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Monday, December 21, 2009

Spoiler questions, now that we've seen Avatar

Avatar-Teaser-Poster

Critic and blogger consensus holds that the visual effects of James Cameron’s Avatar are as innovative as its script is derivative. Fortunately Cameron pilots the narrative with momentum and efficiency without leaving huge holes in logic, while still leaving a few unanswered questions.

1. What is “Unobtanium,” anyway? I appreciate the fact that, in the name of avoiding unnecessary sci-fi exposition, Avatar’s script doesn’t dwell on the conditions of contemporary Earth – we can imagine depleted ecological wasteland a la The Lorax. The prized material “Unobtanium” on the moon Pandora has an amusingly vague name (that's an inside joke in scientific circles). I think it's a power source, but it would be nice to know any specifics about it, like whether it has a connection to Pandora's "networked" ecosystem (see below). Otherwise, the plot motivation's a little bit too much like the bumper sticker "What's our oil doing under their land?"

2. When Sully gets lost, why don’t they unplug him? Sam Worthington's Jake Sully operates a cloned body in imitation of Pandora's native inhabitants, the "Na'vi." Almost immediately upon Sully’s first field test of his avatar body in the Pandora rainforest, a giant Thanator chases him off a cliff and separates him from others. Alas, Pandora's so dangerous that humans aren't allowed to stay out at night. Sully's not technically in any permanent danger - even if his avatar gets eaten, his human body's alive and well at home base. One can see why his bosses wouldn't unplug him and leave his unoccupied avatar body as a tasty Thanator snack, after the expense of cloning it. Couldn’t they unplug him, give him some pointers for survival and directions home, then re-plug him, rather than leaving him to own devices?

3. What do Na’vi eat? When Neytiri rescues Sully, she reads him the riot act for endangering himself and unnecessarily killing those hyena-things. (Which seems unfair, given that they seemed awfully menacing even before he lit the torch.) Later we learn that the Na’vi can plug their ponytails into various flora and fauna on Pandora, and whole planet seems to be literally networked. The extent of that network seems pretty vague, but they can share consciousness with their land-based and airborne steeds, as well as commune with ancestors stored in ancient trees (comparable to a computer mainframe, I guess). So do they eat meat? Wouldn't that be harming the one-world ecosystem? But if they're vegetarian, isn't eating plants just as bad as eating animals? Maybe they’re fruitarians. Given their facility with bow and arrows, they seem to be a hunting-based culture.

4. What is the “Flux Vortex?” As Girlfight explains, Pandora has a region that makes instruments go haywire and features floating mountains. One can only assume that it's some kind of funky magnetic field, stable enough so that trees can grow on zero-gravity rock formations. Does that make any kind of sense? By the way, how light is Pandora's gravity? The tall, spindly Na’vi anatomy suggests that it's much lighter than Earth, and their skills at falling and flying winged creatures probably supports that.  The rest of movie's gravity seems pretty much Earth-normal. (A piece about Avatar's science applauds everything but the floating mountains.)

5. Is it really so hard taming a "Turok?" When Sully establishes himself as the Na'vi's savior, he tames flying predator called a "Turok" that's one of the most dangerous animals on the planet, and has important connections to the Na'vi heritage. (IFC.com guest critic Alonso Duralde amusingly remarked that Cameron "has no shame about set-ups along the lines of "Only two of our greatest warriors have ever captured the golden French fry," followed by, inevitably, "Gasp! He has captured the golden French fry!") It can't be that easy, else more the Na'vi would have done it, but we don't actually see Sully accomplish it.

6. Is this really a film about white guilt? Pretty much, yeah. Avatar closely emulates the plots of the likes of Dune and Dancers With Wolves, in which an entitled white guy defends oppressed, low-tech natives. Avatar muddies the racial condescension, given that Sully permanently "goes blue" at the end, but this interesting piece doesn't take it off the hook:

Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.

Tellingly, the name "Na'vi" is practically the same word as "native."

8. What’s that giant Bowie knife on Quaritch's ‘mech-suit?’ The film takes place in 2154, but an abundance of the film's human culture and technology seem almost contemporary, especially it's military weapons and hardware. When evil Col. Quaritch has his final fight with Sully (wearing a mechanical suit not unlike the one from Aliens), he whips out a knife the size of a kayak. Did that have some industrial application, or was it just a really big, scary knife? Incidentally, Stephen Lang has had a good year: you may also remember him as the guy who shot Dillinger in Public Enemies and the guy who ran into the wall in The Men Who Stare At Goats.

9. Can this film support a sequel? Presumably, the next chapter of the story will involve the  American Earth forces of the military-industrial complex sending more troops and bigger weapons. Unless Sully et al find a reason to travel to other regions of Pandora (or for that matter, back to Earth), it's hard to imagine a sequel that wouldn't be just the same movie done over again.

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