Saturday, December 26, 2009

SF Geekery re: yesterday's movie.

The thing that was most jarring to me about Avatar is something that will probably stand out like a sore thumb to any other SF geek: The aliens themselves.

Look around our planet. Notice something about all the big critters, the vertebrates, with which we share it? Kind of a backbone thingy with a noggin at one end and four limbs of some sort? Sensory and intake openings on the noggin thingy end and a poop chute at the other? Notice how we don't have any six-legged lions with nostrils on their back and four eyes in their butt?

Now go look at all the big critters in Avatar: They're all hexapedal, or six-limbed. They tend to multiple visual organs. Their breathing orifices, separate from their mouths, are located low and forward in their torsos...

Not the alien people, the Na'Vi, however. They're just big blue humans with tails and slightly feline features. Further, given the extremely alien biology, we don't know how most of the other creatures reproduce: We know that the flying thingies lay eggs, since we see their rookery, but everything else may use budding or something equally exotic, for all we know. The Na'Vi, on the other hand, are rather clearly and emphatically... er... mammalian. And coincidentally have roughly the same modesty taboos you'd find on any beach in America.

This is xenology a la Roddenberry as expanded by Straczynski, wherein the universe is populated by humans who talk funny and can be differentiated from each other by the oddly-shaped bumps on their noggins or the way they pluck their eyebrows. Why the mercenaries of Western ExploiterCo Inc. LLC had to send an infiltrator to learn the aliens' ways and culture was beyond me; their ways and culture seemed less exotic to this whitebread suburban American than, say, the customs of the modern Saudis or Japanese. Egalitarian, monogamous, recyclers who love Gaia... how alien is that? These people work at my local organic grocer's. I've met more foreign subcultures in midtown Atlanta.

Too much thought went into the xenology here to leave this thread untied. Cameron's threatening a sequel. I'm hoping there's an explanation.


Stranger said...

The scenery and the alien critters are the product of the prop and set designers. The "aliens" are the product of the writers and producers; who presently show all of the imagination and the talent - of a brick.

Even the very first stf, or SF if you prefer, writers showed more imagination. Raymond Z. Gallun was rightly criticized because his characters were wooden and his plots were repetitive. But at least he had imagination.


Noah D said...

From the clips and stills I've seen, it's like they stole Wayne Barlowe's sketchbooks, but still had to have someone for the main character to, ah, bond with.

Not that I mind blue catgirls, but that's a...different level of scifi...

Ancient Woodsman said...

Could it be the blue humanoids are simply the offspring of that 'relationship' between Kirk & the green chick?

Might explain a lot...given the planet/moon is populated by vertebrates of a whole 'nother body structure & features, maybe the humanoid population is alien itself to the area, being dropped off by a disgruntled Kirk after he knocked up the green chick but then found out she was romancing a red-shirt on the side. Given that generation of ST wasn't too strict with the whole 'prime directive' thingy, Kirk populating a planetoid isn't all that far-fetched...and would lead to many, many sequels plus blue-humanoid follow-ons for the travel commercials Kirk does now.

As far as the eco-loving side of the 'movie', I think it is just a result of the "earth first: we'll log the other planets later" side of me that fails to find sympathy with pandering social-engineering hollywood types who wouldn't know the real world if it landed on them.

Unknown said...

I recall that the Cameron wanted to go deeper into this subject and others, but had to cut his movie to Imax runtime. The original Avatar scriptment ( deals with seemingly unxeplained stuff like the floating rocks - they're partly Unobtanium, which is a levitating room-temperature semi-conductor, hence its desirability on Earth, and the rocks are drawn to the planet Pandora(itself a moon) orbits, Polyphemis, has a super-magnetosphere, etc, etc.

One of the remaining ways in which he visually addressed the arm issue was by showing the blue "gibbons" , which look to have a common ancestry with the Na'vi, or at least we're meant to draw the ape parralel. The gibbons are undergoing limb fusion - their forward two arms are merging together into one set. The Na'Vi, through whatever magic of advanced evolution, have already trimmed down to two arms, but Cameron was apparently hot to delve more into the evolutionary biology of Pandora. The deep sea documentarian in him drove the desire, I believe.

I would love to see his movie at it's fully envisioned length, un-strictured by the size of Imax film reels, because as much as I loved the movie, I would have appreciated a bit more of the explaining to have been included.

