This is an expan­sion on a com­ment I made on a post at BoingBoing about the movie Avatar. I fig­ured with some infla­tion it’d have the poten­tial to be a review.

Yes, there are prob­a­bly spoil­ers here.

Avatar is a lush, lus­cious movie set some­time in a more or less human future. We don’t know when, exactly, but a rough guess would be 100 to 150 years or so from now. It’s never really detailed how or why, but human­ity is pro­gress­ing out­ward, star­ward, and Cameron’s crude blud­geon of dia­log sug­gests that we’ve raped and emp­tied Earth in the process of it.

Enter Pandora, a moon of a gas giant.

Now I have to tell you, right out of the gate, that I loved that idea. Earthlike plan­ets in sole orbit in the Goldilocks Zone about their pri­maries are very hard to find, as far as we can tell. So the idea that we’d be set­tling on a moon of a big fat gas bas­tard à la Jupiter (or Saturn, with Titan awash in an ocean of liq­uid methane) is prime fod­der for the SF-​​minded, espe­cially in the hard SF world. Particularly in the post–Firefly world.

Besides, it makes for lovely sky­scapes — a fact not unno­ticed by Cameron. The air over Pandora is always filled with its par­ent planet, and more often than not, sib­ling satel­lites as well, even in day­time. No atten­tion to detail went unmissed visu­ally. Alas, the same can­not be said of the story.

Avatars are essen­tially body suits worn by humans, genet­i­cally bonded to them via engi­neered cloning with the Pandoran indi­genes, AKA the Na’vi. As might be expected, avatars are very expen­sive to make* — and they’re nec­es­sary, since evi­dently Pandora has less grav­ity than T-​​norm, its abo­rig­ines are about twice the height of humans, and the atmos­phere, we’re told, is poi­so­nous to us. Unbreathable.

The plot, sadly, is basi­cally no more involved than Dances with Wolves, which did it a hell of a lot bet­ter, and was prob­a­bly Kevin Costner’s swan song. (I’ve seen other reviews that com­pare Avatar to Fern Gully. I can’t com­ment on that, since I’ve never seen Fern Gully, but as far as I can tell the par­al­lels are close enough that maybe its screen­writ­ers could have grounds for a pla­gia­rism suit.)

We have locals, indige­nous peo­ples, who are allegedly in tune with their envi­ron­ment and who pre­sum­ably live in some kind of plan­etwide har­mony, a sort of sib­ling­hood of saints. Oh come on. This sort of bull­shit ide­al­ism is not worth the $400 mil­lion or so spent on the production.

And we have the invaders, rap­ing, pil­lag­ing. We ugly humans. This is a turn­around from how it used to be in SF, by the way; in films as recent as Independence Day, aliens were invad­ing us, and sur­prised to learn that humans have a sin­gu­lar loathing for slav­ery. Our own his­tory, all 160,000 years or so of it, notwith­stand­ing. Or the his­tory of the US alone. We loathe slav­ery, sure, but only when it’s we who are the slaves. We’re quite happy to enslave others.

What fol­lows is entirely pre­dictable, so this is why I said there are spoil­ers. If you’ve never read a hero saga of any kind in your life, Avatar will sur­prise you in its nar­ra­tive. Otherwise, well, yawn. A very pretty and well-​​illustrated yawn, but elab­o­rate doesn’t equal qual­ity. I thought Where the Wild Things Are was a far more engag­ing adap­ta­tion. Ho big blue hum.

Avatar has its defend­ers, though, many of whom seem to object that the rea­son for the brain-​​dead sim­ple, lin­ear and utterly trans­par­ent plot was that it’s sup­posed to be a myth. You know, like George Lucas keeps insist­ing Star Wars is, even though he’d never thought of it at all before speak­ing with Joseph Campbell. The prob­lem I see with the objec­tion that the movie is sup­posed to be “myth­i­cal” is that it’s set in a pre­sum­ably real­is­tic universe.

There are no Lazer Swordz and there is no Schwartz bind­ing the galaxy together. (The dim plan­e­tary sen­tience that passes for a “force” is only barely tol­er­a­ble; while I con­sider such a thing extremely unlikely, I’ll let it slide, since if you really do have a sen­tient world-​​spanning for­est, you might have some inter­est­ing side-​​effects. Witness Lem’s Solaris, done in film in the 70’s by the Russian direc­tor Tarkovsky, not the dread­ful 2002 mish­mash star­ring George Clooney and his ass. A sen­tient planet is a fas­ci­nat­ing idea, done well. With Avatar, it was not done well.)

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have some­thing that tries to have hard SF in it — and fails — and have it be “myth­i­cal” as well (and fails because of the infan­tile nature of the myths it’s pushing).

