Worldbuilding: are you going to watch the Avatar sequels?

News broke this week that two sequels for Avatar will be filmed in New Zealand. Unsurprising. James Cameron’s moved here – he’s bought a farm in the Wairarapa.

I don’t know I’ll bother with the new Avatar films, though. I slept through the first movie. Twice. The main problem was the excruciating Vietnam war-meets-Pocahontas-meets-Dancing-With-Wolves  plotline.

But I wasn’t inspired by the settings. Technically they were fabulous – a triumph for New Zealand’s film industry. It took around 1500 artists and computer whizzes, working flat out for a couple of years, to do them. A friend-of-a-friend of mine had to upgrade the rendering servers – all 8000 of them. It was great to see Roger Dean’s floating worlds brought to life. The starship was cool, if unlikely. The other tech seemed realistic.

Jupiter rising over Io – a picture I made with my Celestia installation

But the big problem was Pandora – an Earthlike world orbiting a gas giant at ‘goldilocks’ distance from Alpha Centauri A. We already know no gas giant exists there. Furthermore, gas giants are shrouded with radiation belts – and tidal heating effects mean any Earth-sized moon orbiting them will have very different conditions, even in the ‘goldilocks’ zone, from Earth. Always assuming that a moon that large – with the right blend of silicates, metals and so forth – can form around a gas giant. Disbelief wasn’t properly suspended.

Are there other Earths out there? The science is still coming in – mostly Kepler data. Not one planet so far, it seems, is like Earth. Not one has been confirmed capable of hosting ‘life as we don’t know it’, still less life as we do. Part of the reason is that we’re only detecting certain types of systems, because of our technology. The really cool observatories were cancelled. But the other reason is that world characteristics are an emergent product. Look at Jupiter’s moons – all products of the same planetary formation, in the same area, with identical laws of physics – yet wildly different from each other.

The other problem, for me, was Pandora’s flora and fauna. Wonderfully realised and drawn, but it was really Earth with a different skin. Same plant/animal divisions, herbivores, carnivores, and one intelligent species (bipedal in a system of hexapods!) that had mastered horse analogues. Just now we don’t even know whether complex ecosystems will always emerge. Life on Earth consisted of bacteria and slime for two billion years. And it’s only luck that tetrapods and pentadactylism dominated – look at the Edicarians. Weirder than Pandora. And as for intelligent life, who says there will be just one species?

I figure the one thing we can be sure of is that alien worlds won’t be like ours. Certainly not the way Hollywood imagines. John Haldane summed it up in an oft misquoted phrase – ‘the universe is not only queerer than we imagine. it’s queerer than we CAN imagine’.

In the practical sense, the Hollywood vision is framed by entertainment – anything too alien wouldn’t attract audiences. But writers still need to stretch people’s imaginations. And if movies won’t, there’s plenty of room in books.  I can think of a half dozen SF ideas right now from Lem’s intelligent ocean to Clarke’s cryo-life. The onus is on writers to take that further. What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

4 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: are you going to watch the Avatar sequels?

  1. I enjoyed Avatar (twice) but I admit I had similar thoughts to yours re “Earth with a different skin. Same plant/animal divisions, herbivores, carnivores, and one intelligent species”…

    I found myself guessing which Earth animal many of the Pandora creatures had been based on. The trees where the one different concept, I think, as the nerves of the whole ecology.

    I like SF and I think anyone who does can forgive some aspects.

    Yes, it was a “messagy” film, but then there are some countries that actually need a message delivered to them! 🙂


    1. Glad there’s SOMEONE else in the world who had my experience too! But I can’t fault the fact that two new movies will pour a lot of cash into the local economy.


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