on Avatar

I finally saw Avatar, and left the theatre with lots of conflicting reactions to the movie.

  • cinematically gorgeous
  • amazing visuals
  • fascinating biology
  • but… why are the Na’vi simply caricatures of humans?
  • but… in a fully 3D-modeled-and-rendered world, why are the Na’vi so human?
  • why is Cameron so heavy handed in his Gaia-theory stuff?
  • this is largely just a mashup of every Cameron movie I’ve ever seen, right down to characters and gadgets.
  • what would this movie have been like had Cameron really let go of terrestrial biology, psychology, and sociology?

My first reaction, one that hit me strongly when the Na’vi first appear on screen, was: “A rasta jar jar binks would not seem out of place in this movie.”

My second reaction was to the colonial nature of the story. Big, bad, evil, greedy, corporate (white) humans travel to a new world and try to take it over. This is so much better described by Annalee Newitz. I was disappointed to not have a real story of The Other – rather just a glimpse of a (strongly humanoid) Other only insofar as it benefits or impacts Humans.

My third reaction was to the familiarity of the story threads. “Aliens 2: Na’vi in the Mist: Braveheart’s Revenge.” Carter Burke was there in full force. I’m guessing Paul Reiser was unavailable for filming Avatar, but the character was there in complete detail as reprised by Giovanni Ribisi. The robotic exoskeleton UFC championship match was replayed from the closing of Aliens. Sigourney Weaver brought back Ripley, as reimagined through the eyes of Dian Fossey. Everything in this movie felt familiar. And this completely deflated any sense of alienness or truly otherworldness.

As someone who spent a few years as an undergrad studying zoology, I had really high hopes. Here, we had an alien world, completely invented by Cameron. A world that was modeled and rendered inside a computer, free of terrestrial constraints and preconceptions.

Life on Pandora could have been truly different. Instead, it was compatible with terrestrial life – right down to the DNA. We have upright bipedal humanoids. Sure, they’re bigger (due to lower gravity on Pandora – see? they were paying attention to what life could be like off Earth), but they really just look like big humans in blue body paint. Why did the Na’vi even need arms and legs? What would life be like if they were vermiform? If they had no skeletal system? What if they were truly different, didn’t have DNA, and were not readily understandable? What if they didn’t eat? If they were able to generate energy directly from their environment? Instead, we have “aliens” with biological systems very much like our own. Where we were able to build colonial schools to teach the primitive natives to speak english so that we could improve them and rescue them from their indigenous existence.

The one notable exception is the ethernet jack woven into their dreadlocks.

Even alien sex is compatible with the human notion of it. We have a race of people who are able to directly connect with each other through the dreadnet jack, and yet their “mating for life” is making the beast with two backs. Sure, that makes for more identifiable actions on screen, and perhaps draws the audience in a bit more, but even this could have been Different.

Avatar was frustrating to me because Cameron and his team showed that they could think about biology with a bit of a fresh slate – or at least one drawn from non-terrestrial-land-based lifeforms. Many of the species shown in the Pandora forest were based on terrestrial deep sea aquatic forms. The filter feeders on the floor of the forest were fantastic. When I first saw Jakesully stumble into the field of fans, I thought “oh! those look like filter feeding tube worms. I wonder what would happen if he touched one of the tendrils…” And then Jakesully touched one, and PLIFF it retracted just as a tube worm’s fan would. Very cool. Not what you’d expect to see in a terrestrial forest. And yet still somewhat familiar.

The little lizard-like critters that could fly using what appeared to be a form of da Vinci’s Helicopter were interesting. Not sure that’d be physically possible, but still interesting. And different. Yet still familiar. Lizards. da Vinci’s Helicopter.

The seed pods from the Tree of Life were also fascinating – fluid air-borne jellyfish. These were probably the most unique organisms shown in the movie. And, still these were familiar. Jellyfish.

The official Pandorapedia has entries for a few species, but I would love to see info about the other organisms that make up the world of Pandora.

And… unobtanium? really?

I can only hope that the sequel doesn’t involve some kind of lame Star Trek notion of a universal genome, salted by a grandfather species billions of years ago. Avatar had the potential to be a game changing story of an alien world. Instead, we got a rehash of White Guilt, told through bits of every major motion picture ever made. I hope there are some follow-up documentaries, exploring the species of Pandora without the lens of human superiority and domination.

User Avatar Photos in WordPress

WordPress has supported Gravatars for awhile, which is great, but if you’re rolling out a site for a bunch of students to hammer on, it’s not ideal to have to send them to a third party service to set up photos. It’s awkward, and confusing, for new users to have to go somewhere else to add a photo to their profile. And profile photos can be very useful, especially at the beginning of a semester when everyone is just getting to know everyone else in a class, to put a face to a name.

So, for UCalgaryBlogs.ca, I just installed the handy User Photo plugin. Now, any site can enable this, and the users of that site will be able to add photos to their profiles, like this:

The plugin can be configured with custom sizes for the full-size and thumb versions of the avatar, and the avatar image can be deleted and/or replaced at any time.

It’s not completely trivial to enable – because the themes need to be User Photo aware. That’s pretty easy to add, though. For the cutline theme we’re using on a project, I edited a handful of files to add the code, and it works great. On index.php, and single.php, just add this wherever you want the blog author’s photo to be displayed on the post (I put it in the section displaying the post meta information):

<?php if (function_exists('userphoto_the_author_thumbnail')) {  userphoto_the_author_thumbnail();}?>

Wrapping the thumbnail display code in a function_exists conditional means it will degrade nicely if the plugin is unavailable. Always a good thing to degrade instead of borking.

That results in this display when viewing the post:

Now, if you also want to show avatars on the comments, just edit comments.php to add this code (I put it in the comment meta info section):

<?php if (function_exists('userphoto_comment_author_thumbnail')) { userphoto_comment_author_thumbnail();}?>

And that will look like this when displayed on the blog:

If a user hasn’t added an avatar, it won’t display any image. But if they do have one, they’ll get the properly sized version of their avatar image displayed automatically. Easy peasy. It’s a bit awkward having to edit the themes, but it’s not difficult. The hard part will be remembering to re-apply the edits if the themes get updated (hence this post…)