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.

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