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The Science of Avatar 275

Jamie noted a bit on The Science of Avatar running on Ain't it Cool, written by a professor of astrophysics who has worked on searching for planets and SETI. I believe I might be the last person on earth who hasn't seen it; here's hoping I can find 3 free hours over the holidays.
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The Science of Avatar

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  • by flowerp ( 512865 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @10:47AM (#30543800)

    First, Pandora does have an oxygen atmosphere, or how else could you explain the burning torch that Jake Sully lights up in self-defense against the wulf-like creatures at night?

    Second, the floating mountains are explained by assuming that the rock is made up of superconducting material ("Unobtainium") and that the flux they keep talking about is actually a strong magnetic field. Superconductors tend to hover in magnetic fields, you know.

  • by plover ( 150551 ) * on Thursday December 24, 2009 @10:57AM (#30543896) Homepage Journal

    Read further down the article. He acknowledges that people have already corrected him on these points, leaving him further impressed with the movie.

  • by slimjim8094 ( 941042 ) <> on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:02AM (#30543942)

    Unobtanium was silly - the entire theater laughed out loud on that one. I look at it as Cameron respecting the viewer's intelligence. This is a story about people, and the conflict between races, etc. The reason humans are there isn't important - just that they aren't leaving unless forced. I think Unobtanium - that is, something so obviously ridiculous - is Cameron's way of saying "yes, I know it's a silly premise but let's move on". Like "dilithium"

    Would you have preferred some elaborate BS? Because I'm sure they thought of it and chose this instead.

  • by sackvillian ( 1476885 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:05AM (#30543966)

    Agreed, and he said this:

    I do have one minor complaint, that given their networking abilities, the Na’vi should not be so technologically inferior to the humans.

    That ignores the reason humans first started developing significant technology; the agricultural revolution. That was the point when we extracted ourselves from nature and took over control of food. That's what allowed us to create advanced settlements and the rest is (pre-)history, as they say.

    See the philosophical novel Ishmael [] for the basis of this argument.

    Given the "living in harmony with nature" theme in the movie, one could hardly expect the Na'vi to have done the same.

  • Re:I haven't seen it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gmuslera ( 3436 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:09AM (#30543992) Homepage Journal
    A movie that is purely plot and not so much visuals don't suffer a lot watching it in low quality, but one where visuals are one of the critical pieces? Even 2012 (ok, the 1st hour) deserved to be seen in a theater.
  • Re:Ava-who? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DoofusOfDeath ( 636671 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:09AM (#30543998)

    I refuse to watch it. I am not going to vote with my pocketbook that plot, craft, and character development don't matter, and that all that matters is effects. This sort of thought has made the bulk of Hollywood movies complete crap. I'm lucky if there is one or two movies a year that aren't nauseatingly bad.

    Maybe there's room in the theaters for two different kinds of movies: those with good plot, and those with good visuals?

    I saw Avatar last night. I agree that the plot was so-so. But the imagined planet really was beautiful, and it really stoked my imagination. For me, it was worth the ticket price to see them. I like plot as well, but I'm glad this movie exists.

  • Re:Ava-who? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:19AM (#30544052) Homepage Journal
    You're going to judge it before you've even seen it? <tiptoes off of lawn...>

    I saw it, and I think it was a great movie. It's not Shakespeare or Dostoevsky. It's a *simple* story, painted in primary colors. Don't confuse that with bad ( Come to think of it, some of Shakespeare's stories were rather simple -- Romeo and Juliet, anyone?). The effects are also good, and are masterfully woven into the story, not just there for no reason ( Except for Cameron's canonical human in robot-suit versus giant living organism. I think it's his leitmotif of man+technology versus nature, so it kind of summarizes the whole film, one could argue.)

    Hollywood will make crap movies regardless of what Cameron does. This one is good. See it in 3D; it's not just a gimmick, it aids in your immersion into a fictional world.
  • Re:Ava-who? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TiberiusMonkey ( 1603977 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:20AM (#30544062)
    The plot isn't bad, it's just nothing new. When taken as a whole, the movie is wonderful.
  • Re:I haven't seen it (Score:4, Interesting)

    by A Friendly Troll ( 1017492 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:23AM (#30544112)

    I often go to the cinema alone, because I love non-Hollywood stuff the most, and my geek friends can't stand any of that "indie shit". Met my last girlfriend while watching Fish Tank [].

    However, Avatar is a flashy, shiny collection of great CGI, and I'd like to see it with other people I know so that we can comment on things mentioned in the TFA over a beer and things like that. I don't want to see Fish Tank with my geek friends, and I don't want to see Avatar with my (former) girlfriend.

  • by GPLDAN ( 732269 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:28AM (#30544140)
    I've seen the film, in IMAX 3D (gave me a two day headache) - and I guess I missed the giant stone arches near the end of the film.

