Scientist portrayal in Avatar


I’ve seen Avatar twice now. I already reviewed it on my personal blog. I didn’t love it exactly, but I had to see it a second time because, despite its flaws, I knew my seven year old would think it was awesome. He did.

However, I do want to add one quick thing about it. In the past, I’ve complained often about the way movies portray scientists as closed minded eggheads who don’t understand the way the world really works, and skeptics are regarded as blind fools who wouldn’t recognize evidence that’s whacking them over the head with a cricket bat. For more of this discussion, see the Atheist Experience archive, episode #530 about “Skeptical straw men in fiction.”

One thing that Avatar really has going for it is that the scientist characters were clearly right. The military wanted to charge in with guns blazing; the scientists just wanted to study the planet’s ecosystem and establish diplomatic relations. The scientists emphatically were not egotists filled with hubris who were tampering with forces of nature they did not understand. And when they talked nerd talk, it’s presented as charming. They got geeked out and excited about the stuff they were seeing, and this was treated with affection for new discoveries. When Grace visits a new part of the world in order to try to treat her serious wounds, the first thing she says is “I have to take some samples!”

So the movie itself was thoroughly implausible all the way through, and the political aspects were annoyingly oversimplified. But treating scientists as real good guys and giving them believable reactions counts for something in my book.

Comments

  1. says

    That's good that they portrayed scientists in a somewhat positive light, but I really don't have any hope at all that hollywood can put out sci-fi movies that do any justice to the true nature of the genre at all. In terms of science itself the sheer implausibility of the film gives it a big fail in my book.

  2. says

    I am glad Cameron got that one right, he used to portray technology as the ultimate Frankenstein monster, a heartless creature that would destroy and enslave us.

  3. says

    The film was not science fiction. I think that accepting this fact is key to being able to enjoy it. It is squarely in the fantasy genre, in my mind. Yes, it uses spaceships and marines in robot suits. But they're dealing with elves and magic trees. The problem you've got is genre slippage, and it's easier to relax and go with it if you expect to see something similar to Lord of the Rings or The Princess Bride.

  4. Martin says

    That was the impression I got. Avatar is basically "fantasy with spaceships" a la Star Wars.Another film that I thought gets it right in terms of what it means to be a scientist doing science is the original (not the remake, never the fucking remake) version of The Andromeda Strain from the early 1970's. Not only is there a lot of the sort of thing you'd never see in a movie today (frumpy middle-aged people doing lab work), but it explores the way scientists often have to strike Faustian bargains with politics to get things done, and how one's ethics can take a few bodyblows in the process. Too bad it didn't take long for Crichton to slippy-slide into the more lucrative world of pseudoscientific drivel in his later work.

  5. says

    "But treating scientists as real good guys and giving them believable reactions counts for something in my book."Agreed. The deathbed conversion kinda ruins it though…

  6. says

    My favorite part of the movie was when the geeky scientist guy uses his avatar to fight the bad guys. As soon as his avatar is killed he catches his breath, grabs an assault rifle, and goes out to find more bad guys to kill. Nice to see a movie where the scientists are allowed to kick ass too.

  7. says

    I disagree with the fantasy idea stuff. The movie went out of its way to insist that the fantasy elements were applied bizarro science.*The spirits were due to the planet's eco system having the ability to link their nervous systems *The god was a consciousness made from the nerve synapses of the "plant" life.The biggest science suspension of disbelief I had was the Navi being bipedal on a world filled with hexapods. Most of the other higher life forms had 6 limbs, so i had trouble seeing how the navi had a common ancestry with them. Though now that I think about it i guess there were a few quadrupeds and ape like things in the forest that might justify it…still though.Grace's death bed conversion really wasn't…basically they hooked her mind up to the naturally existing supercomputer and she got downloaded in ala a trans-humanism. I think that justification story wise made their religion all the more real and actually worthy of saving. They legitimately had a way to escape 'death'.

  8. says

    I liked that about the scientists, and I also liked that the "nature god/goddess/spirit" was an actual thing that the scientists can study, and identify. In short, life on that planet evolved it's own internet. That's bitchin'

  9. says

    I had a problem with the whole idea that a planet entirely isolated from earth would evolve any kind of creature that looks so much like a human being that we could find the females "hot."But on the other hand, this has been a standard trope of science fiction at least as far back as the original Star Trek, so maybe my standards have just gotten too high.

  10. says

    @Matto OOOOHHH that's not right!As far as the tetrapod/hexapod issue goes, the tie-in media for the flick says that the blue monkeys and Na'vi are secondarily tetrapodal, the first pair of limbs having fused at some point in their evolution. Personally, I think a Hox-gene deletion would make more sense, truncating a body segment, but meh.Overall, I thought they brought in relatively good science…don't know about the floating mountains supposedly of pure Unobtanium, but it didn't bug me as much as I thought. I damn near cheered in the theater when Sigourney Weaver's scientist insisted that there was a scientifically measurable effect to this "god" that the Na'vi were obsessed with–hasn't that what we've been saying all along? If something is real, it should have a mechanism we can investigate and effects we can measure. If a planetary unimind could let me commune with my ancestors, preserve an impression of my psyche beyond death, and teach me useful information about how to interact with its planet (all claims made in some form for YHWH) I would absolutely revere it, even worship it.