You have to choose. Cameron didn’t, and that’s why Avatar, pretty as it was to look at, failed in sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant respects. It’s a bit like the cute lit­tle bit of thing you pick up at a bar one night, then wake up the next morn­ing to real­ize that you’re stuck in an end­less loop of insipidity.

For starters, absolutely no one, any­where, in the exis­tence of human­ity, has ever been any­thing like the Na’vi were sup­posed to be, liv­ing in per­fect har­mony and peace with their world, etc.

Certain doe-​​eyed cretins say so of American Indians, and they’re wrong. Entire herds of bison were chased over cliffs to feed a few dozen tribes­peo­ple. There’s com­pelling evi­dence to sug­gest that the megafauna of the Americas (mam­moths) were hunted to extinc­tion by pre-​​Clovis peo­ples (humans, ances­tors of the “har­mo­nious” Indians.) Settlers’ records and indige­nous sto­ries agree that there were con­stant internecine and inter­tribal con­flicts. Scalping wasn’t invented just as a way to pun­ish white men, after all.

This shouldn’t be too sur­pris­ing to any­one who is pay­ing atten­tion. Our ances­tors must have had the same char­ac­ter­is­tics that we hold today. They had ide­al­ism, and char­ity, and a rabid, lethal hatred of any­one not of their tribe. There never has been an Edenic idyll.

Yet this over­sim­pli­fied, fool­ish vision was foisted onto us by mak­ing the Na’vi into (largely) touchy-​​feely New Agers with oomph. I couldn’t buy it; in fact, it offended me and insulted the intel­li­gence of the audience.

Then there’s the ques­tion of biol­ogy. Okay, so the Na’vi have ten­ta­cles they can use to com­mu­ni­cate with other organ­isms. Fine.

So why are their ten­ta­cles con­tained inside braids? Unlike every other life form on Pandora?**

How did those braids develop? Do they actu­ally have trunks with hair grow­ing over them? If so, how does it get the braided look? Or do they instead have long ten­ta­cly things that just hap­pen to co-​​grow with their hair? If so, why is no other ani­mal on Pandora haired?

And what about the six-​​limbed horse ana­logues? Interesting way they breathed. Why do the Na’vi, then, have noses? Why not ven­tral spir­a­cles like the “horses”?

And why only four limbs, not six, as with most other life on Pandora? How is it they man­aged to con­ver­gently evolve like humans? Is it because of the forests? Is there some­thing about forests that makes upright quadrupeds have a sur­vival advan­tage? Why not toss off three sen­tences of dia­logue early in the film to answer this sin­gle point? (Because we were too busy being told how sweet the Na’vi are and how bad the cor­po­ra­tion is, that’s why.)

Either the Na’vi and their “horses” are diverged from a com­mon ances­tor, or they can’t com­mu­ni­cate with one another, because the bio­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences are too great. (The dis­par­ity between rep­til­ian and mam­malian brains is absolutely enor­mous. Even par­rots and corvids, some of the most intel­li­gent non-​​mammalian ani­mals liv­ing on Earth with us, have rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent brain struc­tures than our own. Neural map­ping of one of us with one of them is impos­si­ble.) One or the other, not both.

Finally, all right, so the atmos­phere on Pandora is unbreath­able to humans.

Well, how the hell does Jake light a match?

You can­not start a fire with­out oxy­gen. Fire, by def­i­n­i­tion, requires oxy­gen. The pres­ence of oxy­gen sug­gests the atmos­phere being breath­able to humans.

These things just don’t work.

I real­ize I’m get­ting pretty deep into analy­sis here, but I have a right to; after all, Cameron set Avatar up to be a film that was to con­tain believ­able story ele­ments and tech­nol­ogy. He’s obvi­ously a hell of a visual thinker, and a hell of a good emo­tive direc­tor (Titanic still makes me cry); but he’s def­i­nitely not a sci­en­tist, nor even remotely inter­ested in science.

I think what frus­trated me the most was how close he got it, so often, but always barely missed reach­ing the goal. And that’s why, ulti­mately, Avatar almost sat­is­fied me, but just doesn’t quite make it.

Worth a rental, but don’t bother see­ing it amid the sod­den, humid human press in theaters.


* And, while they all have nicely ath­letic builds and very cute butts, they seem to be dis­ap­point­ing in cer­tain other ways. You’d think a twelve-​​foot-​​tall twink would have a pro­por­tion­ally sized dick. You’d be wrong. They’re hung like goril­las, and that is not a compliment.

** This could have been a rich explo­ration of xeno­bi­ol­ogy. It was not.


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