The Problems with Avatar
by Ryan Crierie

Version 1.0 (26 April 2011)

A while ago, I saw Avatar on Blu-Ray for the first time.

Back when it was in the theaters, I wanted to see it, but couldn't due to the vagaries of theater captioning.

People just dropping by may not know that I was born deaf – I received a cochlear implant as a child, but since I received mine in the 1980s, when it was all still new, I got it at a fairly “old” age, compared to what they are doing now.

As such, while the implant is a very big help – I still need to see people's faces, meaning I can't use the telephone and I am reliant on subtitling/captioning.

Rear Windowed or Open Captioned theaters generally show a movie for only a few days or at best a week, and then they move to a different movie for that theater – and generally the movies they show are not what I want to watch.

Warning!!!

Heavy Spoilers Ahead!
You have been warned!

Warning!!!

Overall

Avatar is a very excellent eye-candy movie. It certainly would look even better in IMAX or on the big screen; and it's certain to find many a home in people's blu ray libraries, plus whatever replaces blu ray -- so that people can show off their new sound system or their new big screen television.

People might bring it out every couple of years when they want some brainless fun; but it won't become a classic like Cameron's Terminator 1/2, Aliens, or The Abyss.

Part of the problem is it has many of the tired leaden themes that began to ruin Star Trek beginning in the Next Generation Era as it tried to stay hip and relevant to whatever was perceived to be the hot social issues of the day.

Remember when they had that episode about warp drives damaging the fabric of space?

Sure, it happened; then went away, and nobody ever mentioned it again.

Avatar's like that episode. It tries to hit just about every issue it can think of in a scattershot fashion; and just doesn't score very well on any of them as a result.

If Cameron had tried to stick to a single theme or two, and inserted a lot more shades of gray into the universe; it would have been a lot better.

Everything in this movie is black and white, and generally on the scale of a black hole and a supernova.

The humans are set into caricatures of themselves -- the gruff military man who hates scientists -- the scientist who hates military men -- and the corporate exec who just wants to get this problem done with so that the stock price goes up.

Oh sure, there is a slight crossover character or two -- like the brave helicopter pilot who isn't all military; but for the most part, all the humans stay into these three themes.

Meanwhile, the Na'vai are pretty much every caricature about Native Americans tossed into a blender with some good old fashioned Gaia mysticism thrown in to sweeten the pot to make it more 'relevant' to modern people/issues.

They all adhere to the same system -- there are no outcasts who don't care about the cycle of life and stare at the stars instead, for one....

Finally, many of the characters really are not that well developed. I can't even remember the name of Sigourney Weaver's character, so I just called her Doctor Ripley.

Weaver really detracted from the film as I could not help but keep thinking of her as Ellen Ripley. Why Cameron gave her such a major part in the film is kind of strange, given that he considered giving Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese / Dwayne Hicks) a role in Avatar, but rejected it as he felt that would break the audience's suspension of disbelief.

Finally, it's worth noting that Jake Sully didn't give one lick about the Na'vi, the Great Tree™, or the effects of RDA's mining operations until he was doing the nasty nasty with the Beautiful Alien Princess™; so he's not a very sympathetic character overall.

The First Act

It was an excellent first thirty minutes; with zero gravity fun, spaceships moving through space towards a gas giant's moon.

Semi-realistic space to surface shuttles and careful attention being paid to the equipment used by the humans, with a lot of little details such as:

The three way tension between the military, scientists, and corporation was nice; because at that point it was still the normal tensions between the kind of Type A (shoot it! shoot it!) personalities and the Type B (look, maybe if we do nothing it will go away) personalities that would be attracted to either discipline.

Nobody had started to take massive stupid pills...yet.

Unfortunately, this was the best part of the movie; and ended with the initial contact between Jake in his Avatar form and the Na'vi.

