Avatar Review

Avatar was spectacular. I always worry when a movie gets as much hype as Avatar did that in the end it will not live up to expectations, but Avatar delivers. It is probably the most beautiful movie I’ve ever seen and one of the best sci-fi movies in recent memory. And even better, it is not a sequel or a remake or based on a comic book or novel. It is genuinely original, an unfortunate rarity these days.

The story follows the crippled marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as he arrives on the tropical moon Pandora as part of a human mining operation. The indigenous people, the Na’vi, are not too happy that the humans are bulldozing their forest paradise, and the humans aren’t too happy that the Na’vi live atop the richest ore deposit around. Jake was brought in because he is the genetic match to his dead twin brother’s avatar: a lab-grown Na’vi body that can be remotely inhabited and mind-controlled by a human operator.

His mission is to learn about the Na’vi and convince them to move away from the ore deposit, but the more he learns the more he realizes that his species may not be the good guys.

If the story sounds familiar, it is. Dances with Wolves, Shogun, and many other stories follow the same pattern, with a main character “going native” and switching loyalties as they learn about a supposedly backward culture. It’s an extremely effective story, and I’m a sucker for it every time. So yes, Avatar is Dances with Wolves in space, with strong overtones of Fern Gully and Star Wars. But frankly, that’s fine with me. I like those movies. And despite its similarities to other stories, Avatar manages to shine. Or should I say, bioluminesce?

I’m referring, of course, to the glowing plants and animals of Pandora. Avatar succeeds because Pandora is one of the most well-crafted, beautiful and immersive fictional worlds I’ve ever seen. The plants and animals are bizarre and unusual, but plausible. Much of the vegetation is based on sea creatures on Earth, giving it an alien but familiar feel. The animals have six limbs instead of four, but they move so convincingly the extra legs make perfect sense.

And then of course, there are the Na’vi. The motion-capture technology used to turn human actors into ten-foot-tall blue aliens is perfect. Every facial expression and subtle movement is captured, making the Na’vi feel completely real and convincing. Done poorly, the Na’vi could have fallen squarely in the uncanny valley, either creeping people out or making them laugh. Cameron has managed to jump over that valley, and his blue aliens are in many ways more real than the human actors in the movie. Their language is completely convincing too, and it’s no wonder since it was designed from scratch by a professional linguist.

Believe it or not, this is CGI.

Of course, I have to say a little bit about the science of the movie, because that’s what I do. For the most part, this is a science fiction movie where the science is behind the scenes, and I think that was a wise move. We are never lectured about how exactly the avatars work because that’s not important. We learn precisely what is needed for the story and no more.

I already mentioned the alien life forms, and these are excellently imagined and always convincing. One minor nitpick is that the Na’vi have four limbs, just like humans, but all the other large creatures on Pandora have six limbs. I understand the need to make them familiar enough for the audience to sympathize, but it would make more sense biologically for them to have the same body plan as the other creatures in their world.

As far as the moon Pandora goes, we aren’t shown much. It orbits a jupiter-like gas giant, and has a thick atmosphere that humans can’t breathe. This atmosphere is a perfect example of the attention to detail in Avatar. When Jake arrives on Pandora and the door to the shuttle opens, there is a brief shimmer in the air as the breathable gas inside the ship mixes with the moon’s atmosphere. Anyone who has mixed a gin and tonic or swam in an estuary where salt water and fresh water mix is familiar with this shimmer as fluids of slightly different densities mix.

The issue of day-length is not mentioned, but it seems to be similar to an earth-day. This would mean an orbit likely too close to the planet to be stable, but this is a very minor detail.

The most obvious bad science in Avatar are the floating mountains. Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome! The movie wisely doesn’t try to explain in too much detail, but it is implied that powerful magnetic fields are involved. It’s obvious that this part of the movie is fantasy, but I just have to say, I wish they didn’t call the area with the high magnetic fields the “flux vortex”. It made me flinch every time. I loved the rock formations that followed the magnetic field lines though. Implausible to have such strong fields, but very cool. I will add that powerful magnetic fields would be quite handy for a moon close to a gas giant, handily deflecting the powerful radiation that would otherwise strip away the atmosphere and damage life on the surface.

