Avatar Movie Review: What's Wrong With It?
by Rich Deem

Introduction

Avatar DVDNow, before you click on the link to send me an email, understand that I think Avatar is the most amazing movie every made. However good the movie is, it could have been much better. It also contains some decidedly New Age theology, which is divergent from Christianity.

Avatar theology

The theology of Avatar is quite similar to that found in Star Wars. Although the dialog never calls it "the force," it is clear that the magnetic or electrical energy that connects the plants and animals on Pandora is some kind of "force" thing. However, the Na'vi pray to Eywa, a mother earth, Gaia-like goddess - a decidedly New Age kind of theology. The scientific studies performed in the movie suggested that the Na'vi's belief in Eywa was not just some form of superstition, but was actually true, based upon the existence of a real goddess who interacted with and answered the prayers of the Na'vi.

Avatar morality

Although the theology of Avatar is decidedly New Age, the moral message is quite conservative, including monogamous lifetime "marriage" among the Na'vi. In Avatar the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. Yes, the good guys win. There has been much talk about the analogies raised by the movie. Some have said that the Na'vi represent African Americans oppressed by the whites (especially since the humans used the term "blue monkeys" in reference to the Na'vi). However, a much better fit is the oppression of the Native Americans by the U.S. government in the 19th century as they pushed them off their native lands in order make room for white settlers. Yes, the U.S. government was evil in their dealings with the Native Americans. However, Avatar's portrayal of native populations being peaceful and in harmony with their environment perpetuates a myth that is in contrast with what has actually occurred among analogous human populations. Native North and South American tribes were constantly fighting against each other, and there is evidence than numerous populations managed to do enough damage to their environment and each other as to hasten their own demise. In addition, it is very likely that Native Americans wiped out nearly all of the large herbivores (mastodons, ground sloughs, horses, and camels), other than the bison, in their conquest of the Americas. Of course, the Na'vi were aliens, so maybe they don't have the propensity for destruction that humans do. When you are making up a story there is a certain amount of literary license.

The science

Okay, I am a science geek, so I am always noticing really bad science. As usual, most of the science in Avatar remains unexplained or poorly explained. However, the movie presents a very creative depiction of an alien planet and its creatures. To a certain extent, the creators of Avatar have taken sea creatures and turned them into analogous land creatures. There are the delicate floating woodsprite seeds (look like jelly fish), the Hammerhead Titanothere, the seahorse-like appearance of the direhorse, and the sea anemone-like Helicoradian.

Pandora (the planet) is actually a moon orbiting around a fictional gas giant Polyphemus that orbits Alpha Centauri A. The Alpha Centauri system is actually binary (and possibly tertiary) and is the closest star to earth. However, binary stellar systems such as Alpha Centauri are not good candidates for life support, since the Alpha Centauri system consists of two large stars orbiting each other, which would set up resonances that would eject most planets. Alpha Centauri B orbits Alpha Centauri A in a highly elliptical orbit, which would cause serious disruptions to the orbits of planets orbiting Alpha Centauri A as it approached every 80 years. Over its projected 5-6 billion year age, it would be extremely unlikely that planets orbiting Alpha Centauri A would retain their normal orbits. Attempts to locate gas giant planets around Alpha Centauri A have failed, as would be expected. In fact, we know that no planets orbit Alpha Centauri A and probably no planets orbit Alpha Centauri B, with the possible (but unlikely) small planet orbiting extremely close to the star (with surface temperatures in excess of 1200°C). There is also a big problem with habitability of a moon orbiting a gas giant. Such moons tend to become tidally locked, which means that they revolve around the planet with the same period as their rotation. This locking has occurred with our own moon, which is why we see only one side. For our moon, its solar day is 28 earth days long. Such conditions lead to extremes in temperature during the long days and nights The problem is even more severe the larger the planet. Given the images of Polyphemus in the movie, Pandora was very close to its gas giant, insuring tidal locking. This would make Pandora's day exactly equal to its period of revolution. In order to get any kind of day on the order of 24 hours, Pandora would have to be whizzing around Polyphemus at an incredible speed. For example, all four of Jupiter's large moons are tidally locked and the closest, Io, has an orbital period of just 1.7 days, but is so close to Jupiter that the tidal forces raise and lower the moon's surface by hundreds of meters twice a day, causing internal heating and extreme volcanism on the planet. Pandora didn't seem to have these problems, despite its short period of revolution.

