Thursday, January 7, 2010

Avatar review and SF general thoughts

I saw Avatar on IMAX 3D about a week ago.  Stunning, beautiful, amazing.  The threshold between live action and CGI was gone.  The 3D effects were beautiful and not showy for their own sake.

All of that said, I have some thoughts and reactions that seem critical.  I'll hide my spoilers behind the 'More' link, below.  But all of these criticisms should be viewed more as open-ended analysis than as a critique of Cameron's decisions.  Clearly Cameron is a genius and his vision is tremendous.  I'm not suggesting changing the movie, exactly.

Avatar is what I would describe as soft science fiction.  That's not a term you hear often, and it deserves a definition.  It's the opposite of hard sci fi.  Hard sci fi worries about the details of how this _whatever_ would really actually work/happen/unfold/etc.  Hard sci fi limits itself to events and technologies that it can reasonably explain.  Hard sci fi insists that a planetary government must be big, bureaucratic, and inefficient--because in reality it must be that way.

Soft sci fi takes more liberties with these details.  Soft sci fi makes the conscious decision to bend its imaginary reality some to suit the needs of the story.  Idealized, as opposed to realistic.

Soft sci fi stories appeal to the heart, where hard sci fi appeals to the mind.  Soft sci fi translates well to the screen, precisely because of all of those details that are being omitted.  Soft sci fi is commercially viable.  Hard sci fi is a niche.

My own natural impulse is to write hard sci fi.  I prefer reading hard sci fi, when I can find it.  But I understand that I will need to strip out some of my details and focus on the human story if I am going to ever find commercial success.

I've said that because much of my analysis of Avatar actually comes in the form of pointing out the places where Cameron went soft on the sci fi, and how it would look it the sci fi were hardened.  I hope that makes sense.

A few wide-angle thoughts before we get in to the details.

See the movie in IMAX 3D.  This is the biggest big-screen movie since Jurassic Park, and it can only be truly appreciated big and loud.

But the 3D experience still gave me a headache.  Troy (my brother-in-law) reported the same thing.  I have great eyesight, Troy wears glasses.  So that isn't it.  With all of the money spent on this new advanced 3D stuff, the headache is a big problem.  If I could somehow short stocks for the long-term, I would short all of the TV makers were are betting big on 3D TVs.  I won't be buying one anytime soon.  The headache stigma will be very hard to overcome.

If you are really interested in the writing process then you might be interested in this detailed analysis of the first writing treatment, called 'Project 880'.  This article is chock full of spoilers, and seriously shouldn't be read until you've seen the movie.  I'll try not to repeat any of Devin's Avatar analysis here.

So with that teaser, if you've seen the movie then click to find out what all Cameron got wrong.  :-)

My nieces, Laura and Rachel, were the first to say to me that Avatar was just a retelling of Pocahontas.  That's not quite right, but it is very accurate.  The biggest difference is the final outcome--the natives win instead of the invaders.  Otherwise it is essentially the same story in a new location.

The name 'Pandora' only makes sense if you are trying to foreshadow trouble.  A new planet that we wanted to settle down on would never ever ever get named that.  It would get named Dante's Inferno first.  Or maybe Hitler's Dream.  Soft sci fi ignores that reality and picks a name that foreshadows for the audience.

There was no bureaucracy.  One head scientist.  One military leader, who was dumb enough to risk his life leading battles from the front lines.  One corporate boss.  Anything this valuable would and should have a functioning hierarchy of command with trusted advisors and teams of people who made the big decisions.  And the corporate chief was way too young for the position.  But an older battle-tested manager wouldn't have put up with the drama and bickering in the HQ, so soft sci fi requires a younger boss.

The science team should have been able to say the words "naturally-occurring biological neural net."  Such an amazing thing should have been able to garner more attention and defense from humans.  It's as if the humans hadn't even figured out what those tail connections were for, and that's just stupid.

By the way, was it just me or did the avatars come out of their hibernation with their long hair pre-braided?  That was strange.  Seems like there should be some sort of ceremony or process for that.

The floating land clearly had the valuable metal.  I think that is just a plot-point that Cameron and company missed.  Those things are already in low orbit, just steal them.  That's the easy pickings, if your real priority is to just take the easiest source of the metal.

As it is the metal was greatly concentrated under the colossal tree that housed a city, and which was worshiped as a deity by those people.  One of the scientists should have at least asked if there was a causal relationship between the tree and the metal.  Maybe that species of tree somehow helps create that metal.  Probably not.  But the connection should have been explored, and that exploration should have paused the attack on the Home Tree.

The Na'vi warriors at the end really mucked up the strategy and tactics of the final two battles.  They described themselves as warriors.  Sully was a warrior.  They should have gotten more of these strategic and tactical things right.

Let's start with the air fight.  They had one primary target--the transport cum bomber.  They should have devised a strategy that gave them their biggest punch against that target as soon as possible.  Instead they gamely played the humans' game by dutifully fighting through all of the defenders before attacking the only target in the sky that actually mattered.

They had one helicopter.  Their primary strategy should have been to create a distraction and confusion in order to sneak the helicopter in behind the bomber.  If that helicopter could unload a few missiles into the cargo bay early in the battle, then the whole battle would have ended quickly.  That is their best strategy against the single most important target, and they squandered the helicopter away on a useless frontal assault of a meaningless secondary target.

Pick a side, either right or left.  Send all of your bird-riders in from that side, at a straight 90 degree angle from the path of the humans.  Put as many helicopters as possible in each other's line of sight.  This will cause all of the human attention to focus in that one direction and probably send the formation in to chaos as it adapts to this seemingly stupid angle of attack.  The humans will certainly dismiss the strategy as primitive and stupid, and let their guard down.  This should allow your one helicopter to join the chaotic formation and sneak in to the rear of the bomber.  One or two missiles and the battle is over with a minimum of engagement and loss of life.  And all of your fliers will be far away when that bomber goes blows.

The air fighters did ok with big spears through the cockpits of the helicopters.  But those are low-percentage shots.  Helicopters are remarkably vulnerable in their blades.  A much easier tactic would have been large stones down into the big rotor/turbines.

Tactics on the ground were more stupid.  In a dense jungle with deadly enemies under every leaf, the humans lined up for a conventional line-up fight.  Surely they do not expect the Na'vi to line up and approach them in ranks, but that is how they are lined up.  Have they not heard of guerrilla warfare?

Apparently the Na'vi haven't heard of guerrilla warfare.  They also line up and advance in ranks.  It looks pretty for the screen, but its suicide.  They need to employ disruptive guerrilla tactics, and roll across that line from one side.  They need to hide in their natural habitat and attack from high in the trees.  This tactical error was so grievous that I noticed it immediately and had trouble not yelling at the screen.

Oh, and AICN is now reporting that Cameron says that there is definitely a sequel and the original plan was for a trilogy.

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