Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

I will start by saying that I will talk about the movie in a way that will give spoilers. I will note when I being the spoiler section.

Avatar is a beautiful movie. It's based in a well realized world with a story, that while not new, is told well.

It was intended to be seen in 3D and thus should be seen in 3D. While consumer electronic companies would have us believe that we'll have 3D in the home soon, no doubt it will be years before it catches on, so take this opportunity while you can. I watched it in standard size 3D, as opposed to IMAX. I'm not a fan of watching movies on IMAX. It just doesn't work for me. If it works for you try to see it in IMAX. I'm sure that'll be a great experience as well.

If you fret that the CGI characters will seem lifeless or weird, such as in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within or Beowulf, fret no longer. That was a concern I had as well but you can easily forget that the digital creations/creatures are in fact digital. It's not so much the rendering that has gotten better. It's easy to render very photo realistic digital images now. It's the nuance. It's the little details. It's easy to cut corners with CG, especially given the amount of time it takes to model, place, animate, render, etc. for each little piece, but that wasn't done here. If felt real because they spent the time to flesh it out.

OK I'm going into the spoiler section.

One of the complaints I've heard is that the movie is too long. I disagree for a couple of reasons.
The first is, as I said above, the world is fleshed out and it feels real. You enjoy being there, or at least I did. There is so much to see. It's like watching Planet Earth, in 3D, but with even more fantastic vistas. What made Planet Earth so enjoyable, aside from it being shot in high definition, was the beautiful views of our planet. Views that many of us will never see any other way. Some of the scenes might as well have been on another planet. Pandora, the planet of Avatar is like that. For a film maker to create a planet as beautiful and awe inspiring as our own is impressive. The people who thought the movie was boring or long probably don't like watching nature shows just for the nature either. It's a matter of taste to be sure.

The second reason I think it's OK for the movie to be long is because certain scenes that would have been cut from the movie in a different director/editors hands are scenes that helped blend the real and CG. For example (spoiler): Parker Selfridge, the corporate executive in charge of operations on Pandora is trying to control a holographic map. He struggles with it, then makes the normal operator take over and then gives him hell when he misses the target. It's a throw away scene. It could have very easily have been tossed out in editing without hurting the story one bit. It could have been directed very coldly as well, where Selfridge controls the map perfectly. I believe, the point was to blend the CG elements (the holographic map system) and the actors, to help drive home the blending of the two for the audience. You see the map go all over the place as the executive doesn't really know how to control the map, but because he's a cocky exec, he thinks he can. Many of us have met executives/managers like that. It's a silly scene but again, it is one of those details that draws you into the movie. I'm sure a hour or so could have been edited out of the movie, with the story intact, but the experience would not have been as rich or as enjoyable. Of course that's my opinion.

Another issue that came up, was from Tom Merritt on East Meets West. He didn't like the fact that the Na'vi are tetrapods, rather than hexapods like many of the other animals on Pandora. I see his point and raise it a few more points and then a rebuttal.

The problem with the Na'vi, isn't so much that they have two arms and two legs like humans, but the fact that they are so much like humans and less like many of the other creatures on the planet, that we see. Some creatures we see breath from nostrils on their necks. Yet the Na'vi have their nostrils on their face, much like humans. Why would the vocal cords on the Na'vi, their hearing, their vision, be virtually identical to our own? Much of the planet is florescent, so that suggests that there is a larger presence of ultraviolet light. If that is the case wouldn't the creatures of Pandora, including the Na'vi, be predisposed to seeing light further into the UV spectrum, thus changing how they would see the world? This could have been easily remedied by simply shifting the visible spectrum when we are seeing from the eyes of a Na'vi (only a couple of times during the movie) and then let the rest of the movie play out as it did.

Being a nerd and liking hard science fiction I would have preferred the Na'vi to be more alien. It would have made Jake Sully's defection even more powerful, at least in my opinion. It's very easy to relate to the Na'vi and easy to see why Jake defected. Had the Na'vi been more alien, less like ourselves, it would have been harder to understand, harder to accept, more drama. Just my opinion anyway.

