Saturday, January 23, 2010


I'm a bit late to this party, but I finally got around to seeing Avatar. I saw it in a regular theater in 3D. Maybe it's because I went into it with lowered expectations because of all the negative nitpicking I've seen over the past couple of weeks. Maybe it's because I never saw Fern Gully or Pocahontas, just Dances With Wolves. Maybe it was because it was a movie with good pacing, decent acting, a decent story, good implementation of 3D effects, and the most incredible special effects ever before seen on the screen. Whatever the reason, I liked it. I liked it a lot.

I have to question whether the people nitpicking it to death haven't lost their sense of wonder. Yeah, the story has been done before, but it's a pretty good story. Shakespeare has been done before, but no one complains when a new movie based on King Lear comes out. They usually use it as a selling point! Yeah, "unobtainium" sounds like a silly name, but it's also a term actually used in scientific circles, and it's actually quite believable that it could find itself attached as the common term for some rare element that suddenly becomes practical to commercially harvest. Yeah, the efficacy of Na'vi arrows seems to have improved dramatically just in time for the final battle, but there are reasonable explanations for that as well (I'll discuss them more later).

The fact is that this movie is a big deal. Years from now some people will look back and go "meh, not a big deal." Today many look back at Star Wars and go "meh, not a big deal." This movie is likely the first Star Wars of the 21st Century. Cutting edge special effects married to a story that can be either cut apart or examined deeply depending on your personal take, but which on its surface simply offers up an entertaining film in a new way.

Maybe I'll think differently when I've had more time to reflect on the movie, but that's my opinion now, and I don't think it will change too much over time.

Now, for some of the nitpicks. First, the arrows. We see the arrows sticking out of tires, obviously ineffective, in an early scene. At this point the Na'vi aren't really trying. They're probably not doing much more than the equivalent of counting coup when they shoot at the construction vehicles. The humans are annoying, but not a real danger to them.

More important is the ineffectiveness when used defending the home tree, later in the movie. The thing is, the only arrows we see used in that scene are being fired from the ground at a flying target. I'm not an expert at physics, but I know that firing an arrow at a higher target causes that arrow to be less effective, and this would be true even on a lower gravity world, especially since it doesn't appear to be that much lower a gravity than Earth.

In the final battle the arrows are being fired at the same flying vehicles with much greater effect. The difference is that they are now being fired down at those vehicles, and from the backs of creatures that already appear to be doing 35 or 40 miles per hour. Those arrows are going to have a lot more punch. I don't know, but I suspect that at one time there was a scene written where this was explained, but that it was cut for time.

Another nitpick is the concept that "the Na'vi are toast when the humans return." The problem with this assumption is that Pandora appears to be self aware. It has the memories of a human scientist and therefore not just her scientific knowledge, but more importantly a real insight into how humans are likely to react. It probably has access to the base's database, as it doesn't look like the base personnel were given an opportunity to demolish things before they left. Finally, it has 10 years to prepare.

If the humans can achieve their goals by nuking the planet to a lifeless ball from orbit, then they can probably win. If they think they're going to stage a hostile landing, then I think they'll be unpleasantly surprised.

Of course all these are issues brought up by people who are fans of science fiction, or otherwise of a nerdish inclination. There's also a huge amount of criticism from people finding fault with the alleged politics and religious views to be found in the film. I'm not going to go into detail about these types of criticism, or attempt to refute them. I am going to say that their very existence is proof that this is good science fiction: it's challenging people's beliefs and making them think, even if only about how to condemn it.

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