Joseph said...

I for one am glad he had to cut the length of this movie down, if it were any longer I'd have left with facial hair resembling ZZ Top.

The movie is a visual stunner. Too bad it's ripe with hypocrisy. Imagine sending an Earth-first, technology & greed bad message by using the most advanced technology available and spending $300 million.

Borepatch said...

If you're going to do the aliens via CGI, why not a Pearson's Puppeteer?

But biology is the easy part. John Campbell's challenge still stands: "Show me an alien who thinks as well as a man, but not like a man."

Tam said...

I'm also surprised that nobody else I've read so far has called the movie out for how racist it is.

I mean, a whole planet full of viceless Magic Negroes? Really, James? And they were helpless until the white guy showed up to save them from the other white guys.

John Stephens said...

The second most cutting thing anyone ever said to me was by someone who actually knew Roddenberry and Co. I was offering my take on some of the inconsistencies, and he looked at me, shook his head and said, "Kid, you think too much. You just spent more time on that one episode that Gene ever did on the whole damn show. And you didn't get paid a dime for it."

Tam said...

John Stephens,

Hey, I never claimed to be anybody's target demographic. ;)

Drang said...

In fairness to Rodennberry, JMS, et. al., their aliens were created when CGI was still pretty darned expensive for TV, if it was available at all. (Not being enough of a Trekkie to care whether the animated series was "canon" or not, note some of the BEMs who showed up there.)(Including, IIRC, one who was named Bem!)

Note that Lucas didn't populate the Star Wars Universe with really alien aliens until he had so much money he could do anything he wanted, no matter how poor a movie it made...

CGI was getting more affordable by the time JMS made B5, but he was working under production constraints that Roddenberry would have been all to familiar with.

WV: scrae. Scots dialect for "scry"?

TJP said...

Yeah, but we needed unobtainium to reboot the Earth's core, so there's a good reason for raping some other planet.

Thanks for the warning. There's another one I'd pass up even if it was in WalMart's unsorted bargain bin.

Good grief, Hollywood, hang it up.

Robert Langham said...

Remember how the Aliens shifted slightly through the series? I think they finally morphed into the Na'vi.

Anonymous said...

"Cameron's threatening a sequel" to Avatar?

Given the ending, the only possible "sequel" after the Na'vi kicked the humans off their planet would be a "Nuke the site from orbit; it's the only way to be sure" response.

Which would be a really short movie...even if you included a brief shot of the strip mining commencing once the rad levels dropped back to background after a couple of years...

...No, I haven't seen "Avatar," and I don't intend to. I don't care how cool it looks; I've had a bellyful of being preached at by Hollywood hypocrites.

--Wes S.

Joseph said...

There's an obvious explanation: Greenpeace refugees went to a previously uninhabited planet and genetically engineered their descendants to look like Hollywood extraterrestrials.

Joanna said...

Is anyone else cracking up that the "white Western Civ is bad" movie is being cross-promoted with McDonalds?

Haven't seen it; won't waste my time. If I want to see awesome CGI, I'll watch LotR. I get the feeling Avatar will suffer the same fate as the Star Wars prequels: Much more enjoyable watched on the Chinese language function, so the stupid doesn't get into your brain.

Ancient Woodsman said...

Remember: One Gene Roddenberry early pitch for ST was something akin to "Wagon Train (a then popular western) to the stars". Marketing, baby. It doesn't have to be real or realistic, just sell. And right now, anti-capitalist-caucasian-male is selling like hotcakes.

Won't be long before Phil Donahue himself is crying on Dr. Phil's shoulder on an episode of Oprah about how druel "we" were to displace moon rocks by bringing them back to earth in '69. And THAT will sell, too.

As far as Tam's racism issue, it is certainly valid. However, some fringe darker-than-me racists brought that issue up about "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "The Geen Mile" and the so-called mythical black savior, and that didn't go too far, either. Al & Jesse & Co. won't be fuming about Avatar, and would not ever unless it was directed by John Milius or any other non-black, non-socialist, non-PC white guy...for they won't fume & spout UNLESS IT SELLS.

og said...

Based on Star Trek you just need a wrinkly wierd forehead and you're a totall new species. I swear some of them just looked like they had old box turtle shells glued on their foreheads, and the only thing that kept me from strapping a live turtle to my noggin and attending a trek convention as a joke,was the likelihood of the turtle crapping on my nose. Didn't want to go through THAT again.

