Tue Jan 5 16:43:29 EST 2010

Bad Transcript: Avatar (2009)

I got tired of waiting for Rod, so I wrote a little bad transcript for Avatar. Super short. Real tiny. It's here, and you should totally read it.

(Edit: One week later, he posted the abridged script.)

I used the 77 kiloton explosive yield number in the transcript without showing my work, since "Michelle's" rant was already long enough, so I'll put it here.

First assume a granite asteroid a kilometer wide. That's 500 meters in radius, which, with the volume of a sphere being 4/3*pi*r^3, ends up being 523,333,333 cubic meters. The density of granite is 5500 kilograms per cubic meter, so that's 2,878,333,333,333 kilograms. At an impact speed of 15 meters per second, the kinetic energy (in joules) is 1/2*m*v^2, or 323,812,500,000,000 joules, or 3.23*10^15 joules. Since there's 4.18*10^12 joules in a kiloton of TNT, that's a 77.46 equivalent kiloton explosive yield. Magic!

If you want to mess around if the numbers yourself, I wrote a .ods spreadsheet, for which you'll need Open Office, or Google Spreadsheet, if that's how you roll.

As for the movie?

Well, hmm.

To be sure, Avatar is pretty. Very pretty. I saw it in IMAX 3D, and even at that resolution, and with a very critical viewer, the sense of immersion was complete. If nothing else, Avatar is the final proof that CGI graphics have arrived.

So now the question is, what to do with them.

It's got more plot holes than Chekhov's Colander, the characters have about as much depth as a coat of paint, and The Message was ludicrously overbearing, but I managed to walk out of the IMAX theater wanting to know more.

Even this is double edged. Sure, it certainly engaged me, but nothing that's been in production for as long as Avatar, (Six years, and supposedly he's been thinking about it for two decades) or with such a beefy runtime, (162 minutes! Ow, my bladder!) should feel so incredibly rushed.

The long production time is partly to blame for this. There's a lot to Avatar, and the plot structure is such that not enough of it gets relegated to the geek cruft. Some stuff cut in the name of runtime is kinda critical.

The point of Unobtainium, (Memetic warning: tvtropes link) within the narrative, is that it's a generic resource (Yep, tvtropes) for the evil, evil Americans can lust after. But if you read all the geek cruft like some sort or pedantic loser named bbot, then you would know that it's a room temperature superconductor. (Of which I have written previously)

This is why the hunk of unobtainium floated in the Head Jerk's office, why the floating islands did the same, and the weird arch like shapes around the tree of souls were both weird and arch shaped.

So, it's a nice try. Ten points for the attempt.

And a minus thousand for the shitty execution.

Superconductors, you see, don't work like that. Not at all. While they can be modeled as perfect diamagnets, (a material that repels magnetic fields) they have additional properties beyond this. Most pertinent here is the fact that the mechanism by which they achieve diamagnetism is via flux pinning, which means they don't just repel a magnetic field, but remain stationary relative to. They resist both being pushed towards, and pulled away from a magnetic field. This behavior is most visible in this video.

This is what makes them useful for magnetic confinement systems, and for maglev trains, (Their in-story use) but is entirely inconsistent with how unobtainium behaves on-screen. It would float on a tabletop electromagnet, like the one in Head Jerk's office, but you would have to position it, then turn it on.

And, of course, it would never float in a planetary magnetic field, whose defining feature is stability. Along with not being very strong. We've got superconductors all over the place on Earth, and none of them float in the mere .6 gauss the Earth's field can muster.

Now, alarmingly powerful magnetic fields are not unknown in astronomy, but they tend to be associated with very unhappy stars, near which planets, let alone life, have a hard time surviving.

(Unrelated: Gamma ray bursts are some freaky shit! GRB_080319B occured 7.5 billion light years away, and was naked eye visible!)

Additionally, it really doesn't make sense for a room temperature superconductor to cost $20 million a kilogram. It's (un)surprisingly hard to get a pure dollar/kilogram number, since high temperature superconductors are a lot closer to "ceramic" than "metal", and are usually manufactured in their final configuration, and not bulk wire.

But a not-unreasonable wild ass guess would be a $1000 a kilogram. Even an MRI machine, which is mostly a wacking great superconducting solenoid, along with a lot of high-margin electronics, would be hard pressed to break $10,000 a kilogram.