  11. says

    I appreciate the distinctions you make, but how about the observation that it was all "whitey" against a seemingly untechnologically advanced race?Typical hollywood. They're never nice to whitey anymore. I suppose To much "Blazing Saddles" ruined that for us.

  12. says

    @ Kazzim That, but I got to note that with an ecosystem that is at least superficially like earth it isn't *impossible* that convergent evolution will select similar body plans… I also have to disagree with the navi being "hot" but that's me. I do give them props for being a good deal alien rather than just humans with different color pallets. Their movements are at times serpentine and others feline. The major point was that the movie was fun and for me at least part of the fun was it providing starts for thought exercises of 'how would so and so in the movie work'.My friends and I also have fanonized the idea that Avatar is in the same verse as Alien 1+2 (stasis sleep space travel, human armor mecha, corrupt mega corporation etc)

  13. says

    "I appreciate the distinctions you make, but how about the observation that it was all "whitey" against a seemingly untechnologically advanced race?Typical hollywood. They're never nice to whitey anymore. I suppose To much "Blazing Saddles" ruined that for us."Except the marines were of mixed ethnicity.

  14. says

    As far as the tetrapod/hexapod issue goes, the tie-in media for the flick says that the blue monkeys and Na'vi are secondarily tetrapodal, the first pair of limbs having fused at some point in their evolution.I guess that would be the tail, hm? I had a problem with the limb discrepancy too, but I'll buy that explanation. Another problem I had was the need for a reinforced bone structure on a low G planet, but I suppose you can explain that as an adaption to falling out of skyscraper-high trees.

  15. says

    "Another problem I had was the need for a reinforced bone structure on a low G planet, but I suppose you can explain that as an adaption to falling out of skyscraper-high trees."Or a result of everything on the planet being insanely territorial and hostile.

  16. says

    Ing said:"Except the marines were of mixed ethnicity."That would be a good point, except for the fact that we can say (like Nam) whitey just recruited all the lowly unintelligent ethnic folk to fight the evil aliens. Come on, you gotta' give me somethin' her, at least for the off the cuff effort.

  17. says

    My peeve was that how were Sully and the others supposed to go to the bathroom while they were hooked up to their avatars for 12 hours or so a day?Personally, I would have also liked to have seen the movie begin on Earth so that we could see what conditions were like that the idea of spending 5 years in cryo to travel to a distant moon was worth it. I also would have liked some scenes showing Sully trying to adapt to life as a parapalegic. Instead, the movie just throws Pandora at you almost from the opening scene. But that's just me.

  18. says

    Of all the objections that should be made to the movie's science, going to the bathroom probably does not rank on my list anywhere. It's the future and those coffin thingies are pretty elaborate; I'd be surprised if they didn't have catheters and such built in.And as for open in mid-action — the movie was already over two and a half hours. You really want another thirty minutes of backstory tacked on? I followed what was going on just fine without it, and still got enough time to know Sully that the scene where he is enjoying his new body remains one of my favorites.

  19. says

    It's the future and those coffin thingies are pretty elaborate; I'd be surprised if they didn't have catheters and such built in.Yeah, but they were wearing their clothes in the machines!I understand about the time constraints. I was just mentioning for me personally what I would have liked to have seen.If the film does well enough, which it probably will, Cameron has mentioned the possibility of sequels. I note that so far we have not seen what lies within Pandora's oceans. Given his interest in underwater projects (such as The Abyss, his IMAX films about sending submersible cameras into the Titanic wreck and an imagination of sending a probe to Europa), it would not surprise me if an Avatar sequel highlighted the marine environment of Pandora.

  20. says

    As for squeals who wants to place bets on an eventual Aliens vs Navi?Battle the millennium, alien termites vs alien lolcats

  21. says

    I'm guessing the Avatar machines have a side effect of your mind either pausing a lot of non-vital functions or just living and let fly (like REAL astronauts). If it's the first one I imagine an Avatar session ending is like being unfrozen in Futurama, you head right for the bathroom as fast as possible.

  22. says

    I was pleasantly surprised at the overall plausibility of the movie's science – most of it is more or less consistent with what we know today. Star Trek and many other SciFi films have things like transporters and passage through black holes and time, which are essentially magic dressed up in scientific jargon. That's not to say I don't enjoy those films, but Avatar for the most part eschewed using outright magic and stuck to processes which might be improbable, but at least are conceivable given what we currently know.

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