    But, somebody who worked on the film anonymously emailed the writer of the article to explain some of the problems they saw. Namely: the gas giant rotating faster than it possibly could. And there is speculation that the floating mountains contain unobtainium, which is a room temp superconductor.

    The mountains were formed on the land, and "broke off" sailing upwards over the magnetic pole of the planet. They are repelled by the magnetic field underneath them, counteracting gravity.

    This is very silly, as minor magnetic perturbations would make the mountains flail about wildly, just as trying to hold a magnet up in the air with another magnet is very difficult.

    Also, he doesn't address what properties of unobtainium exist that would likely "save Earth". Why would a rock that was a room temperature superconductor save Earth? You couldn't build nuclear power plants from it. Perhaps it has properties that make it 1000x more powerful than uranium? None of this gets addressed.
  • Re:Ava-who? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Monkeedude1212 ( 1560403 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:31AM (#30544160) Journal

    I refuse to watch it. I am not going to vote with my pocketbook that plot, craft, and character development don't matter

    Plot is there, it's just not entirely original. It is standing on the shoulders of movies with GOOD plot, so it's not like the plot is terrible, just predictable.

    Character development is rather well. You might not fully relate to the protagonist, especially since I was not in the military, but regardless you do begin to get inside his head (which might seem like a little bit of a pun).

    As for craft, I'm not sure what you mean by that. Story development? Isn't that Plot? Or do you mean crafting the movie... Most people would argue that "Effects" ARE the craft.

  • Re:I haven't seen it (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hairykrishna ( 740240 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:31AM (#30544164)

    Your friends are foolish. This is precisely the sort of movie that it's worth going to the cinema for. Myself and friends watch a lot of torrented movies but we also go to the cinema regularly. It's not the fault of torrents; they are a good thing for real movie fans.

  • Hallelujah Mountains (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DJRumpy ( 1345787 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @11:36AM (#30544218)

    I found this very plausible given what we know about superconductors: The Hallelujah Mountains are floating islands that circulate slowly in the magnetic currents like icebergs at sea, scraping against each other and the towering mesa-like mountains of the region. On Pandora, the magnetic effect causes huge outcroppings of Unobtainium to rip loose from the surface and float in the magnetic vortices. The stone 'arcs' you saw in the film supported this, where the minerals actually deposited along strong magentic lines, leaving those huge 'skeleton' looking structures.

    I can only assume the large deposit under the tree is either too deep down to have torn lose from the surface, too spread out or sparse to tend to rip out, or it is held into place by the huge root system of the tree itself. Given that a tree that large would take eons to grow to that size, the deposits may have formed there during that time due to some sort of cataclysm, or some other natural process. The movie never explains exactly what Unobtainium is other than it's obvious natural magnetic properties. The piece floating on his desk leads more towards semiconductor properties at room temperature.

  • by timholman ( 71886 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @12:10PM (#30544532)

    Unobtanium was silly - the entire theater laughed out loud on that one.

    Too bad Cameron didn't think of something like "bardeenium" to honor John Bardeen, two-time winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, co-inventor of the transistor and co-creator of the BCS theory of superconductivity. He would have honored a truly great (and unappreciated) physicist and eliminated a jarringly stupid bit of terminology from his movie.

  • Re:Ava-who? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @12:35PM (#30544786) Homepage Journal
    If it's any consolation, Shakespeare's plays were considered trashy pulp theater at the time.
  • Re:Ava-who? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by G-Man ( 79561 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @12:57PM (#30544996)

    Taking your gripes out of order:

    Craft: On the contrary, Cameron can still direct a hell of an action sequence, and he and his crew have extraordinary craft. Not just Pandora's CGI, but translating a motion capture performance from a real actor. The actors are also pretty good across the board, no one's performance grated. They were up to the material. The material itself on the other hand...

    Plot and Character Development: My biggest gripe isn't that it's basically 'Dances With Wolves' in space -- my gripe is that it *is* 'Dances With Wolves' in space. It's as if someone took the same script outline and said, "Okay, Kevin, you make the movie with Indians. James, you make it with aliens." Except, you know, Kevin's movie came out twenty years ago. I realize there are only so many basic stories, but not only did I know where they where they were going, I knew exactly how they were getting there. Nothing came as a surprise *at all*. Characters serve the same exact purpose in both movies - I half expected Jake's main rival to show up at the end of the movie on a six-legged horse on a cliff yelling "JakeSully! JakeSully! I am Wind In His Hair! Can you see you are my friend?! Can you see I will always be your friend?!"

    Politics: I am going to attack Cameron's politics here, in ways you might expect and others you might not.

