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I saw Avatar in 3D last night. What a thrill. It made me think of the early days of cinema, back in the early 1900s, when they showed a movie of a train speeding towards the audience and everyone jumped to their feet. The 3D and the computer graphics really come together in Avatar, and you get the feeling that a new medium is being born.

One of the effects I liked especially were these little critters like thistledown, who were beating their fronds like jellyfish. Air-jellies. And the native characters were so soulful and beautiful—it was kind of thrill to be identifying with beings so strange. In this respect, Avatar is slightly like this summer’s District 9, which is also a film where we’re encouraged to root for the aliens in the course of their encounter with the human race.

When I attended Swarthmore College in the 1960s, my roommate for the first three years was Kenneth Turan, now a film critic at the L. A. Times. Nobody could tell the story of a movie like Kenny.

Back in 1997, Turan had the temerity to write a negative review of Titanic, which was the director James Cameron’s movie previous to Avatar. Turan’s point was that the script of Titanic was weak and corny, and that Cameron should have hired a professional writer instead of writing the script himself.

So now, twelve years later, in a 2009 profile of Cameron in the New Yorker, Cameron reveals that he’s still angry about this. Speaking of Kenneth Turan (and any other critics), Cameron, said, “So, f*ck them. F*ck ’em all.” Turan’s bemused reaction in an email to me: “Talk about a slow burn!”

Naturally I was curious to hear if my old pal would like the new film. Turan’s favorable review of Avatar makes the point I mentioned above, that Avatar represents a new kind of film making—Turan compares it to advent of sound in the movies.

What about the script for Avatar ? It’s fairly strong. Cameron does have a solid sense of how to tell a dramatic story—after all, this is the man who wrote and directed the classic Terminator movie.

There were many things I liked about Avatar. The rebellious woman pilot was great, with her classic line yelled at a male antagonist: “I’ve got guns too, bitch!” Having the hero be wheelchair-bound in real life worked for me, it got me into the mindspace of being disabled, but without feeling like I was being lectured to.

And how about the shot of the evil coffee-sipping colonel ordering a missile attack against—a giant redwood-like tree! Wonderfully iconic. Attacking a tree! How insane. And yet…it’s happening all the time.

The SF in the film is comfortably professional. The notion of a literal planetary mind is a classic theme. The notion of a soul tree also feels comfortable, as does the idea of cross-loading a dying person’s “software” to a new wetware platform. And using avatars for exploration is vintage SF as well.

I suppose one might quibble about the time-latency problem of running a remote body over a network—I mean, it’s hard enough to leap onto the back of a giant flying bird even when your vision isn’t a hundredth of a second out of synch with your movements! But, hey, this is SF, so we might as well assume they have a zero-temporal-lag quantum-entanglement hook-up between the avatars and their controllers in the plastic coffins.

The whole image of the avatar controllers in their boxes has a nice meta quality to it. We, the viewers, with our tech trappings of heavy 3D glasses, are invited to become the remote minds immersing themselves into the lithe blue figures on-screen. It’s a more pleasant trope than the Matrix conceit that there isn’t any actual world out there at all.

The guy sitting next to us at the screening told me the film’s also out on IMAX 3D. Hmmm. Maybe I need to see that.

Easy prediction: there’s gonna be a lot of blue people with putty on their noses at the next few SF Worldcons!

10 Responses to “Avatar”

  1. COOP Says:

    The script was weak, but the visuals were truly mind-blowing. The bad guys could have used a little more fleshing-out, and the blue guys were a little too perfect and wondrous. I much preferred the aliens in District 9, who seemed to have more “realistic” and all-too-human motivations in their relationship to humans.

    I was thinking about your writing while I was watching it, in fact. I just knew you would dig the wild flora and fauna. It would be terrific to see one of your books given such a lavish film treatment!

  2. Alex Says:

    I went to see at the new Imax 3D cinema at the 109 Cinemas here in Nagoya. The movie is visually stunning, but I was disappointed by the story.

    The story is a SF re-telling of Pocahontas with a touch of The Matrix and Apocalypse Now. The visuals are Roger Dean inspired/copied and it’s a shame Cameron didn’t give a credit to Dean.

    Do a search on YouTube for
    Avatar Trailer – Pocahontas
    it’s very good.

  3. Andrew Price Says:

    If you haven’t seen it in IMAX 3D, you haven’t really seen it. My brain blew a fuse.

  4. emilio Says:

    Saw it last night. I thought it was incredibly well done, but plot was just a bit too predictable. The young folks in my life love it, and I’ve heard talk of it being a spiritual experience in the yea old blog world. (I guessing they were stoned — hmm that might be fun.) Like all good SF it had lots of interesting ideas without adaquate explanation — and how come they were so good at speaking English?

  5. Steve H Says:

    Haven’t seen it, but there’s a lot of buzz about the central idea being lifted from “Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson. It’s the first thing I thought of when I heard about it, and I didn’t know the character was wheelchair-bound until later.

  6. railroad9 Says:

    The concepts being tossed around as lifts from other stories are, as Rudy puts it, vintage SF. As far as similarities with “Call Me Joe”, once one has the concept of remote bodies, the normally disabled operator honestly grows organically from that. Now, I’d like to think Cameron reads a lot of SF, since the majority of his screenwriting career has been genre, and so he likely knows his Anderson. That said, the avatar concept is a common one in SF, and the disabled controller is a pretty obvious step in that story.

    That said, Titanic lifted a lot of stuff from the 1953 film of the same name. Very little originality in that flick. Apart from, perhaps, the Model T scene.

  7. John E. Rogers, Jr. Says:

    Hi Rudy,

    Great thoughts on Avatar. I, too, had trouble with the time-lag issue, though I didn’t think it was significant enough to comment on in my review for Asimov’s.

    Here’s the link for that review:

    All the best,

    John Rogers

  8. Steve H Says:

    I like the way Rudy refers to the common elements of SF as ‘power chords;’ these are the building blocks of the genre. Rocketships, zap guns, androids and teleports and telepaths, spacesuits and cold equations; these are all fairly obvious. You can look to Kim Kinnison’s space armor as the ancestor of Heinlein’s combat spacesuits, and when Haldeman brings them out in FOREVER WAR they are a logical progression.
    I just don’t see that process in “Call Me Joe;” the idea of mind transfer has been around a long time and used in many ways, but rarely with such startling originality. Half of what makes the story work is the vividness of the Jovian surface through Joe’s eyes. It’s a story written in 1957, and I bet I haven’t read it in over ten years, but it was the first thing I thought of when I heard the plot of AVATAR. “Call Me Joe” is a power chord itself, IMHO, a source of ideas like R.U.R. or THE INVISIBLE MAN, and not derivative, but although I’m pretty well-read I’m not an expert on early SF and there may have been precursors. I’d still say that if other stories exist with that theme, “Call Me Joe” is the best and most original.

    . . .but I also think IDIOCRACY was a feeble rip of Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons.”

  9. nanarosa Says:

    Love your thoughs, Rudy.
    I thought Avatar was a bit “Princess Mononoke goes to Hollywood, with Tarzan”.
    Also made me remember of “John Carter of Mars” which I devoured when I was a teenager!
    Definitely not a very original idea…
    I loved “District 9”. That was a different film!

    The Avatar/Pocahontas crossover trailers are hilarious!

  10. kolbiel Says:

    Ok, how many times will we all be herding to cinemas just to see new special effects? come on… nanarosa, you’re absolutely right about the pocahontas references – avatar is pocahontas in space! there’s nothing, NOTHING new in this film except for cgi effects.

    and this film wins Golden Globes for best DRAMA?? best drama. for real?

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