December 28, 2009

AVATAR – a sumptuous feast for the senses!

Caught Avatar on IMAX 3D in a packed auditorium. Sitting next to me was an 8 year old wriggling in his seat with excitement - waiting for the film to begin. Down the row three teenagers were taking pictures of themselves in the 3D glasses, and people had lined up 2 hours before the show started to grab the best seats in the huge theater. By standing in line for an hour I managed to score reasonable seats that were not in the front row side! So what did Cameron and IMAX serve up?

From the word go the moon Pandora sucked me in! There was lush tree life and we soon saw hexapods of every shape and size that vaguely resembled animals we see on earth. There were flying dinosaurs, lumbering terra-bound dinosaurs, six limbed fierce canines, and the Na'vi. These BLUE "people" were pure of heart and connected in a giant Gaia-like web to all other living creatures - animal and vegetal - on the planet. Did Cameron deliberately make them take on the BLUE hue of our avatars of Rama and Krishna? But of course the real Avatars were the hybrid bodies created with evil earth technology by fusing the Na'vi and human DNA. These AVATARS are controlled by the human mind that shares DNA with them. Strangely enough, in an environment with this technology of ESP or non-physical connections, people still scoff at Na'vi minds being connected through a large network of "nerves" that run through trees!!

Since many have poked holes in the story of Avatar, I want to talk about that first. Yes, it is all we expect from a big budget Hollywood studio film. The corporates have fucked up the home planet and Earth is not even green anymore. Now they are at Pandora and want UNOBTAINIUM, the mineral that will change semiconductor business, and are aided by the evil military types who are now guns for hire. (Unobtainium makes it sound more like a radioactive element!) Into this mess is co-opted Jake Sully, a paralyzed war veteran whose twin brother shared DNA with an Avatar but died in an accident. The scientists are the usual Hollywood geeks but Cameron does them a favor but not casting them as evil doers who have destroyed the planet. The love story is subdued but works as the reason why Jake Sully decides to let go of his military loyalties and protect the Na'vi way of life.

Cameron also gets a surprising amount of the science right, except for the floating mountains, and the fact that most of the imagined life on Pandora was very Earth-like, particularly the Na'vi. Even more scientifically troubling is the idea of melding genetic material from the Na'vi and the humans. This suggests that all life has chemically similar genetic material, a panspermia or Chariots of the Gods type of scenario! But giving the animals 6 limbs does make them unique and a different evolutionary trajectory from that we see in large earth life. The glowing life that responded to tactile stimuli was a great touch and here Cameron seemed heavily inspired by ocean life - the floating seeds of the "mother" tree were like jellyfish, and the glowing extensions of vegetation like see anemone tentacles! The animal-vegetal neural networks on Pandora are a flight of the imagination that is a little breathtaking! And dragons and horses that need to bond with their riders goes with the theme and seems a little less outrageous in comparison.

All in all Avatar soars into flight and is a breathtaking ride that keeps one engaged for the almost 3 hour run time. The cliched story is still several notches above what Titanic served up, and the no star cast does a good job of keeping us engaged in the characters they play. The exception (to the no name bit) is Sigourney Weaver, and she can never be less than engaging! Even the bad guys are not cardboard cutouts. The wrench I felt in my heart as the giant tree went down, was more than what I felt as DiCaprio drowned among the debris of the sinking ship. And the exhilaration one shared with Jake Sully as he soared on the orange red dragon was worth the price of admission.

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Angelica said...

Great review! Glad you enjoyed it. I did too- it was nice, entertaining spectacle. We know that Cameron ripped of some scenes, even plots from a number of different movies. The Jake's connecting to and then learning to fly on huge pterodactyl, 'soaring' into the sky scene came from the 2002 movie Dinotopia (one of my favorites). Young people riding personal dinosaurs were called 'skybacks' there.

Here's the youtube link:

Pardesi said...

Thanks Angelica - even before Dinotopia we had Ursula K LeGuin tales of dinosaurs bonding to humans and flights on dinosaurs. To read was one thing, to see it realized on screen was exhilarating. Will watch Dinotopia!

Pardesi said...

The Botany of Pandora!

Avatar: Out of this world botany
By Suzanne Sproul, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/25/2009 05:39:21 PM PST

When Hollywood needed to build an alien botanical world for the blockbuster movie "Avatar," it asked Jodie Holt for guidance.

The University of California Riverside botanist was more than happy to meet with its noted director James Cameron and its lead actress Sigourney Weaver.

Holt was thrilled to talk about botany field research and to think up features and functions for the mysteriously beautiful plants that live on the fictional world of Pandora.