    The half-white part of me is glad to know that in 150 years, no matter how jacked-up things are, evil white Americans will still run things. Emerging powers in Asia and elsewhere will have no cultural influence whatsoever - it will still be white guys in charge with a few Hispanics and Blacks thrown in for seasoning. Take THAT China and India!

    The evil-human camp is shaped like a Pentagon. Subtle, James, subtle. (Note: If you want to make a Vauban-like star fortress, make one, or just make a rectangular military camp like we've done since Roman times.)

    Even though modern helos have a fairly even high-pitched tone, helos in the future will once again have the same distinctive whop-whop sound that Hueys from Vietnam had. For a Boomer like Cameron, every fight in a jungle is Vietnam. "This is The End. My only friend...The End."

    Despite white guys being the villains, only a white guy can lead you to victory - even if he is in a ten-foot tall blue body. You know, James, at the LIttle Big Horn, Geronimo wasn't a white guy that went Native, he was an actual Native. That is the part that ultimately grates for me, the patronizing attitude. Cameron is indulging the white liberal fantasy: riding to the rescue of an indigenous people and saving them from his own evil society, and in the end, being accepted as one of them. Cameron uses the highest of our film-making technology to critique us and our technology. The Na'vi get technology as a freebie - carbon-fiber skeletons and a databus connection to other living things. Well, sorry, but us humans have to work at that sort of thing.

    Comic-Book Guy Critiques: You know, for the 'Sky People' we don't seem to know jack-shit about aerial combat. Apparently, we've forgotten stuff that Eddie Rickenbacker and Manfred von Richtofen figured out a century ago. Leaving aside that you could just drop stuff on the Na'vi from orbit, why do you come in low and slow so the enemy can jump you from above and behind? And why do you have helos, mechs, and transports, but no jet fighters? On a planet with the enemy riding around on pterodactyl-like critters, wouldn't it be nice to have some fast-movers that can fly above them?

    All that aside, I say see it, and see it in 3D. Think of it less as a full movie and more as an amusement park ride.

  • by Lvdata ( 1214190 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @12:58PM (#30545000)

    Everyone seems to be making the ASSUMPTION the the Na'vi are preindustrial.

    1. The Na'vi can link directly to many other animals that are happy to serve them, and and the Na'vi in return care for them.

    2. Planet wide network for storage, upload and download of information, long term store, processing, and on demand local grid processing, including the ability to do a total upload of a person.

    3. Unobtainium, a planet wide "natural" super conductor that allows for floating mountains.

    4. Eywa, the operating system put in place to regulate everything, including guiding the Na'vi to stay in harmony with everything else.

    It seems to me that the Na'vi went though their own singularity, and what we see as primitive is the biotechnology leftovers from a older culture, but they have set themselves and their decedents with a ideal environment, the ability to live, have kids, grow old, then upload when the time is right. Use large off-planet element nuclear synthesis to create the unobtainium, (see [] ), and setup the biosphere and the infosphere for long term in habitation by ignorant people. In a head to head comparison of Na'vi vs humans, the Na'vi are superior in almost everyway.

    Medicine - Eywa takes care of that much better.
    Education - A direct mental link for sharing of information.
    Physical form - not much is explained beyond carbon fiber in the skeleton, but onscreen of what Jake goes though is beyond what a normal human can handle.
    Information storage, processing & retrieval mostly superior, with the exception of speed given the late start the other animals had in the battle.
    Long term care of their wold and sustainability - Although the world seems genetically engineered for the Na'vi,over time some drift has occurred as not all animals retain their friendliness, but in times of crises, can revert back.

    Given that this is part 1 of 3, and the hints on screen and referenced to, this is my suspicion. Most people have problems thinking about the singularity as it is so encompassing, enabling, and yet compressing. The Na'vi are just one result of who remains after a biological singularity.


  • by Savage-Rabbit ( 308260 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @01:20PM (#30545222)

    Look, the plot is basically Dances with Wolves in Space, but still -- this movie was an example of amazing, expensive effects paired with an actual story.

    It's just a guess, but I'd say that Avatar is more likely to be loosely based on the life story of Gonzalo de Aroza [] and Zazil Ha [] than being some sort of brazen of Dances with Wolves ripoff. As far as I know Aroza's story has never been filmed which is a pity since it is a better story than what most fiction authors are capable of coming up with these days. That said I agree with you Avatar is an amazing movie.

