Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


decay & ruin
Biosphere II
dead malls
Irving housing

got that wrong

appropriate tech
Arduino μcontrollers
Backwoods Home
Fractal antenna

fun social media stuff

(nobody does!)

Like my brownhouse:
   Avatar in 3D
Thursday, January 14 2010
Gretchen got a ride up to Albany today to catch a flight back down to Florida. She'd just been down there visiting a friend whose husband seemed to be dying. Now that husband has died and Gretchen thought she should return. Last time she'd been in Florida, daytime temperatures had been in the 40s. This time they promised to be in the 70s (and in Hurley our temperatures would be rising from the teens to the 40s).
I spent much of the day up to my neck in Drupal development, one of the several jobs I am multitasking. At a certain point the work just clicked in and I found it was engrossing and fun. It's the reason I like this sort of work; I don't think this would ever happen if I was pulling shifts as a prison guard or as a fast food restaurant associate.
As I work, I've been listening to some mellow techno-rock by a band called Inu, which I discovered listening to Indy Pop Rocks. On that stream I heard a catchy little tune and made out a line that ended with "...with giants balls." That immediately got me thinking of Stephen Colbert, since he's the only person in the history of reportage (aside from Elephantiasis Man) associated with this phrase. So then I went and looked at the meta info for the song and was astounded to see it was called "Stephen Colbert." It's a good song. I couldn't download it anywhere, but I was able to rip a stream of it to mp3 using TotalRecorder.