James Cameron's Problems with Second Acts

This has become a problem with James Cameron over the last couple of decades:

He puts together a strong first act that builds up the world, makes you believe that it actually exists...and then once that is done, loses interest and sort of slaps together something for the next couple of acts irregardless of whether it makes sense or not.

Aliens

This worked -- sorta because the Colonial Marines did not believe Ripley's story about giant beasties that spit acid and thought it was just another bug hunt. By the time they realized this was not the case; things had gone really south in a bad way.
Still though, the last half of the film would have been substantially improved if the USCMC had simply kept one person onboard the ship -- and when the Marines missed their regular scheduled call in, zoomed in on Hadley's Hope with the Sulaco's sensors, found the smoldering wreckage of both the APC and the Drop ship, and prepared a rescue mission.
You could still have tension and strand our intrepid heroes in Hadley's Hope for the remainder of the movie -- because it would just be a single guy on the Sulaco preparing the drop ship for launch -- he has to fuel it up, arm it, and run the system checks all by himself; rather than having ten other people doing different tasks at the same time.
"Look, I can get down there in six hours, minimum. Five if I skip some safety checks."
"We don't have five hours. The atmo processor is going to blow in five hours."
"...I'll see what I can do."

The Abyss (More detailed analysis HERE)

The opening five minutes was a bit dodgy -- why would a US ballistic missile submarine chase an unknown bogey into a underwater canyon or mountain range?
But I'm willing to accept initial dumbness to set up the stage for the story, but can anyone tell me why Deep Core had to rely on the Mini Submarine equipped with a grappling arm to detach and attach the umbilical?
That's a single point of failure; and you don't want those when you're operating at those kinds of depths. Any sensibly designed Deep Core would have had an emergency explosive bolt release system for the umbilical -- because the engineers would insist on it for safety reasons.
Being cut off from the surface world would still allow you to maintain tension, especially if you make it so that they can't send down another umbilical until the sea state topside calms enough...and that might not happen for a while.
You could even have them delay firing the explosive bolts on the umbilical, because doing so means they have to ship in a whole new umbilical head, which costs $$$, so there's a strong incentive not to fire the bolts until it's absolutely necessary, allowing Deep Core to be dragged a short distance and cause some critical damage before the umbilical is released.

The Problems with Avatar's Second Act

Let's go through this by the numbers:

1.) We know that this unobtanium is valuable enough to justify this relatively massive infrastructure investment in Alpha Centauri -- which is not cheap, because Cameron did not use any unobtanium FTL drives; but rather stuff that would feasibly work -- which takes five years to go from Earth to Alpha Centauri.

From the ground scans, we know that Pandora is full of the stuff.

So why is it so critically damned important that we need that deposit under the tree?

I know it's the biggest deposit within 200 kilometers -- but this is a very high return to investment material; so you can still make megabucks from the low deposit sites, before you need to mine the big deposits.

Even if we need to mine the deposit; do we even HAVE to destroy the Great Tree?

Simply dig a pit down several hundred feet, and then proceed to horizontally drill a mine shaft towards the deposit under the tree? You wouldn't be able to recover all the Unobtanium, due to the fact that you don't want the tree to collapse into your mine and cause a huge crater; but you'd be able to recover significant amounts.

2.) They could have enlisted the help of the Na'vi themselves in their mining operations -- there should be significant crossplay between the two species; instead of "the humans stay in their mechanical colony, while the Na'vi stay in their living trees".

Not everyone in the tribes is going to be all "lets commute with the earth and nature"; there will be outcasts who instead of studying the intricate byplay of nature, actually instead look to the skies and study the orbital mechanics of their gas giant, it's moons, and the other stars in their constellation. Just about every ancient culture used the heavens, and a particular tribe of American Indians used the heavens as a vision test – braves would be asked to find a specific star, one that can only be seen if you have 20/20 vision or better.

There could be Na'vi who instead of sticking to the tried and true stone arrowheads of generations bygone, are interested in metal arrowheads; since they can penetrate deeper into some of the nasty beasties that live on Pandora.