Bottom line, Avatar was fantastic. Yes the story was familiar, and yes some of the dialog was cheesy, but none of that matters because Avatar is a chance to visit Pandora. The acting is good, but the real star of this movie is the world. It is gorgeous and exotic but the attention to detail and the unprecedentedly effective use of 3D technology makes it feel utterly real. Avatar is nearly two and a half hours long, but at the end, as the credits rolled, I was sad that it was over. I wanted to go back and walk the bioluminescent footpaths of an alien forest one more time. I wanted to fly between floating mountains again. And yes, I wanted to be blue.

Go watch it. You will too.

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27 Comments on “Avatar Review”

  1. Nicole Says:

    Nice review, Ryan! I really enjoyed Avatar, too. Did you notice that the avatars had five fingers and the natives had four? I didn’t get a chance to see if that was also true for feet, but I thought that was an interesting detail. Clearly the humans had never intended to try and send in a secret avatar.

    • Ryan Says:

      Thanks! I didn’t notice that detail with the fingers, but it’s little touches like that that make it clear that a lot of thought went into everything in the movie. Can’t wait to see it again (on an IMAX screen if I can manage it).

  2. sfjcody Says:

    There’s ‘an activist survival guide to Pandora’ you can read at http://browseinside.harpercollins.ca/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061896750 It’s worth a browse.

    • Ryan Says:

      Wow, that’s a cool little guide. I liked the details of the “unobtainium” as a high-temperature superconductor, magnifying the magnetic field. Still hand-wavey but close enough to reality to work in sci-fi.

      • sfjcody Says:

        Yeah, I think Cameron has made a really good attempt to fit fantasy imagery into a hard sf box. As you say, still hand-wavey, but all the transgressions of believability seem to be in service of the plot rather than accidental mistakes. Great film!

      • Joseph Says:

        I finally got to see it today. Here’s an interesting factoid that I puzzled out during the floating-mountain sequence: it is impossible to create a passively stable arrangement of field sources that obey a 1/r potential (e.g. magnetic and gravitational fields). That’s the reason why those little Levitron magnetic top things have to spin to stable levitate. So the mountains couldn’t float if they were just magnetized and in a strong magnetic field. Something different had to happen…like magnetic flux pinning in high-temperature superconductors! So by the time I’d finished driving home I’d figured out that a potential explanation is that “unobtainium” might be some kind of HTSC based on the stability of those mountains. I absolutely did not expect my own research to show up in this movie!

        For sufficiently high field strength, mountains of superconductors with the right properties could actually levitate. In a magnetic field of “sufficiently high” strength, of course. ;) If it can create geologic formations that follow the field lines like iron filings around a bar magnet, then I’ll believe it’s possible to levitate mountains.

        However, if that is true, then I’d expect as soon as the humans bring their aircraft, power armor, mining equipment, guns, or other objects with potentially nonzero iron and nickel content anywhere near those floating mountains…those things ought to try to align with the magnetic field and be attracted to the field source!

        I find it also very interesting to think about what evolutionary pressures might have arisen to drive the common development of those neural interfaces across the species of Pandora. It’s not something I’d rule out – given the characteristics of, say, slime molds or aspen trees on Earth, that can kinda-sorta “network” together into a larger organism. But why would so many species develop that ability? There’s some food for thought.

  3. Israel Says:

    I will say the movie will go in my Blueray DVD collection.
    The visual effects are stunning!

    The movie was predictable as a saturday morning cartoon.

    Dances with Wolves and princess mononoke rolled into one.

  4. Libertarian Says:

    I saw the movie yesterday in Colonie with my 2 sons, 2 nieces, wife & sister-in-law. We all loved it, and had a long discussion about values and loyalty. Yes, it is the old story of an individual fighting for what’s right even against his tribal loyalties. The story is not new because such events are not new, alas. And whether in a future Warsaw Ghetto, Trail of Tears, and or another encounter pitting brute force against decent people, one hopes that there will always be some humans to redeem our species and not act like the usual killer apes. I could see such movies all the time and be uplifted by it. Why an all-American crew as the vile guys? The crew could have been more international, like industrial conglomerates are today anyhow.

    • Alan F Says:

      Why all American bad guys? Any Canadian, Cameron included, would tell you it guaranteed success in the EU.