Anonymous said...

I saw it today, and really, didn't think it was all that preachy.

Unfortunately, it wasn't all that good either. (It's bad when I'm checking my watch every 20 minutes to see how much longer it the movie is....)

I've heard it reported that he wrote the script fifteen years ago - I'm thinking that was a misprint - he probably wrote it when he was fifteen - which would explain a lot - it's full of stuff that a fifteen year old would original and revolutionary, because he hasn't be around long enough to realize it is old, hackneyed,and cliche.

Cameron should stick with developing technology, and leave scriptwriting to someone who still understands it.

(Though I will admit, he remake of the Battle of Endor didn't let you see the zippers on the Ewoks,, err..Navi.)


rickn8or said...

Tam beat me to it, but yeah, you'll notice it was middle-aged white guys were the vill-yuns.

Strings said...

Just saw it tonight. I'll do a full post over at my place, but some quick thoughts:

- Forget all the other biology questions: how and why did the fauna of Pandora evolve the lil' interface jack in their ponytails?

- Why does EVERY "we'll fight" speech now sound like Mel Gibson in Braveheart?

- I'm not a lumberjack, but don't trees normally fall towards the side that has been cut on?

Noah D said...

how and why did the fauna of Pandora evolve the lil' interface jack in their ponytails?

What makes you think the fauna (and flora) of Pandora is random-chance evolved? :)

WV: 'buriens' - 'Buriens' somewhere in Avatar is an excellent movie.

Blast Hardcheese said...

I saw a little 'featurette' online, done as a Discovery-channel type travelogue of the planet. They mentioned the six-legs feature of all of the fauna, but didn't comment on the (obvious) lack of two limbs on the Naboo, er, Navi.

I foolishly thought that would turn out to be a major plot point, something along the lines of "the Navi aren't native to Pandora, and they're living like savages to hide from something!" I was hoping for a third-act sucker punch where, after setting up the Dances w/ Wolves storyline, Cameron throws up a truly evil third party that the Navi and humans have to band together and fight.

But that would have been too interesting, I guess.

Tam said...

Yeah, that's the current theory here at Roseholme Cottage: The Na'Vi are the genetically-engineered descendants of a star-faring race who showed up for the unobtainium and wound up going native.

Blast Hardcheese said...

The more I think about it, the more angry I get at this dreck being passed off as SF. Even the positive reviews I've read have been along the lines of "yeah, the story's hackneyed and derivative, but man the visuals are spectacular! There's so much going on in every frame!"

So, $500 million in the pot and they couldn't cough up enough for a couple-three script rewrites before starting the shooting? Why not make a movie that works on all levels? To me, it's the same attitude as the latest Star Wars movies - "don't bother with tightening up the story, just throw crap up on the screen and they'll eat it up."

I take some solace in the fact that, in the second week, this POS almost got beat at the box office by cartoon chipmunks.


Tam said...

What pains me is that the story is not worthy of the rest of the movie.

The technologies feel real. The xenology of the planet shows thought (except for the aliens). The effects redefine "stunning". And all this got wasted on such a hackneyed tale.

Mark said...

Also, the counter-rotating ducted fans on the Nouveau Hueys were pretty redundant. Seems like a field-maintainance nightmare to me.

That said, I've taken a huge amount of heart from this movie. Everything old is new again in the Sci-Fi Realm, and generally speaking whenever Cameron punts one out of the door, there's a good five years where the good sci-fi makes sifting through the crap worthwhile.

OK, so there's going to be a thick runnel of badly-thought-out underfunded and understaffed Apalling 3D, but that's the price of doing business. Gonna be an SF Cherry-Picker's dream this next few years.

Jeff the Baptist said...

"CGI was getting more affordable by the time JMS made B5, but he was working under production constraints that Roddenberry would have been all to familiar with."

Exactly. B5 tried to throw in some non-latex aliens. There were sections of B5 for people that couldn't breathe earth-standard atmospheres. He had that praying mantis alien that looked like a bad muppet. I think he realized he just didn't have the money to do it right.

benEzra said...

Geez, tough crowd! :)

Just got back from seeing it in digital 3D from the third row. Loved it. Projector glitched for a few minutes halfway through, so the theater gave me a free ticket to see it again. Yeah!

