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Some thoughts on "Avatar"

No, I'm not going to write a review of the movie. There are reviews already posted all over the place, and for the most part, anything I could write in a review has already been said. Gorgeous scenery, check; incredible CGI characters, check; plot that's very similar to Dances with Wolves, check; incredible, nearly obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, check; oodles of money, check.

Instead, I'm going to talk about just one thing about the movie, that really has nothing to do with the plot or the characters or the story. But first, I need to back up a bit. And by "a bit," I mean "about thirty-five years."

Back when I was a kid, I used to watch a whole lot of Saturday morning TV fare. And one day, when I was probably about six or eight years old or so, I caught a TV program about a group of people exploring space in a spaceship. This was, and is, a subject dear to my heart, and is just about bound to get my attention, so I watched it.

In the show--I don't remember what it was called--there was a scene in which the captain ordered the crew to change course, so the navigator got out a slide rule and started plotting a new course. Now, I was about six or eight at the time, as I've mentioned; I didn't yet have my first computer (in fact, microcomputers were still quite some number of years away, which probably dates me); I'd never even seen a computer, though I'd heard of them and knew that they were the size of basketball courts and used punched paper cards.

And still, that scene felt jarringly, obviously wrong to me. I had no idea what a computer might be like, and could not have hoped to describe what a computerized spacecraft might look like, but I knew that in the future, if we had faster-than-light spacecraft and we were voyaging to the stars, we were not going to be using slide rules.

Early on in the movie Avatar, there's a scene where the main character and several other newcomers to the planet load up onto a shuttle for their trip down to the surface. We see, very briefly, a shot of the shuttle's flight deck as the flight crew fires it up and gets read to descend.

As the flight crew does their thing, the instruments come to life, surrounding the pilot with a holographic heads-up display of all this instrumentation and information. Later, as he makes his final approach, part of the heads-up display slides aside to give him an unobstructed view out the cockpit window. (I cant find a shot of that particular scene, more's the pity.)

That is one of the places where this movie succeeds brilliantly, and it instantly makes every science-fiction movie that we've seen 'til now look like a bunch of blokes fumbling around with slide rules.

One of the things that separates good writing from bad writing is attention to detail. In the case of science fiction, one of the details that separates good writing from bad writing is an understanding of how people use technology.

Science fiction is not a good predictor of technology, of course; if the day comes when we have vehicles and spacecraft as capable as the ones in Avatar, they probably won't look the same, and there will probably be all sorts of things the movie missed.

But on that day, I bet a shuttle pilot could watch Avatar and nod her head, and say "Yeah, I can see designing a cockpit like that," without the same sort of jarring navigating-with-a-slide-rule thing I felt watching that TV show.

This is not true of most of the rest of science fiction. Take the new, "rebooted" Star Trek, for instance. The bridge of the Enterprise is pretty and all, but it seems to my eye to be lacking a certain...functionality.

Consoles that you have to stand behind. Flat, 2D control surfaces everywhere. Mechanical fixtures. Chairs without armrests. This is a set that was intended to be pretty, but was not designed with any sort of sense of how people in the future might actually use their technology. The first time I saw Avatar, that quick scene in the shuttle's flight deck brought images of the Star Trek movie painfully to mind, and I cringed. There was an idea of "Yes, this makes sense, and why can't other movies get this right?"

When I look at the bridge of the Enterprise now, it reminds me very strongly of the Lincoln Futura concept car, an outrageously expensive vehicle built in 1955 as a sort of exploration of how the future might go.

Apparently, the inability to think about how people interact with technology is not a failing unique to science fiction writers; the designers who thought this car up didn't consider the possibility that perhaps two people who are riding together might want to...talk to each other.

Storytelling, especially science fiction, often succeeds or fails on the details, and in this particular case, these are details that Avatar does very well indeed.


( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 16th, 2010 01:10 am (UTC)
I think the show you're thinking of is the 'original' battlestar galactica--all the work is done with a slide-rule to avoid any computer communicating with any other.
Jan. 16th, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
Battlestar Galactica - the 80's series...was remarkably prescient. In one of the episodes of Galactica '82, there was a shuttle of children being taken down to the planet, and one of the chaperons asked the kids, "Does anyone know what baseball is?"

Before the web, before Google, before wikipedia, before netbooks, before 3G or any wireless, a kid whips out his wrist-top computer, types in "baseball", looks up everything he can about the topic and reads it to the shuttle at large.

There may be even more technology that I missed, in that little example.
Jan. 24th, 2010 11:29 pm (UTC)
I think it wasn't BSG; this was before the original series aired, and the spaceship in it was quite small. The only thing I remember other than the scene with a slide rule is there was a scene where they were passing near a black hole, and they fired a laser out of the front of the spaceship which curved toward the black hole...which, of course, wouldn't happen.
Jan. 16th, 2010 01:14 am (UTC)
The HUD's in that movie also made me squee everywhere.