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  6. Power Dude Says:

    I’ll be perfectly honest. This movie was an astonishing dissapointment. First off, who the F*** gives a rats a** about the CGI… it will ALWAYS get better… so much so, that it seems morons of this day and age believe a good movie is based on graphics. NO< it is NOT something new and unique, as the storyline is a rehash of every simpleton plot out there for the last 100 years. Lets get to the heart of the issues, the inconsistencies. Shall I list them…
    1. Horrible MAIN character – Played out Marine character, with no background other than ' he wouldn't quit ', but yet not revealing anything about how in the hell a parapeligic could get recruited as a MARINE???
    2. The Economy??? – In nearly every reference to earth, they said, we killed our mother and now it seems we are raping another planet just the same. If the resources of earth are literally so dwindling, how in the hell then are we still money based in our society. Money is printed by the world banks to increase or decrease the value of it worldwide… how bad is it then that earth is a husk of a world, with everyone desperate to leave, YET, they have what seems trillions & trillions to spare for weapons, private contracted military (Who seem to work directly for the corporations), tons and mega-tons of construction equipment, and so much more… yet all I hear is about how the economy is crumbling and the main dude can't even afford basic spinal surgery. C'mon guys…
    3. CGI the Best? – Seriously, the CGI is outstanding, but it does not make a movie that much better, if those very same characters are doing and saying shit I have heard from disney films and the like. If the CGI makes a movie, then it must mean that every new movie that comes out with graphics equal to 2012 or Avatar are by DEFINITION, excellent movies…. give me a break. Its an animators future portfolio… thats all. I mean, SVA students in NYC can create this sh** for college projects! lol
    4. The Villain! – Sadly, many movies are taking the leap of faith and grasping for political venues to move their concepts forward. This is no different, with a seriously Ferned Gully approach to realizing that life is all connected. So without further a due, we present the anglo-saxon aggresive… the texas ranger without a care in the world other than shooting blue coons… as the movie seems to imply multiple times in dialogue as well as appearance. He talks worse than a cartoon or video game dialogue character, h for some reason or another has no mention of earth,or why he so adamant to defend it, and never does he actually say anything other than sh** to start the war… very boring.
    5. Technicalities Galore!!!! – If the atmosphere is toxic enough to cause death in 4 minutes due to lung exposure, why then are their skins exposed during the entire movie. If they lack economy to maintain the planet earth, why then do we have private companies with vast resources mining rocks across the galaxy? If they are all connected thru a network of energy and wisdom and voices, why then did they have to fly around to communicate with the other clans.. and for that reason, why have clans anyway? If they are all woven into the cycle of life on Pandora, why then are so many left standing without a clue until big blue marine rides in on his ultra-colored dragon butterfly (Thats exactly what they look like!) If most of the species on Pandora breathe through gills on their chests, why then can they propel massive grunts and yowls… where is the logic of that? Why did they not reveal the nature of the ribs and massive structures surrounding the 'tree of life', a common theme in many, many medieval and fantasy movies and anime. Why is every species bigger than a rabbit on Pandora equipped with fiber-optic cabling in their horns or hair? Do the Na'Vi all have a tentacle growing out the back of their heads, and if so, why does it have hair braided around it in a seemingly perfect fashion when Sully's Avatar is being grown in the tank on base. If the tribes of the Na'Vi are all linked thru a network of energy across the planet, and all tribes listen and follow the words of their spirit guide who interprets the 'well of energy', why did the ancient bi*** have to ask so many questions and why were not the other clans aware of the dangers presented by the humans. Why weren't the plants glowing until she turned off the torch… wasnt it nighttime already? Why would humans, who are ludicrously worried about money and efficiency, spend trillions upon trillions to exploit resources sitting UNDER a native village, when it seemed that an ENTIRE PLANET was available to cultivation. They were so cheesy with the plot, they explained it was the richest source of materials within 200 clicks… meaning 2000 kilometers. Seriously, if you travelled millions of miles in space to reach a planet to collect resources, would'nt you scan the whole planet for better spots than one sitting under a whole civilization who just might cost more to your company than just time or money… maybe lives? Why, if the magnetic & energy properties of the valley of the tree of life was so distorted that instruments and lock-on wasn't available… why then could he fight within the field without having his AVATAR transmission signal interupted by the distortion 'flux'. Do the Na'Vi have mating organs, or it their main reproductive organ their fiber-optic connection? Because if so, it would mean that every species can inter-procreate, since they ALL seem to share the neuro-interface in their horns. If the planet has more connected synapse branches than a human brain, then why did the planet not think to defend itself with its indiginous animal population sooner than when the marine called upon its help. Why was every single creature of decent size loaded with 4 arms and 2 legs, yet the Na'Vi are humanoid to the core, even lacking feral claws or toe nails… which made absolutely no sense! If they are of nature, they would have such attributes… even natives of earth who dwell in the forests and jungles, have stronger teeth, nails and toe nails that protrude slightly out and are incredibly resistant to breaking. If the Na'Vi are so loving of life, why do they hunt and not live off of the natural plant life??? Even f***ing human vegans would have a problem with this ' eco-friendly- way of living. Why are they flying around on x-wing styles raptor butterflies…. for what reason? They have no enemies to defend against other than humans, as it seems the tribes of the Na'Vi are all peaceful to each other????? If there are entire mountains floating around, powered by the electrical current of the vines connected to them, why then did they not simply cut the vines to one of the massive floating rocks and let it simply fall to mine it??? Why are there not insects of any kind in this movie?…. a human outpost with everyone skin's exposed, yet they are not worried about bacteria, atmosphere exposure nor local insects????
    And thats the SHORT list of errors!
    This movie was a travesty of time, money and waste of time. The budget spent on this crap could have created schools, helped the starving or even been put to the development of technologies to help people. Instead, it was used as a means to lock people into the false idea of 'save the planet from humans' who on this planet are not to blame for the corporate structure surrounding them and destroying their ' mother'. I know many of you love saying this movie is unique, outstanding and the best there is…. but if that were true, why would they have to spend so much time, effort and money in trying to convince you its the closest thing to meeting jesus christ??? Bottom line, it was a college project gone CGI. If anyone has an answer for the questions I put out there, other than ones defending the mainstream nonsense of the herd… I'd love to hear them!