So about my rebuttal to the last couple of paragraphs? OK, it's really simple. Movies are not hard science fiction. There are few hard science fiction movies made, because generally speaking it's not what the general public wants to see. Sci-Fi is well accepted by the masses these days, but they like it watered down and in terms they can easily grasp. Aliens are supposed to be alien, but if we are going to have any kind of relationship with them they have to be like us, at least a little. We have to understand their motivations. We can understand Vulcans. Sure they are logical and show no emotions, but they are not so different. We can see them and say, "We need our emotions or we end up cold like them." Vulcans are just humans without emotion. Klingons are humans who simply embrace a warrior caste system, something we have had some cultures in our human history. The Na'vi are a mixture of native peoples from Earth. Because of that we can easily relate to them. Some of us even wish we could live like they do, just as there are those who'd like to be more like Vulcans or Klingons. If James Cameron had made the Na'vi too alien, viewers wouldn't have related the way he wanted them to. Sure he could have made them more alien, perhaps that would have made them ugly. I think he wanted them to be beautiful looking, and they are. He gave the women breasts, though there was no apparent reason to do so other than aesthetics. It wasn't a sci-fi or science choice but a movie/commercial choice. What is going to draw in more customers? It was a wise choice. It's about entertainment before realism.

Everyone picking this movie apart, myself included, are missing the point. You can tear any movie down into it's base parts and find flaws. Sure the story in Avatar isn't original, but in the context of the rest of the movie, it works. That's what I'd like you all to take away from my review. As a whole this is a very good movie. It's too early to tell how deep it will effect Sci-Fi and Geek culture. The technology behind the scenes is impressive and WILL change how movies are made. The rest is for history to decide.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thoughts on: Superior Super Earths

I ran across this article: Superior Super Earths and it really got my mind going. Here are some of my thoughts. I recommend you read the article first, then come back and debate my ideas with me.

  1. I find it truly amazing that we are discovering planets around other stars. PLANETS! It wasn't that long ago that we barely knew anything about the planets around our own star and now we can discover and analyse planets light years away.

    I never expected that in my life time and I'm still young. I can only imagine how technological improvements will allow us to see more and more about these planets without having to actually go there first.

    Right now we are only detecting planets that have enough mass to effect their stars in such a way that we can detect with our instruments. As our tools become more detailed and techniques are developed and refined we should be able to see more and more planets, smaller ones too, as well as gain greater clarity to the details of their atmosphere and composition. In theory we could even be able to detect if that planet has life or technology, if abundant enough.

  2. The article talks about how Earth is a tough place for life to be sustained and suggests that these large Super Earths would be somehow better, but the explanations for why are not clearly laid out.

    If a planet is more massive it's going to have a greater gravitational pull and possibly be hit by more asteroids and comets than Earth. If the plate tectonics are more aggressive life will have to adapt to deal with that greater upheaval.

    As the article states, 99 percent of all life that has ever existed on Earth has gone extinct. That's scary on one side, but also note that we humans are a result of that. Sure we can look at it as though we will just end up as part of that statistic, and perhaps we will, but it cannot be denied that because of all that planetary evolution, the human race has come to being.

    Now consider a planet where that evolution may be accelerated. It's possible that these planets got to an intelligent sentient race before the Earth did. It's also possible that due to the upheavals that life there never gets beyond a certain point before it's 'recycled'.

  3. The age of the Universe compared to the age of our solar system is surprisingly short. The age of our solar system is just a little over a third of the age of the entire Universe. As the article mentions it's possible and even likely that other intelligent life in the Universe is on a similar time scale. This suggests that unless other life forms evolved much faster than us and have developed extra-solar space flight, it's likely to be awhile before we meet any aliens. That doesn't mean it can't or won't happen but the likelihood is much slimmer.

    The Universe may be full of life, but to what percentage of that life is sentient. What percentage of that sentient life has developed technology sufficient enough for space travel? What percentage of that space-faring life is close enough to Earth for a visit? What percentage of that alien life would be interested in our civilization?

    Considering the distances, we may discover an intelligent race out in our neighborhood of the Milkyway, but it could end up being a very slow long distance relationship for many centuries.
I know the human race and Earth is not the only place in the Universe that has life. I have no proof of that other than the fact that the Universe is just too large for Earth to be the only one. Science finds regularly that life exists and even thrives in locations that are surprisingly harsh. So while the life may not seem likely to us, evolution has a way of making life work.

We humans tolerate a specific temperature range, can see and tolerate specific wavelengths of light and radiation. We process food in a specific way with numerous cooperative bacteria and other creepy crawlies that most of us would prefer not to think about or know. Other life in the Universe may look at us and wonder how we are able to tolerate the environments that we do because they are alien and harsh to the life forms observing us.

It's nice to watch Star Trek and Star Wars and think that all these alien races will be pretty much like us and be able to share the same environments without issue, but I suspect that's just a romantic notion that we dreamed up to hide the frightening truth that we really have no idea what life outside of Earths will be like. It's less scary if aliens are like us. We humans don't like 'people' who are different.