Are there plot holes? Sure! Star Wars and Serenity had them too, and both were still worth seeing. I didn't see Avatar as particularly preachy, and IMO its showing of the dark side of Manifest-Destiny-types' treatment of the Native American tribes much more strongly than it hits the environmental message. (Didn't anybody else notice the Na'vi look sort of Native American? So THAT's where those crop circles came from...)

I will be very surprised if this doesn't walk away with an Oscar for Best Picture. Best Visual effects, of course, is a shoe-in.

genedunn said...

I'm more concerned about why everything on the frackin' planet evolved bio-luminescence... despite the difficulty hiding from predators when you glow like a nightlight.

Fenris said...

It's been interesting but it seems like the current fad with alien biology is to give it six limbs. David Webber and John Ringo in particular.

Speaking of, if anyone was trustworthy enough to do it, the Legacy of the Aldenata series could make for an interesting challenge. I think the CGI is up to it now. (I want my SheVa Gun.)

Cybrludite said...

Fenris, the hexipedial fad still beats giving your alients two less fingers than us humans just because your calculator has a handy Base 8 function... (Larry Niven et al, call your office. ;-D )

Silver the Evil Chao said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Silver the Evil Chao said...

My comments on this movie:

1.) The helicopters were so obviously ripped off of Ghost in the Shell's planes. C'mon, it can't be a coincidence, I literally blurted out "Ghost in the Shell!!" when I first saw them!

2.) Can we finally have a race of "good guy" aliens that are not modified humans? Enough with the humanoid stuff, I want kickass giant bugs! Or giant bipedal reptile dinosaur things that look scary and have big teeth. The planet had such cool animals, I found myself kinda wishing that the aliens looked...well, alien, instead of blue humans with tails. Would add a whooole new dimension to the "humans hate primitive tree-hugger aliens" thing, because they'd look fucking terrifying, and much harder to do business with simply because of the currently existing preconception in mainstream culture that non-human or non-cute = bad guy.

3.) It would've been awesome if the "tree of souls" (and everything related to it) had been explained as a sentient, giant-ass parasitic plant that controlled all of the plant life and, to an extent, the animals and even the resident Na'vi themselves - and said giant-ass plant would see said animals and alien race as a mere "defense system" it uses to protect itself. Would explain all of the worshiping the Na'vi do for the huge-ass tree. Of course, this didn't happen RAAARGH.

4.) The entire time, I was like "dude, this is genocide, where's the UN or something when you need them?". I thought the final battle's save would've been the United Federation of Planets or something swooping in in THEIR spaceships to kick some ass - maybe the scientist guy or even the corporate shill guy could've called them in (and the movie could've alluded to it at several points in the movie).

5.) Say what you will about him, but I found part of myself rooting for Colonel Badass during the second half of the movie, because he's badass. He jumps into a mech on an exploding airship while being ON FIRE, jumps OUT of said exploding airship, and then starts kicking ass left and right to the point that he needed two characters to take him down. Oh, and his robot has a FUCKING PROG KNIFE.

6.) I thought the "message" of the movie wasn't "save the trees" as much as "don't take what isn't yours". The Na'vi seemed less offended at the fact that they were killing trees than they were at the fact that they were killing trees sacred to them, a kind of blasphemy, if you will. And then the guys go and blow the shit out of their home, too - again, less "OH NOES THEY KILLED A TREE" and more "oh shit, they killed the tree that we've lived in for generations and have based large parts of our society around!!!".

7.) Despite #6, however, I still wish Cameron took more opportunity to differentiate the Na'vi from the stereotypical "Gaia worshipper and/or tree hugger 'savage' culture" mold.

All in all, I actually did enjoy the movie, especially the absolutely excellent special effects, but in hindsight, there was a lot of wasted potential, in part, IMO, due to constraints on the length and in part due to the lack of fleshing-out of characters (we still don't know why Colonel Badass wants to kill the Na'vi so much, for instance).

Tam said...

"(we still don't know why Colonel Badass wants to kill the Na'vi so much, for instance)"

Well, duh, because that's what white capitalist army males DO! ;)

Like you, I was a little disappointed in the fact that the Bad Humans were barely two-dimensional cutouts in an otherwise 3D movie.