Avatar and a few words on World Building

Our Netflix account has been reactivated and I’ve been catching up with some movies I’ve wanted to watch. Including…


I had been advised to see Avatar in the theater, in 3D or IMAX or whatever. I didn’t. I waited for it on DVD. This is a very pretty movie. The effects are really, really good. If anything, James Cameron continues to be valuable because he pushes the technology forward, and I like that he does that. It gives other film makers (even subtle film makers) more tools to work with. More tools are good! This makes the rest really disappointing to me. The plot is derivative. I might have been able to forgive that if the micro-level writing was good, but it’s not. The characters have no dimension and speak in cliches. Nothing happens that you wouldn’t expect to happen. If the effects weren’t gorgeous, this would be a B-movie at best, a SyFy movie-of-the-week.

Then there’s the world building. Everything has a cause and an affect. The military/corporation have power armor, but there’s no low-grade exoskeleton for a paraplegic? Not to mention that if you can grow avatars, fixing some spinal damage should be trivial. Putting aside the fact that there are mountains floating in the air, where is the water for the waterfalls coming from? None of these mountains seemed to have glaciers. There are little lizard things with wirly-gig sails that dizzyingly spin them around. What’s up with that? Is that a form of locomotion? Mating dance? Predator confusion method?* Why do the Na’vi have reinforced bones on a low gravity world? Why are the Na’vi blue??? In real life, there is a reason we are the color we are.

I’m not saying that there can’t be explanations for these things; I’m just saying that there’s no evidence that it’s been worked out. Because that’s not the fun part of world building. World building might begin with the phrase, "Wouldn’t it be cool if…", but that stage shouldn’t last long. In fact, in the course of writing and building worlds, most ideas are shot down with "That wouldn’t work in this world." Then you start thinking about what would work, and usually the solution is much cooler than expected.

Maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe my expectations are so high that our own work won’t measure up. What I do know is that Avatar is the antithesis of all the things I wrote about in my post on inspiration. It’s not the rainbow I love. It’s that the rainbow is beautiful *and* has such an elegant explanation behind it.

* I do this in real life too. I see a video of cute otters "holding hands" and wonder what the reason for that behavior is. Same for the weasel war dance. What is up with that?

2 thoughts on “Avatar and a few words on World Building

  1. cookie_chef

    We haven’t seen Avatar yet. I had few expectations for the story line but would’ve liked to have seen it for the visuals. Maybe I’ll check our Blockbuster kiosk up the street.

  2. najud

    You forgot one very large part

    Cameron clearly understands nothing about ecological systems. His world is clearly one large engineering project built to support the Na’vi. Even if you accept that the world tree brain is the engineer, it is silly considering how vulnerable the whole thing is to upset from the most routine of disasters. This really doesn’t fit with the requirement of ecological upset for evolution of sophisticated multicellular organisms. Avatar resembles a simplistic “Intelligent Design” model rather than anything that could happen in our universe.


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