    • Ryan Says:

      Wow, that’s quite the comment. In the future, try to follow the rule of thumb that comments should not be as long as the blog post you’re commenting on unless it’s your own blog.

      In any case, here we go:

      1. He became a marine and then was wounded, becoming a paraplegic.
      2. Just because earth is a mess doesn’t mean the economy has collapsed to the point where money is meaningless.
      3. The excellence of the CGI made it easy for the viewer to become immersed in the world, which was the whole point. The world is what make the movie, the CGI just lets you see it. And no, it could not have been done by college students.
      4. I’m not sure what you would have preferred for a villain. Yeah, he was an archetypal military man set on getting the job done. The wicked scars on his head probably didn’t endear him to the place very much. I don’t think he’s supposed to be “defending” the earth, he’s helping to get valuable resources that are needed to, among other things, power ships to move beyond Earth. And in the process he’s presumably making a decent salary.
      5.
      -The atmosphere, as described in the book linked by sfjcody, is oxygen, CO2 and SO2-rich. So it’s not deadly poison, it just has too much CO2 and SO2 for humans to process. No danger to skin.
      – They didn’t exactly read us the user-manual on the global gaia network. Who ever said that it could be used like a telegraph?
      – Those holes in their chests looked more like nostrils to me. Creatures make noise to communicate, why would these be any different?
      – Not even sure what you’re talking about with the massive structures around the tree of life. Also not clear why using a well-known element of previous stories, folklore, etc. is a bad thing.
      – The “fiber optics” on their heads are presumably beneficial. If a global gaia-like network did exist, then it would seem like the ability to connect to that collective memory might be evolutionarily favored. Hair around the tentacle would make sense for protection.
      – Not sure what you’re talking about with all the questions the gaia-entity had to ask. The other tribes presumably had not interacted with the humans much, since most tribes probably didn’t live on top of ore deposits.
      – The plants were glowing, but Jake killed his night-vision with the torch.
      – We don’t know how common the ore deposits were. Maybe the one under the tree was most of it! Maybe it was cheaper to aim for one big deposit than start hundreds of smaller mines.
      – There isn’t enough info about how the Avatar signal works to know why it wasn’t distorted. Note that radio comms were also not distorted.
      – Are you serious about the mating organs comment? You are aware that most species on earth share the same mating organs, aren’t you? Plus, there’s not evidence that the head-cable is a reproductive organ.
      – The planet likely didn’t respond because it didn’t see the humans as a threat. For an organism the size of a planet, the damage being done was inconsequential. Once the threat was explained, it responded.
      – If you read my blog post you would know that I agree with you about the humanoid Na’vi vs the six-limbed other creatures.
      – Hunting is natural, and the Na’vi clearly evolved as omnivores based on their teeth.
      – Why do the Na’vi fly around? Why do people ride horses or ride in cars or travel in planes?
      – There’s no indication that there is ore in the floating mountains.
      – Yeah, you would expect more insects, but maybe some other creatures fill that niche.

