Sunday, May 2, 2010

Review: Avatar

I've finally seen Avatar, after getting it on DVD. Thought I'd do a quick review.

I've watched it twice so far and, surprisingly, it was actually better the second time around. I think that it was because I was able to take in a lot of the little details that passed me by the first time. The story IS cliched, as much a retread of a classic story arc as Star Wars was (the 'Stranger in a Strange Land' motif, ie, hero travels to far off land, befriends the natives, has adventures and becomes a great hero--see also Dances with Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, Ferngully, etc, etc), but just like with Star Wars, the cliched plot path didn't prevent the story from transcending its expectations.

I did not see the movie on a movie screen in 3D, I saw it on a standard TV screen, so I was able to enjoy the story without being overwhelmed by the special effects. Not that I still couldn't appreciate them, but they weren't the main attraction for me in watching the story.

All that being said, Avatar is an important scifi milestone. Pandora easily is the most fully-realized alien world in on-screen science fiction. Kudos to Cameron and his crew for such amazing attention to detail in creating the alien biosphere of Pandora.

The technology of the Earthers was also created with an eye toward realism. The mecha looked less anime-streamlined and much more like what such a system would look like if made in the real world. I especially like the shots of the starship, complete with glowing-hot radiators on the twin nuclear engines and the translucent icy impact shield on its bow. Gave me goosebumps.

For those of you who frequent the Orbital Vector main site, you might be interested that I'd classify the Humans' technology in the movie at about Tech Level 15, maybe edging toward 16. Some anomalies, though--firearms should have been much more advanced, for example.

An interesting thing I was contemplating the second time through is that I don't think the Pandoran biosphere naturally evolved. There seems to be tantalizing hints (particularly the big floating mountains, the huge apparently invulnerable arches around the Tree of Souls, the presence of super-conducting Unobtanium, plus some other stuff) that the world may actually be built on the ruins of a much older more advanced civilization, maybe even post-Singularity. For whatever reason the inhabitants may have decided to abandon technology and bio-engineer a nature-centric utopia for themselves.

I did think Cameron was a bit too hard on humanity, but then its apparent he was trying to drive home certain points. Despite what some conservative critics may have said about the film, I don't see it as anti-American or anti-military, as some have said. Rather, like most films of its type, its meant as a cautionary tale, showing us the dangers of a what could happen if we let certain forces in our society run out of control. (Ie, no 'green' left on Earth, and humanity apparently run by out-of-control, amoral corporations.)

There are some exceptions, of course. Cameron apparently could not resist taking a few digs at past US administration, but they are few and fleeting.

I don't think every human soldier and worker on Pandora would have gone along with the destruction of Na'vi except for a few scientists and the Hot Aircraft Pilot. I think a lot more would have protested and tried to block Colonel Bad Guy and Corporate Douchebag. But I also realize the film could only get so complicated and long, so the creators had to simplify things a bit with this.

The Na'vi in a way also had to be streamlined in a certain way for the same reason. In order to work, the movie needed to portray the aliens as actual sympathetic characters. However, making them too inhuman, as realistic aliens would be, would take too much time and work that it would distract too much from the story, which was making for a long movie to begin with. Most other scifi films and TV series run into this problem. Because of limited time to tell stories, creators have to choose: should the aliens be human-like, and be characters the audience can relate to, or should they be realistically inhuman, and result in them being puzzling enigmas? Here, Cameron obviously chose the former path, and though it is kind of stretching believability that the Na'vi would look and act so human having evolved on a completely alien world, for the purpose of a two+ hour movie it works well enough.

As I said, the plot as a whole was pretty familiar. Since I myself kind of came up with something similar with part 1 of The Shattered Sky (see the sidebar for links), I can attest Cameron did NOT 'rip off' the story as some people say. Its just seems that when you have certain story elements, certain plots and characters follow naturally for drama's sake. But even if events were in the broad term predictable to anyone who's seen this type of story before, it was in the details that the story become very enjoyable, and at times even surprising.

All in all, it was well worth seeing, and definitely a science fiction movie milestone, mostly for its stunning world-building and satisfying if unsurprising story. Looking forward to the eventual sequel and seeing if I'm right about Pandora being a post-technological society.


Zot said...

I absolutely loved the ship in the beginning. The Venture Star. It was based on a combination of Robert L. Forward's antimatter torchship design (seen in Indistinguishable From Magic) and Charles's Pellingrino's 'spaceship on a string' (Seen in Flying To Vallhalla).

I do not core for how humanity is collectively considered harsh and how the navi are collectively good. I would have liked to have seen some more good humans and some navi collaborators. Conflicts are never so black and white in real life. Just look at the Nazi occupied countries in WWII.

I like your theory about the biosphere. Life would not naturally be evolved to network itself like that, because it is usually very competitive: predator versus prey, survival of the fittest.

Paul Lucas said...

The alpha predators having those mind-linkage organs was also a clue that the biosphere might be engineered. Why would alpha predators like that displacer beast looking thing or the banshees need to commune with other lifeforms they're mostly interested in eating? Its like the animal lifeforms are given an interface solely for the benefit of the sentient Na'vi.

I too would have liked to have seen more moral ambiguity between the two sides. Na'vi collaborators would have been a good touch too. = )

pmrussell said...

I saw a relationship of the Avatar story with the Native American story. Of course, the Native Americans did not win. They lost their culture. It was nice to see the culture war side with the natives.