Here are Holt's five top choices for adventurous gardeners who are eager to create their own new world just outside their back door. Two great resources, she said, are the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino and the University of California Riverside Botanic Gardens.

1. DRAGON ARUM also known as the Dracunculus vulgaris. Great name. It's a close relative to her very favorite outrageous plant the titan arum, which has the largest inflorescence, or flower cluster, in the world. But titan doesn't grow outdoors here, so she suggests this smaller relative. It is called the "voodoo lily" and "Old Smelly" because of its distinct odor during part of its growing cycle.

2. PONYTAIL PALM also known as Beaucarnea recurvata, or any other large succulent desert plant that stores water in its tissues. It looks like it is part palm tree and part onion, and when its branches droop, it looks pretty eerie, she says.

3. RUSCUS HYPOGLOSSUM is a bit more tame, but its stems look like leaves so that its flowers look like they grow right out of those leaves. Its nickname is the "horse tongue." Enough said.

4. BLACK TOMATO. "For the home gardener, I would recommend an heirloom tomato that comes in black." Gothic garden, anyone?

5. SQUASH. If you want different, even downright strange plants in your yard, look no further than the squash family, which is the most outrageous of all, she says. Plants have crooked heads, bumps and veins. There even is a blue pumpkin, variety jarrahdale, that makes a lovely table display and is also good to eat.

Set designers already had created the basic landscape before she joined the project. But she helped fine-tune the details, and lent her expertise to the creation of landscapes that will appear in "Avatar" computer games and other film-related projects that are expected to be just as popular as the movie.

It has been more than 15 minutes of fame for the scholar. The story starts two years ago, when she received the phone call that lead to a very unexpected foray into Hollywood. Fellow professor Patricia Springer got the first call, but since she's a developmental cell biologist, she demurred, passing the message on to Holt.

"I was asked to consult with an A-list actress who plays a botanist in the movie," Holt recalls. "She turned out to be Sigourney Weaver. My role was to advise her on how a botanist might dress and act. I gave Weaver advice on things like how a botanist would examine plants and cut samples."

Basically, Weaver got a crash course and a great botany lesson.

Pardesi said...

And the Science behind the rest of it!!

The producer of “Avatar” is fond of saying that writer and director James Cameron does not write science fiction, he writes science fact.

From the reclining, cup-holdered seat of a local multiplex, that seems a generous statement. Neither mountains floating in midair or fauna that lights up like the Las Vegas Strip at night would seem to have the slightest foundation in reality.

And yet they do.

To be sure, Mr. Cameron likes to bring his fair share of Hollywood to the cosmos, painting his scenes with the brush of fantasy. But beneath some of his most outlandish visions is often a kernel of scientific possibility.
The floating Hallelujah Mountains

The topic of how an entire mountain range can bob over the landscape like corks is never explicitly addressed in the film, yet the explanation is woven throughout the story.

It all has to do with superconductors.

When superconductors are in the presence of a magnetic field, they can float. “Avatar’s” alien world of Pandora, it turns out, is simply a massive superconductor.

At the very beginning of the story, we are told that humans have come to Pandora to mine unobtanium. Unobtanium is the ultimate superconductor. (The very name, “unobtanium,” is a nod to sci-fi afficionados, who coined the word to describe a material with mythical properties.)

In Cameron’s world, unobtanium can conduct electricity without resistance at room temperature; the best current superconductors work only when the temperature is below minus 200 degrees F.

The discovery of unobtanium, which exists only on Pandora, revolutionized technology on Earth, the story goes, and the future human economy is dependent upon it.

On Pandora, however, entire mountains loaded with unobtanium float in the world’s massive magnetic field.

In a glimpse of how thoroughly Cameron has thought through the science behind his creation, he and his team have written a 380 page “Pandorapedia” that explains (among other things) the tectonics behind how such mountains could form.

In effect, they crumble upward.

This happens because Pandora is not a planet but a moon of a gas giant the size of Saturn – the fictional planet Polyphemus. Moons of gas giants are constantly tugged and deformed by the stresses of gravity.

One of Jupiter’s moons, Io, is pulled so violently by the gravitational forces of both Jupiter and Jupiter’s other large moons, that it has ground tides – the ground literally rises and falls like a sea tide on Earth. On a second moon of Jupiter, Europa, these tidal forces have heated the interior of the moon to the point that part of its crust has melted, creating a sea of liquid water beneath a surface of ice, scientists say.