However, I can't have a conversation about technology in Avatar without screaming:


That is all.

(edited for grammar)
Jan. 16th, 2010 02:10 am (UTC)
Considering the character wielding it (I'm gonna rush out with out a breather!), I'm actually NOT surprised - I can see him getting it custom done. And for that world, it actually makes some amount of sense.

Jan. 16th, 2010 02:57 am (UTC)
I have a hour-long diatribe on this subject and how little sense it makes in every conceivable sense. SOO MUCH RAGE.

But it's a nitpicky thing. XD The same reason I raged at the Na'vi not having bifurcated upper limbs despite every other creature on the planet having bifurcated upper limbs.
Jan. 16th, 2010 03:03 am (UTC)
I'm with you on the knife thing.

The bifurcated limbs thing is probably necessary for the story, both because it'd be difficult to do motion capture otherwise and because it's hard enough to create aliens that the audience can really identify with.
Jan. 16th, 2010 03:46 am (UTC)
The knife thing seriously got to me, because up until that point I had been absolutely amazed by the consistency and accuracy of the science in the movie. We had:

-Accurate(ish) extra-solar space ship
-Accurate(ish) 6-year trip and cryo transport
-HUD design that is super sweet awesome
-Exoskeleton/mecha control system that made metric fucktons of sense. I was incredibly happy about the exoskeletons overall

Add in the 3-D, I was totally taken in by the movie the first time I saw it... up until that fucking knife. GRRRRRRRR
Jan. 16th, 2010 05:38 am (UTC)
I raged about that too. There was no reason for them to be 4 limbed, except the assumption that audiences couldn't identify with a non-quadruped character.

Jan. 17th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
Ha. I figured you'd chime in with that :)

So you weren't convinced by the business design argument I take it?
Jan. 16th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
I think your beef is with the original Star Trek and subsequent series, not Enterprise. While certainly more updated because of more money and better special effects, it still had to remain true to the original, because it was a prequal.
Jan. 16th, 2010 01:55 am (UTC)
I think his immediate beef is with the rebooted Star Trek movie that was released last year. Enterprise was definitely a prequel, but the description and image match the rebooted movies.
Jan. 24th, 2010 11:31 pm (UTC)
I have several beefs with the entire Star Trek franchise, though in this case I'm talking about the recent Star Trek movie. They had an opportunity to use modern design principles and modern special effects to redesign the Enterprise, and I think they botched it.

Bad as the design in Star Trek may be, though, it can't hold a candle to the terrible design of Star Wars. (The Emperor was thrown down a bottomless shaft in his throne room? Really?)
Jan. 16th, 2010 01:56 am (UTC)
Oh why don't you post this in response to my kinky & geeky post on fet?? it's fantastic :)
Jan. 16th, 2010 02:02 am (UTC)
Very well put, and a really fascinating subject matter.

One thing of interest: I've seen people claim that doing their computer work standing up (instead of at a desk) actually improves health (by avoiding RSIs) and alertness (because you don't go as physiologically dormant).

I don't know if it's true, but a few people around my office have desks set up to be used while standing.

Not me, mind you.

But still, that bit is not as crazy as the rest.
Jan. 24th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
Perhaps, until you consider that the office is actually attached to a space ship whose crew tends to get thrown around a lot...
Jan. 25th, 2010 12:38 am (UTC)
Oh, you're so very right.
Jan. 16th, 2010 02:20 am (UTC)
And this is one reason why I like you. From computers to relationships, you are perseverantly and practically interested in how systems work.
Jan. 16th, 2010 03:29 am (UTC)
I've been watching Science Fiction since the early fifties. I remember the shock and sadness when my parents told me that we didn't actually have space travel yet.

Men into space http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052493/ was an attempt at a realistic space exploration program. It was not a actually pretty accurate compared to say the Gemini program. Slide rules were still part of an engineer's kit in those days.

Jan. 16th, 2010 05:25 am (UTC)
With you, it was Star Trek. Me, it was one scene in James Blish's Cities in Flight, toward the end, where the mayor and his best friend/executive officer (more or less) are talking. Mind you, this particularly section takes place hundreds of years from now, with whole cities that spend centuries crossing space, yeast vats that feed the population, nuclear weapons, and large computer systems that run each city's day-to-day operations (aka the "City Fathers"), and so forth, and so on.

The Mayor and the XO are having a long and intense conversation during a meal; the meal ends, and the conversation pretty much ends at the same time when the table cleans itself up by dumping everything on its top into the disposal system - including the XO's slide rule.