      I’m not really impressed by your list of errors. Most are inconsequential, and others I either already mentioned, or have a simple explanation. Your argument about the budget for this movie is false and you know it: the money was spent in anticipation of making even more money from viewers. Your argument applies to all of entertainment, and sports and music and art and science. Most people would agree that those are things worth paying for because they improve life. You also complain about the message of the movie, but I see nothing wrong with inspiring people to care for the earth.

      You claim again that this is just a college CGI project, so clearly you don’t have a grasp on just how impressive this film was. It represents an astounding technical achievement, and the fact that they make it look easy is all the more impressive.

      Phew. Well, I know you will just say that I and defending the mainstream nonsense of the herd, but I just couldn’t let that much vitriol simmer in my blog without a reply. :)

      • rochrist Says:

        FYI, this clown posted this exact same thing, word for word, on John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever.

        It’s not clear that he’s actually even seen the movie since much of what he’s yelling about doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny.

      • Ryan Says:

        Heh, thanks for the heads-up rochrist. In a way I’m flattered that I got the same spam that Scalzi did.
        Anyway, I decided to answer this rant just so that innocent readers wouldn’t get the wrong impression about the movie, and because it was kinda fun to rebut all his silly questions and claims.

    • Smart dude Says:

      Haha, your first point shows you mega ignorance. The guy in the wheelchair clearly says he *was* a Marine. Anyhow, since you failed in the first comment, I cannot talk anymore on this. I am glad to see your money got wasted if you did go to the movie.. haha

      • Ryan Says:

        Yes. A marine who was wounded and became a paraplegic, as I said.

        Glad to see you’re interested in having an intelligent conversation.

  7. Jean Says:

    Found the film visually aressting but overall it was quite a letdown esp since the narrative was cliche as hell.


  8. I also enjoyed the movie. I really enjoyed the 3D and the fantasic artwork. The creative creatures were great. The only problem I had with it is if I thought about the story with my eyes closed. The story was one that has been told before. That bothered me about one percent because it is a good story. What I did not care for was the comic-bookish overacting by Sigourny Weaver and the Colonel and others. I could just about envision that bad Colonel champing a cigar while bootkicking the door open. If they had toned that stuff down a notch (or much more) I would have enjoyed it. A few odd minor details built up on me too. I was confused about why the USA was mining stuff on Pandora. I later figured out it was supposed to be a generic Earth based mining mission headed by the Marines or something. They all looked like USA guys. I also wondered why Sigourney Weaver’s character was the most educated person and yet she smoked while all the Marines did not. Maybe that was part of the Fantasy! Overall, I would give it 4/5* and 6/5 for the 3D and artwork.

  9. darkdruid99 Says:

    cant wait to see this film.. we plan to watch this wekend.


  10. great site and some nice information

  11. JiNtatsu Says:

    nice.. I like to watch this movie..

  12. jace Says:

    not sure if the na’vi had 4 toes or 5, but they definitely had large spaces between the big toe and next toe (which the avatars did not)


  13. [...] I haven’t seen Avatar yet. Somehow the prospects of watching a human fall in love with a 10 ft blue-skinned “beauty” through his genetically engineered avatar doesn’t appeal to me. This of course isn’t everything about the movie and so I am confident that the other great things about it will motivate me into watching it. Avatar, a James Cameron movie has beat the record of Titanic in revenues, and it has used a variety of hi-tech multimedia effects. They say that the Avatar imagery outshines everything that we’ve ever seen before. [...]

  14. Josh Says:

    bought the movie the first day it came out. i give it 10/10. graphics were so amazing, loved everything about the moon Pandora, fell in love with the Na’vi. lol you were right. when i was done watching the movie, the only thing i was thinking about was me being a avatar and getting my own Ikran and having tsaheylu with the trees and animals. lol i think i got to carried away in this movie, and thats what i like about it. i think it feels good to forget about reality and just imagine for a while, it really makes me feel better. :) great review by the way, couldn’t have done it better. Irayo (thanks in Na’vi lol) yeah i am kinda a nerd with this movie lol and i am proud of it. :) my Na’vi name is Eyäzong. wait what am i doing? lol nvm. good day everyone. :)


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