On Cameron’s Pandora, those tidal stresses have fractured the landscape, and, in the case of the Hallelujah Mountains, sent it up into the sky. A companion book to the movie explains the larger process: “This … energy drives continental drift at a much faster rate than on Earth, causing tectonic plates to fracture more extensively because of the increased stress.”
Glowing plants

Cameron’s fascination with the deep sea has already led to one of the most successful films of all time: “Titanic.” It appears to have shaped “Avatar,” too. The oceans’ depths have a curious answer to sunlight, which has never been seen there. It’s called bioluminescence – organisms’ ability to create their own light.

Pardesi said...

Utah man fired from job for calling ‘Avatar’ fan an “Avatard”

hile director James Cameron’s latest big-budget film, Avatar, astonishes audiences with a torrid of stunning visual effects, the movie has also grown a surprisingly large and rabid fan-base. Just ask Anthony Hansen, a Salt Lake City-based customer service representative who works for Stencil Tech, or at least he used to until he was fired from the company for expressing his “anti-Avatar” views of the movie.

The movie centers on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine who takes a job on the alien world of Pandora in order to operate his dead brother’s avatar, a lab-grown “native” fused with his brother’s DNA to that of a Na’vi, the indigenous humanoid population on Pandora. Hired by a non-governmental mining operation on the planet, the humans wish to remove the Na’vi from their home in order to dig up the precious mineral underneath. As the humans draw closer to war with the Na’vi, Jake realizes that he has more in common with his new blue family than with the “evil humans.”

“I liked Dances with Wolves too,” says Hansen when discussing the plot of Avatar. “In fact, that was a great movie and probably one of two movies that Costner didn’t fall on his face with. Avatar is exactly like it. Just like that new piece of [expletive] G.I. Joe movie was just like Team America: World Police. Am I the only one seeing this?”

When taking a routine call the Monday following Avatar’s global release in theaters, customers, who were trying to make simple small talk with the long-time customer service rep, raved about the new film. “People were calling up and saying that the movie was the best thing they have ever seen in their entire lives. One person actually said, ‘I wish I lived on Pandora. They are so nice there. The movie was so real.’ Really? The blue people seemed nice? You want to live on that planet with the weird rhinoceroses? I told them I’d book a ticket with Nucking Futs Airlines.”

The customer on the other end of the phone, Andrea Thompson, 38, didn’t see the humor of Hansen’s comment and asked to speak with his supervisor. “I needed help with a stencil,” says Thompson. “I couldn’t get it to work. Seriously, how do you get them to work? Does the pencil go on your ear or under the paper?” When asked about Hansen’s comments about the movie, she choked up. “Avatar was incredible. It is in 3D and looked good. I’m not talking “good,” I mean awesome. It was awesome. That man was off his bean. He said that the story was too simple and that if movies were used as a vessel for storytelling, then Avatar was a ‘turd in an Armani’ or something. He also called me an ‘Avatard.’”

Getting into arguments with customers isn’t new for Hansen. He got into hot water during the summer of 2009 when Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen arrived in theaters. “At least with Avatar, it’s actually a pretty decent movie and the effects are incredible. With Transformers 2, that was easily the worst movie of 2009. Worse than Transmorphers. Seriously. I can’t tell you how many people called in about that one. The lines were flooded with 12-year-old boys needing stencil help. [expletive] retards.”

For Hansen’s manager, William O’Duff, the complaints from customers was too much and “decisive action” had to be taken. After receiving four complaints from customers, O’Duff called Hansen into his office and asked for his headset. “I’d like to tell you it was a tough decision, but it wasn’t. Avatar was amazing. It was beautiful and I cried the entire time. I loved the story because I can’t remember any movie for more than 10 days so, to me, Avatar was the best thing since G.I. Joe. Awesome”.

SDT said...

Good review ! You need to fix the LINK that leads to PakhiPakhi.

Pardesi said...

Thanks Som! Link is now fixed :-)

Khanabadosh said...

This is what I wrote on FaceBook after watching

"Avatar - 3D masala, a Visual delight...Slow in middle portions..definitely worth the price of admission...People should not go expecting some titanic like emotional bonding..

ps: First time I saw people clapping at end of an English movie.."

I know we have diametrically opposite views on Titanic. I think Titanic screenplay was tight (T2 and True Lies even better). Avatar is decent in story telling. Cameron in middle portions got lost showing beauty of jungle and creatures (of course that was visual delight). I thought it slowed the overall narrative. And everything was black and white in terms of representation of characters (nothing wrong in that).

Pardesi said...

Khanabadosh - the narrative of True Lies and T 2 was superb. And with T 2 again Cameron changed the game - there was no other villain like that droid and no better superhero than Arnold for a long time. But Titanic had an extremely Black and White set of characters, and even worse, the poor were good and the rich were bad and this made the story extremely silly for me.

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