I'd promised some friends I'd meet them tonight to see Avatar with them at the Lyceum Multiplex near Redhook. But as the appointed hour approached, I started feeling resentful that my arm had been twisted into saying I would go. I had too much shit to do to justify going out to see some overlong movie about cartoonish blue people on another planet. But I went anyway, meeting up with the others (and there were three others) at the parking lot near the place where US 209 crosses Route 32. From there we carpooled across the Hudson to Redhook, having just enough time to stop at an upscale bar near the corner of Broadway and Market Street in Redhook (it's not mentioned in Google Maps). Then, out in the Lyceum parking lot, we all smoked pot and then stumbled into the theatre. The Lyceum was one of the few venues in the area showing Avatar in 3D, so we got the glasses and then found our way to a group of centrally-located seats near the front.
I'd never seen a 3D movie outside an iMax theatre (you know, the kind of place that shows The Movie About the Ocean). But I expected it would be a normal movie experience, and so when the movie began as a nearly-three-hour cold open, I thought we were watching a trailer for some other movie. But whatever movie it was, it was awesome. There was space ship full of guys floating around in zero gravity. I'd never seen this done before except (in very limited form) in 2001 a Space Odyssey. Not only was the gravity zero, but the D was three, and it was awesome. But then in that sublime outside-the-spaceship camera pan, we heard in the voiceover something about the Planet Pandora, and I snapped out of my trailer reverie and tried to process what I'd just heard and seen as part of the movie I'd come to watch. (Being stoned on non-medicinal marijuana certainly didn't help this process.) It must be that there just aren't any movie trailers in 3D, so we'd been dropped into the movie without warning.
I was prepared to be disappointed, but I have to say I loved the movie. Not only was it gorgeous and meticulous in its presentation of an alien world, the science was actually fairly good (at least by the abysmal standards of blockbuster SciFi). As I mentioned, people on space ships experienced zero gravity and the space ships took years to reach other star systems because they couldn't travel faster than light. Once on the alien planet, humans had to wear masks because the atmosphere wasn't suited to their biology (this made scientific sense if, say, the atmosphere was identical to Earth's except that a third of the nitrogen had been replaced with carbon dioxide). Most impressive of all was the depiction of Pandora's biology. It looked as if real biologists had been consulted in the creation of the mythical beasts and vegetation. The beasts, for example, all looked to have descended from a common ancestor, some sort of six-legged hairless vertebrate-type beast with four eyes, breathing holes on its chest, bioluminescent skin details, and neural interface tendrils on the head (a kind of biological USB cable). That last feature provided the biology a simple standardized method for neural communication between individuals. Indeed, even the plant life could interface with this system, providing a planet-wide communication network similar to the internet. The only real disappointment with the depiction of this biology was the set of features given the planet's one humanoid species, the Na'vi. These creatures were almost identical to humans except they were ten feet tall, had long tails, pointy ears, and colorful translucent skin with details that glowed in the dark. They didn't have the six limbs or the chest breathing holes, but they each had a single neural interface tendril hidden inside a braid of hair in the back of the head. I was willing to excuse these overly-human features because they served a purpose more important than Avatar's science: they triggered instincts in the human brain allowing it to relate to these creatures empathetically. Though completely computer-generated by Avatar's producers, they were seemingly real enough to completely cross the "uncanny valley." Indeed, the best acting in the film was by computer-generated Na'vi and look-alike avatars, not live-action actors. And when the film was over, I found myself a little disappointed by my species' squat hairiness.
The plot of Avatar was simple and lacked much in the way of surprises, but it didn't need to do much more than a porn movie's plot. Still, even here there was attention to detail. The movie was called Avatar because its chief focus was one man's experience remote-piloting an otherwise-comatose creature resembling one of the Na'vi in hopes of some sort of scientific or diplomatic breakthrough. But because this pilot was an ex-marine, an attempt is made by the movie's tough-talking villain to have him report to the military, not the science people he's ostensibly working for. In other words, the villain is hoping to pilot the pilot, to make the avatar into a meta-avatar. This villain doesn't think much of the avatar program, but his preferred way for kicking ass on Pandora is to climb into a vehicle that looks like a massive headless robot, a sort of mechanical avatar that he controls with hand gestures as a homunculus from inside. The Na'vi themselves have their own version of this same thing, connecting their neural tendrils to those of large lumbering beasts or flying dragons in order to make them do their bidding. Why bother developing technology when the ecosystem provides all you need?
The 3D effects in Avatar weren't especially over the top. I never felt the need to duck a flying dragon or sweep an air jellyfish from the end of my nose. 3D was more there to draw the audience in, to make the action surround us as if we were, well, an audience of avatars. If you pay attention, you'll note that things were 3D in the movie that aren't so in our existing world, things like snapshots stuck to a refrigerator and even, on occasion, computer screens.
I know a movie is good if I feel changed after I see it. There aren't many that have done this (and, embarrassing to say, the first time this ever happened was after watching Back to the Future). I'm not a huge fan of science fiction as a genre because it tends to be so shoddy, but when it's good it's my favorite. In terms of how it blew my mind (aside from the pure spectacle of the visuals), Avatar most reminded me of Being John Malkovich. James Cameron even used a Being John Malkovich tunnel analogy to depict the process of taking control of an avatar.
One of the keys to good science fiction is not trying to explain to many of the oddities of the fictional reality, because unless they are scrupulously-researched, these explanations do not ring true. An example of this is thermodynamic absurdity advanced in the Matrix for why the computers decided to keep humans alive but conscious only in a simulated world. There are plenty of strange things in Avatar (floating mountains, interspecial neural communication, and a material, unobtanium, not available on Earth). But no attempt was made to explain these things, leaving them as mysteries for us to ponder. The only place where Avatar overexplained things was in its description of the avatars themselves as having DNA that had to be matched with a specific human controller. Had they just left out the word "DNA," this explanation would have worked. But on a distant planet, why would organisms even have DNA? Unless we live in a panspermic universe, the coding molecule for every genesis of life is almost certainly different.
The only seriously objectionable thing about Avatar was its use of the tired trope that basically states, "The only effective Indian is a white man dressed as an Indian" (think Dances with Wolves). But it's a Hollywood film, and the reason this trope is popular is that it's a reliable means of getting an audience of schmoes to relate to an unfamiliar civilization.
Perhaps less excusable even than the Dances with Wolves trope was the terrible acting on display. I'd recently seen Aliens and hadn't remembered Sigourney Weaver's acting being so wooden. But this is to be expected of a James Cameron film. He can do absolutely everything except get a good performance out of an actor. If he would just condescend to outsource the acting direction to someone, anyone else (personally I like Mike Judge, who would add some much-needed humor), his movies would be thoroughly awesome. Oh yeah, and lose the Celine Dion crap during the credit roll.

For linking purposes this article's URL is:

previous | next