Riiiiiiight. I still can't read that scene without giggling.
Jan. 16th, 2010 05:33 am (UTC)
I must say, i Loved your alt texts.
Jan. 16th, 2010 05:54 am (UTC)
I read the part about Star Trek to my husband. He was in the Navy way back in the day, and says that the Star Trek bridge is very similar to the bridge on a naval ship. Things aren't comfortable, only the captain and the navigator actually have seats, and everything is very functional (and also designed to prevent fires).

Of course, the Enterprise wasn't designed to be a military ship, but so much of the show displays clearly Naval roots.

Even so, I'm tired of spaceships that people have to live on looking cold and sterile and spotless. (Hey, and remember in original Trek when the beds didn't even have blankets? WTF?) This is one reason I love Firefly so much (as if I could pick just one). Serenity looked like a ship I could LIVE on, with the big farm table and the stenciled walls and all.
Jan. 16th, 2010 06:01 am (UTC)
I think it says something that I've never seen a slide rule outside of old sci-fi movies. Also, I find old sci-fi in general amusing due to seeing tech which is long obsolete and tech which hasn't invented yet side-by-side.

But that's the thing about predicting future technology in general, really. People tend to focus on the brand-new shiny thing and extrapolate on it endlessly, while ignoring the mundane which has been around for awhile. But you know, the new things hit a limit in regards to practicality (and often much sooner than one would think - otherwise, we'd be using laser garbage disintegrators, or something), and even the mundane doesn't stay mostly static forever.

Also, apparently 1960's retro culture is going to be big in the distant future. ;-)
Jan. 16th, 2010 07:11 am (UTC)
Yes! This.

The thing that boggles my mind is that Cameron had time to imagine & flesh out all the details in Avatar which were then communicated to & created by CGI artists & actors. It's not like he'd been sitting around since Titanic with his fingers up his nose, after all.... I'm not very interested in movies--in seeing Avatar & the new Sherlock Holmes movie in 2010 I think I exceeded the number of new movies I saw in 2009--but I'd actually be willing to buy a DVD of Avatar just to go through parts of it frame-by-frame to catch all the detail.

I think that sort of visual obsessiveness, that depth of thought & attention to detail which viewers may never even see, reflects Cameron's preferred style/method of communicating & learning about the world. The script & characters, not to mention the music, are nothin' to write home about but the look.... That's where his heart is. The best written SF is, similarly, by people who are that obsessed with words. They may be speculating "What if....?" about technology or biology or sentience or religion/gods or what-have-you, but they express their ponderings & conclusions through language.

I don't get the sense that anyone creatively involved in the shaping of the new Star Trek movie was obsessed about any aspect of it, & (IMHO) it shows in the lack of creativity in that movie.
Jan. 16th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
He didn't.

He had his army of CGI artists and actors fill in the details for him. Most of the tweaks and finishing touches, the flaps coming down on an air vehicle, the slight twist at just the *right* angle of a character's head, are usually from the actual staff.

They're there precisely to do that sort of stuff because Cameron and the other execs know mostly what they want but don't have the time to think of it all. So they rely on the people at the drawing boards and keyboards to fill in those final missing touches.

Having worked on a couple movies myself, I've seen this happen where the AD or The Man/Woman themselves walks by, sees somebody running a flip-test on their screen and goes "wait, what was that!?!?...THAT, yes, that's *EXACTLY* what I'm looking for!" or "it's really nice, but it's just not going to work"

Jan. 19th, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
The script & characters, not to mention the music, are nothin' to write home about but the look.... That's where his heart is.

The funny thing is that when I was watching it, one of the major themes sounded so very like a major theme from the movie Glory that it was a bit distracting to me. I hadn't realized who the soundtrack composer was while I was watching it, but wasn't surprised at all to find out at the end that it was James Horner, who also did the soundtrack to Glory.

But honestly, if I had written the soundtrack it would have been AMAZING :)
Jan. 16th, 2010 07:10 pm (UTC)
For the most part I agree, the details and nuances of the movie were mostly great.

Unlike an earlier poster above, the knife on the exoskeleton thing didn't bug me.

What bugged me most was despite all the awesometech, they were going to essentially throw their explosive payload...by dropping it on the tree.

Really? No...I dunno, high tech catapult?
Jan. 18th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
Hm. I can't remember if it was the first book, or just early in the series... but in David Feintuch's "Hope" series... they were still computing all the coordinates and such by hand--as a backup for the computer/even if the computer does it you should know HOW. It becomes a major plot point later*.

Now, admittedly, it probably wasn't a slide rule... but it was very antiquated.

*of course, why else would you have it done this way... otoh, I do grasp the "yes a computer does this, but you need to know HOW just in case" theory behind it...
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )