Why I won’t be watching the Avatar sequels

I have never yet successfully watched Avatar, and this despite the fact that it was filmed in the city where I live, and its 3,862 sequels are being developed here right now. I tried watching it. Twice. And fell asleep both times.

You can guess that I didn’t think too much of the movie. It presented to me as Pocahontas meets Dances With Wolves meets a Vietnam War protest, complete with the cliché anti-war version of what the military are meant to be like. Saccharine, judgemental, and who says that future society, centuries hence, is going to go in a direction that offers social commentary on the ills of mid-twentieth century society?

A starship I designed…

But I also had problems with the technology, which was trying too hard to be ‘realistic’. One of the annoyances was the starship. This was a visual tour de force, and it had a solid technical basis in an engineering study done by Charles Pellegrino and Jim Powell for a starship able to accelerate to 92 percent light-speed via an antimatter beam-core drive.

Theoretically such a drive is plausible – the physics of it are well understood. The problem is actually building one, given that any material substance can’t withstand the energies involved. Even the fuel – anti-hydrogen – can’t be handled by normal pipes and tanks. That implies magnetic containments.

To me there was much that was just too casual about the whole idea, which Pellegrino dubbed ‘Valkyrie’, and which Cameron portrayed on a significantly larger scale. It introduced a new concept; towing – the motors were ahead of the ship, creating huge efficiencies in mass-weight ratio. That was cool. But the difficulties of handling antimatter were essentially hand-waved; the idea was that anti-hydrogen could be reduced to near absolute zero temperatures (0.0005° K) and become snow, making it easier to transfer and store. Theoretically, quantum effects mean the matter-antimatter reaction won’t happen at that temperature. It hasn’t been tested. And you’d need only one glitch in your magnetic containment, and …. Boom. ‘Ooh look, a second sun.’ The equation involved is the one we know so well – E = MC<exp>2.

Getting that much antimatter is another challenge; it can be made, but thanks to Dr Einstein’s equation, the energy needed is colossal. Production also isn’t efficient – about 50 percent. At that level, making 50 tons of antimatter would require the whole of Earth’s current energy production over a 40 year period (1.8 x 10 <exp>22 joules, since you ask).

Another hand-wave was the solution to the problem of interstellar particles at lightspeed. Space is, essentially, a vacuum, but there are enough stray particles of hydrogen and helium, and a few other things, to be a problem. If you’re moving at lightspeed, they present as hard radiation (it makes no difference whether it’s the particle or you that’s moving). The Valkyrie answer was to create a circulating shield of particles ahead of the ship to act as a buffer. These were collected and re-used. Exactly how that could work with the efficiency needed, however, didn’t seem plausible to me. The Avatar starship, given its scale, would require thousands of tons of antimatter.

All of which, to me, rather blew the suspension of disbelief. So will I be watching the Avatar sequels? Probably not.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019


12 thoughts on “Why I won’t be watching the Avatar sequels

  1. -grin- Everything you say about the technical issues is precisely why I find most ‘military sci-fi’ impossible to read. I’m no science nerd but even I know enough to know it’s not plausible. Worse, unless we discover something totally out of left field, this stuff isn’t even /possible/. I can handle plausible, but what’s the point of reading a science based genre that ignores the science? Methinks, that’s called fantasy. Nothing wrong with fantasy so long as it’s not dressed up as something else…

    Ahem, that said, I /loved/ Avatar. I’m okay with social commentary, and as a gamer, I love the idea of becoming some/thing/ else, and exploring a new world from the inside. Will I watch the Avatar sequels? I don’t know. If they’re just more of the same then probably not. If the avatar tech is used to explore different worlds then possible yes.

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      1. I’m not familiar with Dean’s work, although I can see similarities between the images shown side by side. I just wonder, what’s the difference between plagiarism and ‘an homage’? Anyway, a new world would be great.
        Speaking of Cameron, I can hardly wait for the latest Terminator. Linda Hamilton is going to steal the show again. 😀

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  2. It was all about the spectacle in 2009 – seeing it on the big screen was all very impressive. But, yes, it’s Dances With Wolves in space. I will likely watch the sequels for the heck of it.

    Did you get round to watching Blade Runner 2049? I found it a pretentious bore. Although, again, it looks rather spectacular. More time was needed on the script.

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    1. I didn’t… there are many movies on my to-watch list. I can’t even get them via Netflix etc at the moment, as the TV broke (repair cost was higher than buying a new one, which bloody figures in today’s idiot disposable world). I figured I’d replace it if there was a pressing need. That was in June last year – and I’m not being hyperbolic. I suppose I could get the same streaming services on my computer, but hey…

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        1. Well, there’s that. Or there’s that trick current manufacturers use in which every component is made out of tissue paper and spit, so the gear fails 28 seconds after being installed and switched on, but unfortunately the warranty only lasts 27 seconds, so you’re out of luck, ha ha ha (bring back the Philips K-9, all is forgiven…).

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  3. The major thing I liked about Avatar was the visual effects. But that was also the major problem. I think the producers went so all-in on the effects that they totally forgot this little thing called “story.” I didn’t see much of one.

    As far as the “science” goes, hey, aren’t they on a planet trying to mine something called “unobtainium”? Pretty much gives you fair warning that the whole thing is implausible.

    Still…workable starships are an interesting subject. In one of Arthur C. Clarke’s books (I forget the title; humanity sent robot probes to other star systems programmed to make and nurture test tube babies) the starship overcame the problem of interstellar particles by using an ice shield at the bow of the vessel. Don’t recall at this remove whether this ice also shielded against hard radiation from impact.

    You raise another interesting point about the energy budget of the vessel. The implied necessity of a paradigm-shifting method of energy production is unavoidable. For starters I suspect a whole new concept of “energy” is needed, and must be shown viable, before we can even start thinking about starships with any hope of a real-world solution. Electricity however produced (even the long-awaited fusion reactor presumably won’t produce electricity except by blowing steam through a turbine, which somehow seems weirdly anachronistic) probably won’t be enough. Won’t be sufficient to the task, I mean.

    Niggling in the back of my head is a problem from undergrad days involving a postulated “photon rocket” with an extremely high specific impulse. If I remember correctly (far enough back that I can’t guarantee any such thing!) the point of the problem was to arrive at an order-of-magnitude solution for the energy requirement just to boost to Alpha Centauri. Photons were used as fuel so that exhaust velocity permitted the rocket to approach speed of light. If you went far enough into the astrogation aspects I recall all sorts of dead ends. I think the underlying point of the problem was “starships are impossible.” Certainly THAT kind of starship would be! But I remember thinking then (and still think) the problem should have been seen as a kind of road map pointing to the future. “OK, we can’t do it that way, and that’s the only way we see to do it, but how sure are we that’s the ONLY way? What if … ?”

    Wonder if there’s a physics faculty somewhere teaching a seminar using the above as a problem in how to approach science. The purpose of the seminar wouldn’t be to solve a problem, but would instead be almost psychological, a way for the student (and probably the teachers!) to examine how they approach problems and research projects. A seminar on method, then, with something at present impractical and even a little implausible to give it some traction.

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    1. Yes – getting people to think laterally using starships would be a great teaching tool! I totally agree – energy is the key, and the energies involved are so colossal that some new way of generating it is needed. The problem remains our friend Doc Einstein’s limits on deterministic physics, which have been proven true when tested every which way for the past century. Energy, time, space, gravity, mass… he got it right, utterly and in every way. And so interstellar travel becomes, essentially, impractical.

      I keep hoping that there might be an elegant solution to interstellar travel, somehow. There remains a niggly thought that Einstein might well have been right about quantum mechanics, too – that the Copenhagen approach, essentially railroaded through by Bohr, might well be a false-correlation explanation for what’s going on there. If so, there might be a whole different interpretation that (in some manner unaccountable to me just now) could open up prospects for a different physics – something that doesn’t prove Einstein ‘wrong’, any more than he proved Newton ‘wrong’, but which offers a more encompassing explanation that integrates the whole of everything… and that, somehow, that might open up avenues to go places we didn’t think we could go.

      Pursuing that one to its illogical conclusion, I could envisage a starship able to ‘sidestep’ the current challenges, perhaps a machine that could go anywhere in the whole space-time continuum. Maybe the same equations would allow the designers to make it, oh, I don’t know… bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. I may not be the first to think of this, i suspect. And yet, tongue-in cheek hyperbole aside – it does make sense that IF we found a solution to the current physics conundrums, and IF it did open up opportunities to go interstellar – well, who says it couldn’t also be a time-machine? (And Heinlein, naturally, already came up with it – the Vegan starships in ‘Have Spacesuit, Will Travel’).

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      1. In all my spare time I’d like to dig a little further into the “incompatibility” between quantum mechanics and relativity. The two fields have borne up under exhaustive experimental testing; so if they truly are incompatible (I gather it has to do with how “time” works in both fields) the necessary implication is the existence of some more complete theory encompassing both. Then there are those tantalizing speculations about the variability of the speed of light at different eras of cosmic expansion, or the “evolution” of physical laws in the vanishingly small moments of initial expansion following the “big bang.” Alas. If one could only count on another 50-60 years! I might consider going back to school, however abhorrent the prospect of the classroom.

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