The whole purpose of the mining on Pandora was to obtain a mineral called "unobtanium," which was supposed to be a superconductor at room temperature (a scientific dream that will probably never be realized, since the "warmest" superconductor produced by scientists requires a temperature of -183°C). Since all rocky planets form under conditions similar to earth's solar system, it seems unlikely that such a mineral exists anywhere in the universe. If scientists ever do produce such a superconductor, it won't be derived from a naturally occurring mineral.

The floating mountains of Pandora are supposed to be made of unobtanium, which, since it is a superconductor, allows them to be magnetic through the Meissner effect. However, the mountains are also composed of dirt, rock, plants, and water, which would negate the floating effect to a large degree. Since the magnetic properties require superconductor in Pandora's surface, it would require that the surface under the floating mountains would contain a lot of unobtanium. So, why didn't the Resources Development Administration just mine the unobtanium from under the floating mountains, instead of disrupting hometree? Details, details!

The planet's atmosphere is supposed to be toxic to humans, and, so, must be filtered through some really rinky-dink looking masks. Filtering out gases is not a trivial matter, and could not be done using what was depicted as face shield with a knob on the side. Gas masks use either neutralizing chemicals or activated carbon to remove toxic compounds and have a limited life span (usually minutes to hours), since these materials will become saturated over time. The bigger they are, the longer they last. Obviously, the ones depicted in Avatar would not last long, if at all.

The biology is quite interesting and creative, although it, too, is not without problems. Most of the creatures on Pandora are six-legged. Although we have six-legged creatures on earth (insects), their legs extend out from their body at regular intervals so that they can operate independently. The creatures from Pandora have two sets of front legs and one set of back legs. The two sets of front legs are so close to each other than they would provide little help in locomotion and had to be synchronized exactly to avoid hitting each other. Such a configuration would not provide any kind of advantage to the organism.

Some animals (direhorse and banshee) have neural whip connections, by which the Na'vi can control them. However, the connection seems to go only one way. In reality, any such kind of connection would be expected to provide some form of benefit within the species, so it would be expected that the species themselves would use such a connection as a means to communicate between members of the species. Such kinds of interactions could have been depicted within the Na'vi, adding to the novelty of the movie.

The Na'vi are quite humanoid (other than their blue color, tails, and slight features), which is why we are attracted to them. However, some of their biology doesn't fit with their behavior. For instance, their large eyes suggest a nocturnal lifestyle, although they all sleep at night. Their tails are quite long, but don't seem to perform any significant function, other than possible balance. However, most of the time, the tails just trailed behind them, unlike what one would see when watching monkeys. The Na'vi have bioluminescent dots on their face, which seemed to change color randomly, if at all. One would expect such displays to be used for the communication of emotion (most likely). However, the Na'vi communicate emotion in all the same ways that our faces do. I guess it makes it easier for the viewing audience to understand what the characters are feeling, but limits the creative nature of the movie.

Another problem with the movie is the lack of depth of any characters other than Jake's avatar and Neytiri. All the while I was looking for some sort of familial structure within the Na'vi. However, I counted only a couple instances where children even appeared. In addition, there weren't any obviously old people. During the gatherings, there didn't even seem to be any Na'vi couples, which one might expect to see, since couples were supposed to be "mated for life." Avatar could have been so much better had the movie shown more "humanity" in its depiction of the Na'vi.

Conclusion Top of page

Avatar is an amazing movie that could have been much better had the producers chosen to run more with the creative aspects of the movie instead of shooting such long battle sequences (aimed at us guys). Obviously, there will be a sequel in which the Resources Development Administration returns to conquer (and enslave?) the Na'vi to continue its mining of Pandora. Hopefully, it will be even better than the original.

Avatar DVD


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Last Modified January 11, 2010

 

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