High temperature superconductors would be real useful, but not to the point of commanding a five order of magnitude price premium. Various gadgets that depend on generating great big magnetic fields could be made more compact with decent superconductors, but I doubt it would be anything close to economical.

As for the company mining the uneconomical unobtainium, personally, I would have thought that it would have been hilarious if RDI had been an Arabic energy conglomerate, and all of its employees Arab-ethnic, rather than American-ethnic. A couple years ago, when Avatar was being made, it was looking like the Emirates, along with the Chinese, were going to take over the planet. Not so much now, but it would have been oh so plausible. Plus, it's fairly preposterous that the American empire is going to last a hundred and fifty years. A hundred and fifty years ago, the British ruled the world, and just look at them now.

Another thing! I complained a lot in the bad transcript, but I had to leave out some stuff to keep under the self-imposed word limit.

One of the things I didn't complain about was the morphology of the Na'vi, since it would have been seized upon by the neckbeards as an error, and comprehensively mocking it would have required far too much space, space better put to use making Titanic jokes.

The problem is that the Na'vi have barely anything in common with other Pandoran species. The basic Pandora mammaloid body plan is hexapodal, six limbed, with four eyes and two neural interfaces.

Unlike every other mammaloid species on Pandora, the Na'vi have four limbs, two eyes, and only one neural interface.

This is huge. Really, really big. On Earth, all the mammals have four limbs. Hell, all the vertebrates, all the chordates have four limbs. Fish have four limbs! You have to go all the way back to insects to get an animal which doesn't have four limbs. 500 million years ago! And I haven't even mentioned hair! Not a single other animal on Pandora has hair! Only the plants have hair!

It is astonishingly unlikely that the Na'vi would evolve such a fundamentally different body plan as to beggar belief. It just wouldn't happen.

"Indeed it is unlikely," my hypothetical fanboy says. "Quite unlikely. Suspiciously unlikely. If the Na'vi are so unlike everything on Pandora, one might wonder if they had, in fact, evolved on Pandora."

In reference to humans, this is called the ancient astronaut theory, and, with respect to the Na'vi, it makes a certain amount of narrative sense. There is no possible way that a pretechnological civilization could present armed resistance against a spacefaring race. Avatar will almost certainly have a sequel, and it would be kinda short and depressing if it just consisted of two hours of orbital bombardment, though I'd buy a ticket. It would certainly be interesting if a ship of Na'vi relatives showed up to check on their lost colony, and things graduated to interstellar war.


Firstly, this theory assumes a degree of competence in foreshadowing on the part of Cameron. As I've spent the last few thousand words harping on, Cameron fucked up in a hundred, trivially fixable ways in Avatar. Over, and over again he has made mistakes. I simply don't trust him to have done something this clever.

Secondly, the morphology of the Na'vi can almost certainly be attributed to executive meddling. This piece from Wired has an illuminating quote:

So in the spring of 2005, he met with Fox and asked for a few million dollars to prove he could create just such a world. The executives had some initial concerns, not all of which were technical. For instance: The tails-- were the tails on the aliens absolutely necessary?

"Yes," Cameron said flatly. "They have to have tails."

He didn't say anything else. He didn't have to.

Wonderful passage. Makes Cameron look like a real uncompromising Visionary-with-capital-v type. But.

If Fox was concerned about the tails, which are only noticeable in three or four scenes, what the fuck would have thought about a six limbed, four eyed, cat nosed, hairless blue skinned alien?

Questions would have been asked. They're giving Cameron $500 million to make his pet project, the very least he could do was make sure it would be a success. How would an audience relate with something that had four eyes? The movie is centered around a love story, would an audience believe a human could fall in love with a hairless ten foot tall hexapod?

Doubtful. Nitpicking assholes like me would have appreciated the scientific integrity, but that kind of shit doesn't put asses in seats. And it takes a lot of asses to make back $500 million.

Hilariously, the tail conversation was a compromise, a typical one. Wired never explicitly lied, no. I'm sure that conversation took place exactly as published. They just spun it a little. Put it in the best possible light.

Indeed, Avatar is marred, irrevocably, by compromise. An uncompromising Avatar, now that would be an interesting movie. I think I'll write about that in the next post.

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