  • by NoSleepDemon ( 1521253 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @01:23PM (#30545250)
    Why the Christ has this not been mentioned? If you have a planet with lower gravity, the lifeforms will grow taller, but be weaker. No way should the Na'vi be stronger than the humans. And another thing, why is the prof pointing out all the other flaws in the science of the movie, and then turning around and saying 'oh but its ok because I'd drink Jim Cameron's nyerk any day'. Jeez, the science in Avatar was HORRIBLE! Giant retarded screens everywhere, guns that shoot bullets... We have lasers, NOW, why on Earth would we still be using bullets in 140 years? And yet another thing, why did they send in ground troops at the end? They were dropping a giant bomb and clearly had aerial superiority, ground troops were a stupid idea. Lets be honest here, science in Avatar is utter rubbish, everything's the way it is because it looks cool, end of discussion.
  • by mobby_6kl ( 668092 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @01:27PM (#30545284)

    The thing is though, not everybody has an awesome projection system set up at home. Once you remove 3D and superior picture size and quality from Avatar, the film has nothing left to offer, unfortunately.

    The only thing besides the visuals I heard positive comments on were some action scenes in the third act, but everything else is apparently rather mediocre. It's not even that the plot is simple, I certainly don't expect every movie to be some kind of mindfuck a-la Blade Runner. Something like Crank had a simple and absolutely ridiculous plot, but Avatar's is basically one huge predictable cliche, which also manages to be pretentious as well - it's white corporate imperialist oppressing local noble savages, and the hero decides to defect to the side which of course lives in total harmony (and connection, ugh) with the nature. Fuck.

    The characters are flat and aren't developed too well (look, it's the evil corporate guy! And there's the crazy military general!), while the dialog is often just silly ("We're not in Kansas any more" FFS, James!). Why did they try to hid Sam's Aussie accent, couldn't he just happen to be from Australia, or live there with his father on a military base? Even the soundtrack is rather generic.

    I'm not saying that the movie is terrible, in fact I think that films are a visual media and thus can be enjoyed as such. However I think that it's going to take much more than that to be the best sci-fi movie of the decade/ever, which is what many are claiming this to be. I'll probably go see it in IMAX, at the very least I'll see how the 3D tech works nowadays since I haven't seen a singe 3D movie yet.

  • Re:I haven't seen it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @02:26PM (#30545836) Journal

    > Yeah, nobody wants to go to the cinema anymore because of crappy cam torrents.

    Right, exactly. And that's why every showing of Avatar was packed, and why Hollywood in general is having a banner year. It's because they all have camcorders pointing at the screen so the rest of us can stay home and... no wait...

  • Re:Ava-who? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rnelsonee ( 98732 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @03:12PM (#30546194)

    But Avatar is great. How many people can make a film with such good effects? And on a budget? The world was immersive, the cinematography was brilliant (which used a never-before-used technique that Cameron pioneered) and the director utilized new 3D cameras that no one else has ever used in a studio movie. Sure the plot is thin, but on a technical level, I don't think this movie has any competition.

    You want a movie about a dysfunctional family shot with a steadycam? Maybe have Parker Posey or Michael Cera in it? Yeah, those don't make a billion dollars because they're not different. Some indie films are still great, but there are movies with good plots, and movies with great cinematography. There's room for both.

  • by MaximKat ( 1692650 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @03:38PM (#30546360)
    So, let me get this straight. You've watched half of the movie, which is intended to be seen in the 3D on the big screen, from a cam rip and you didn't like visuals? Why don't you go play Crysis in 640x480 with low quality and disabled physics then?
  • by NoSleepDemon ( 1521253 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @04:30PM (#30546700)
    So if all of what you say is true, why didn't the God step in and save them immediately? Why did it let them come to harm in the first place? The Na'vi are in no way superior to humans, where are their scholars, their artists, their inventors? They are entirely dependent on their God for everything, and when that God took 3 months to lift a finger, hundreds died. If the na'vi did indeed reach a singularity, that singularity was Idiocracy.
  • by Lvdata ( 1214190 ) on Thursday December 24, 2009 @08:19PM (#30548156)
    Eywa is not so much as a god, but a distributed intelligence, that normally does not get involved in local fights between groups of people. A bit of the prime directive, along with the lack of ability to bond with humans, and being very old, kept it from realizing what is going on. Only after Grace was linked into Eywa and partially uploaded did Eywa have a human reference point necessary, and kick into action. God implies all seeing, Eywa is not. Limited and working at mostly biological speeds, Eywa can not react fast. At the beginning when Jake was sampled by Eywa's floating sensors, that are doing double duty as seeds, that is the start of Eywa's involvement. Genetic samples don't give Eywa the inside knowledge of what the human's plans are. Eywa can't know what goes on in a humans mind and what the intentions are, until Grace dies, and Jake bonds with the soul tree to add addition info of what the humans are planing. Scholars and artists have been superceeded by Ewya, soul trees, and the planetary infomation network. What do they need to invent? Planes? no. Better methods of killing other tribes? That is something Eywa is going to suppress. There just is not much reason to invent, especially in a post biological singularly society. What do we semi-modern humans have, that the Na'vi don't and WOULD WANT?

Someday somebody has got to decide whether the typewriter is the machine, or the person who operates it.