And of course they'd be outcasts, because instead of finding a piece of stone on the ground -- a gift from the planet -- they have to find bits of metal and then prepare it; either by digging up the metal, or then heating it up so that you can beat it into shape. And wouldn't fires be a no-no in Na'vi society if they live in big, highly flammable trees?

But no, every Na'vi is a space AmerInd Hippie out of Central Casting. Speaking of that, why are all the tribes on that continent generally friendly with each other and share the same basic language and cultural legends? In the U.S., there was certainly no love lost between certain tribes.

3.) Further into #2; why is there no cultural cross play? The legends of Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Roland, Robin Hood, etc would be great interplays -- imagine Jake sitting down in the great tree and beginning to tell the tale of Robin Hood (it doesn't have to be super accurate -- everyone knows the basics of the story -- Sherwood Forest, Sheriff of Nottingham, King John, Maid Marian -- that even if they don't have an accurate recall; they can still construct a heroic epic on the fly.)

Or even the story of John Henry, the great steel drivin' man of lore, which would resonate with the Na'vi; being a contest between a man and a machine.

4.) Why does everything glow in the dark? Even the Na'vi themselves glow in the dark (those spots)

On Earth, you only see bio-luminescence in things which operate in the dark or at night -- and Pandora isn't that dark.

I can understand there being a valley that is shrouded in darkness 95% of the time, which is isolated from the rest of Pandora and is only reachable via flying lizard. There, you can have everything being bio-luminescent.

But everything on the planet?

5.) There were so many sequences in the movie that you knew what was going to happen -- Cameron literally telegraphed them with giant glowing neon signs:

Best example is the talk about that Na'vi who united all the clans by managing to fly that super deadly lizard? Oh, certainly, that will not show up later.

The part where Doctor Ripley talks about how many electrical connections they've mapped in the planetary network; and then brings up how many neurons are in the human brain? That will not show up later!

6.) How does Jake somehow manage to learn archery, animal riding, animal husbandry, the language, in a couple months and do it sufficiently well enough to pass an initiation rite -- when it takes the Na'vi themselves a childhood of growing up to learn all this?

He should have done something sufficiently important enough or impressive to the Na'vi that they decided:

"Okay, we'll skip the requirement for animal riding, archery, etc in light of you doing something that has never been done before....but...you will still need to do the final rite of passage."

This impressive thing he does could be him taking in one of those dog analogues that attacked him the first night on Pandora in the wild. It could turn out that they're considered bad by the Na'vi because either:

A.) They're scavengers, and steal kills from bigger animals.
B.) They don't have those universal neural bus ports, and aren't trusted by the Na'vi because how can you trust something that you can't mind-link with?

The Second Act generally ends after Jake has been initiated into the tribe, done the nasty nasty; and the Corporation has decided to burn out the tree.

Which is a really sad thing, storywise.

We already knew that the Na'vi were doing a guerrilla war against the company (witness the haulers that drive in with arrows in their tires in the opening cinematic sequence), so why wasn't that developed further with more gray, instead of it being all black and white over the Great Tree?

The conflict could have been over a series of valleys that are important to the Na'vi, but sit astride a major logistics route from the open-pit mine to the main human base.

The Nav'i want the great yellow vehicles to stop driving down that route and scaring the animals in that valley, as it could be where Na'vi warriors are sent as part of their tribal initiation rites.

Meanwhile the Corporation is getting increasingly tired of having to repair the haulbot trucks (while the Na'vi can't destroy them, they can still ruin the sensor optics, which cost $$$).

The Problems with the Third Act (or how to give me an aneurysm)

Doctor Ripley never should have died, to be honest.

Sully is an ex-Marine, so he should know combat trauma related first-aid – e.g. how to dig the round out, clean the wound, get her hooked up to fluids, and staunch the bleeding so her chances of survival are greatly improved.

Sure, her chances of survival aren't as assured as they would be if she was in a proper hospital, but she would have had a much better chance of survival than the course of action they took.

