you will love it as I did. I can’t wait to go there again.

  3. As far as the FTL goes, the ship that travels to Pandora does not go faster than light. It takes about 12 years to travel to the moon at a speed of .7 the speed of light. The 6 years they spend in cyro-sleep is a result of time dilation from such an excessive speed, aka they spend less time due to relativity.

    Again, the ship doesn’t go faster than light in the first place.

    As far as the Unobtanium, it’s a room-temperature superconductor. Basically material which has almost zero electrical resistance. The reason it’s so valuable is because it eliminates the cost of cooling regular superconductors. And, in addition, the astronomical cost of bringing things to Pandora is offset by the even grater value of the Unobtanium.

    • Source? Because nether the form of space travel or what unobtainium was good for was defined in the movie.

      Then our hero was not bright enough to know the difference between 6 and 12 years and that is why he said it only took 6 years to travel to Pandora? Even though, under cold sleep, either one seemed like no time at all to him, he decided to quote dilated time? That makes no sense to me.

      So, we have the ability to travel light years from Earth but we still cannot figure out room temperature superconductors even with an example of such a material? And if that is the case, how do the mountain on Pandora float, the gravity may be light but it is not that light.

  4. Well, I have to admit: You carry my own criticism on Avatar quite one or two steps further and even provide solutions. That’s the vision I think the movie was missing, that would made him awesome (though it might have overloaded the viewer with information. Which is why I might still vote for: Provide an interesting conflict, the rest can be dealt with in Avatar II – the Evolution of the Na’vi).

    Especially the biotechnology with the ability to connect to plants and animals is quite interesting and would deserve a story of its own, maybe indeed best contrasted with our own, mostly imperfect interfaces (except for the Na’vi avatars … which also makes me wonder: If we have this perfect projection technology, why isn’t it applied more widely?)

    • There is nothing I dislike more than a movie/book/whatever that was almost great. And Avatar had such potential.

      Good point on the projection technology and why did not the flux vortex shut that down?

      • I never thought about that, although the answer would have been easy, too:
        Instead of using an active Projection, which would require a steady connection between the original body and the artificial Na’vi avatar, why not think of it as a complete transfer of consciousness?

        Of course that opens up for more questions, interesting questions: What if you can upload your consciousness into a body (or several ones) … wait. There’s an RPG about that. Ever heard of Eclipse Phase?

        • But we know that is not the case as the baddies get to ‘switch off’ our main character and the other avatars more than once. Though it would have made more sense in many ways.

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