Monday, January 18, 2010

The Science and Politics of Avatar

Let’s mix it up a bit and throw in a movie review. Not your standard movie review though. Here I’ll attempt to satiate the intellectual appetite of my fellow science geeks. In closing, I’ll return to this blog’s theme and address the politics of James Cameron’s record breaking science fiction thriller.

The Science

Kudos to James Cameron’s scientific advisory team for getting so many things right. I watched the movie with a virtual propeller-laden beanie placed firmly on my head, and at almost every turn, I thought to myself, ‘that’s probable’. Great job overall!

Avatar is set on Pandora, an earth-like moon orbiting a gas giant planet somewhere in our interstellar neighborhood. It takes the protagonist a respectable 6 years to reach Pandora. What a refreshingly realistic time frame – Alpha Centauri perhaps?

The astrophysical lighting and shading was always right. Pandora’s sister moons always cast their shadows on the right spot (relative to their sun) of the gas giant parent. It was great to finally see a movie that paid attention to these subtle but important details.

Floating mountains? At first, this was a big miss to me. For a movie that got so many scientific details right, why in the world would Cameron allow things to get so far away from ‘reality’? And then it hit me – not all at once, but in retrospect after I left the theatre. Here’s my take on it:

In a particular scene, the entire night sky was awash in aurora borealis. Inside Fred’s brain… “Hmmm – based on the clear day/night delineation, I don’t think they’re near either pole… there must be some serious magnetic fields on that planet.” And In a separate scene, and another part of Fred’s brain… “Look at all of those rocky arcs coming out the ground. Cool. They’re like geophysical rainbows.” And then… “Field lines! Magnetic field lines! Those rocks are forming along magnetic field lines!”

So, I propose that the floating mountains were doing so because of a significant magnetic force – at least strong enough to balance the force of gravity. Does the math work out? Can magnetic fields actually be strong enough to allow big rocks to float? At this point, I don’t care (and I’m too lazy to crunch the numbers). It was cool enough visually, and important enough to the plot that I’ll accept the likelihood. At least there’s a plausible explanation based on science. Once again, well done, guys.

If one would (correctly) assume that the laws of physics and chemistry that govern evolutionary biology here on earth are present on Pandora, it should come as no surprise that plants on Pandora could grow and form logarithmic spirals. The math is good enough for sea shells, sunflowers, and submarine hunting here on earth - it must be good enough for life on another planet. A nice touch!

The next one is a combined hit and miss. I noticed that almost all of the animals on Pandora had 6 legs (or 6 appendages). This suggests a common evolutionary ancestry – a hit. Well done guys. How then does one explain the very humanoid, 4 limbed appearance of the Navi people on Pandora? Why not at least give the Navi small, unusable T-Rex arms just under their pits? I guess you can’t have it all… I guess Cameron needed us movie-goers to identify with the Navi as ‘people’. If they were too alien, this would’ve been harder. I did at least notice one subtle difference in their anatomy – the Navi had only 3 fingers and an opposable thumb (we obviously have 4).

Pollen eating horses? Big pollen eating horses? Not that I have a problem with pollen eating horses. It’s just that their size suggests a need to consume a lot of calories. Okay, maybe the pollen on Pandora is like cooking oil, but let’s not have our cake and eat it too - if you’re going to assume similar evolutionary hallmarks and an earth-like biosphere, you’ve gotta at least take the big parts with you.

The Politics

Surprise, Surprise - an anti-corporation, anti-military movie from Hollywood. I don’t know much about James Cameron, but based on Avatar’s plot, I’m going to take a guess that he’d rather hang out with Michael Moore than Pat Buchanan.

In Avatar, a large corporation (RDA) is behind the strip mining and exploitation of a distant planet for a presumably rare mineral called Unobtainium. The stuff is worth 20 million a kilo. No mention of Euros, Dollars, Shillings, or whatever, but we can assume that 20 million a kilo at least affords a profit margin greater than the rate of inflation (do we take time dilation into account when calculating inflation for products mined so far away:)

For sure, RDA’s corporate suits were demonized. They cared nothing about the indigenous Navi people. The only thing that mattered was “the cheddar”. Oh how simple and easy it is to get at the evil rich. But let’s lay down our pitch forks and torches for a second and ask the question that Cameron conveniently avoids - what’s up with this Unobtainium stuff anyway? Is it a critical ingredient in a cure for Cancer? In an ironic twist, does it provide earth with a “green”, inexhaustible energy source? We never find out. All we know is that Unobtainium is being mined for a profit, and that’s ‘bad’.

Just like our Exxon, which by the way has helped the United States gain highest standard of living on the planet, RDA is bad. Just like the evil pharmaceutical industry that has provided us with life saving, life improving drugs, RDA is bad. Personally, I’m getting sick of people that benefit GREATLY from record profits in a capital, corporate driven economy, vilifying the very system that has made them zillionaires!

And what about the military? Not only was the lead antagonist a Marine, he was on Pandora for the money. Soldiers that are motivated by profit? Can it get any worse!? Cameron adds cherry on the stereotypical sundae by having one Marine shout “Get some! Get some!” as he shoots the natives. Can his revulsion be any more overt? Ignore the facts. Just sit back in your comfy movie seat, put on those 3D glasses, and forget everything you’ve ever read about our military. Ignore the facts about, say, liberating Europe or saving Haitian earthquake victims. They are for warriors, and since war is bad, they’re bad.

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