That entire sequence with the badly wounded Dr. Ripley and the Great Node™ was just to set up Chekhov's gun for the ending.

But what really caused my blood pressure to spike as I was watching the movie, was the way things went down for the climax.

The Mercenaries handled the initial assault on the Great Tree pretty well, to be honest. They hung well back from any possible enemy counter-fire and used long range semi-direct fire against their opponents until victory was assured, upon which they withdrew in good order.

The problems I had came from the final attack™ on the Great Node™.

Quaritch after executing a pretty well done attack earlier, suddenly began taking stupid pills:

Infantrywise, he sent in his men with no support other than AMP-suited personnel carrying heavier weaponry, and their tactics consisted of “walk in a literal line towards enemy”. There was no sign of any indirect fire support of any type. A few 82mm mortars could have turned the tide on the ground.

That was a little excusable from a film-maker's point of view, since Hollywood very much does not care very much about actual tactics; just a lot of people standing around and huge explosions to make a battle scene.

However, the one thing that stood out and made my blood pressure start to spike was the way that Quaritch took a high speed, high altitude transport (the SSTO cargo shuttle) and had it slowly crawl towards the Great Node™ at about 10 m/sec (22~ MPH). All this was so that apparently he could place sandbagged gun nests on the wing surface of the SSTO transport!!!

One explanation I've heard for this “tactic”, was that the Company/Mercenaries weren't sure of the precise location of the Great Node™, and that guided weapons wouldn't work near the Great Node™ due to electromagnetic disruption from the “Flux Vortex”.

However, when you look back, that explanation falls flat on it's face.

When Jake was taken for his first flight on one of the dragonoid creatures, Quaritch and Company were watching the video feed of what Jake was “seeing” through his Avatar's eyes back at HQ, and they clearly saw the location of the Great Node™ and the video's quality was not what you would expect from an area suffering from severe electromagnetic distortions – remember that the transmitter for the Avatar has to be small enough and low power enough to fit into a Na'vi skull – and thus more susceptible to E-M disruptions than hardened military-grade systems in an aerospacecraft.

So why did they need to do that horribly inefficient “daisy cutter” lashup as shown in the film when they could have used the missiles that they used to smash down the Great Tree™ earlier?

They could have flown an attack profile of about 250 MPH at 25,000 feet, which isn't particularly fast or high – it's roughly the same speed and altitudes that the USAAF used for Daylight bombing in WWII.

This is slow and low enough to actually aim with unguided weapons well enough given digital electronics, yet fast enough to outrun the Na'vi or anything else the planet can throw at them – the fastest bird on Earth can only hit 200~ MPH in a dive – while high flying enough to avoid most everything. The highest flying birds on Earth generally top out at 20,000 feet with one or two exceptions.

It's kind of hard to throw a spear at glass canopies if you're short of breath and freezing – the outside air temperature at 25,000 feet is is -30F (or -34C) on Earth.

In Closing...The Concept of the Avatar

The entire concept of the Avatar seems to be very morally, ethically, and religiously dubious.

Creating something like that would have a fairly high failure rate.

What do you do with all the failed Avatars?

Do you flush them down the toilet or pureee them in a blender for more organic material for Avatar #221?

What do you do with the Avatars once you're done with them?

We know the Avatars have brains...we know that there is some sort of brain to brain linkage that works between the human brain and the Avatar brain -- as shown on screen.

So why isn't there an imprinting of the person's neural network onto the Avatar after the person has been using it heavily?

Jake had been using the Avatar continuously with only interruptions during the body's sleep cycle for months by the end of the movie. So why didn't his brain patterns get imprinted on the Avatar?

Why didn't the Avatar just wake up on it's own and walk around thinking that yes, it is Jake Sully?

Unless of course, the de-linking procedure, both Emergency and Normal, wipe the brain after each use....in which essence, you kill yourself each time you jump into the Avatar body.

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