The Science of Avatar (Part I)

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | December 26, 2009 3:13 pm

So I finally saw Avatar–the 3D IMAX version–and it exceeded my expectations; not as a result of the much-hyped new technology, but because this story resonates. Though it takes place on an imagined world called Pandora, many themes speak directly to 21st century planet Earth. I’m certainly not about to spoil the plot for those yet to see the film, but would like to emphasize I’m particularly appreciative that James Cameron and his crew got so much of the science in this film right.

Picture 4

Several details struck me as well-researched and extremely innovative and I will do a post in the coming week on some of the most interesting examples. First, I’m curious to learn what aspects of this sci-fi movie appealed most to our readers in the science community. (There are likely posts around the internet about this already, but as I’ve been spending much time offline, have not yet checked). So leave your impressions in comments and we’ll return to the Science of Avatar next week….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Media and Science

Comments (35)

  1. Pete

    Yes, some good science indeed and a breath of fresh air for sci-fi. I thought the accurate imagining where the world could be particularly noteworthy.

  2. I am not sure if I’ll get to see it, but this review really put me off even if initially I was mildly interested in seeing it:

  3. Avatar deals with power, imperialism, and war among other themes, but you’ll need to see this one for yourself with an open mind Coturnix. I didn’t read reviews beforehand and can report this is the best film I’ve seen in a very long time. (I had watched Keep the River on Your Right earlier in the day which made an interesting prelude). Those who came along agree.

  4. Cameron

    I have to say, this film was underwhelming. Visually spectacular but wholly unoriginal. His characters were much like those in previous films and I couldn’t help but think of Last of the Mohicans every time the aliens were on screen. He even used Wes Studi as the clan chief.

  5. Rich

    I was a bit disappointed in the flying mountains. That seemed fairly far-fetched.

  6. Blank

    The imagined connection of most if not all species in the Pandorian ecosystem can be logically traced to Darwin’s common ancestor theory of evolution. That is, they are all descendants of an origin capable of such ubiquitous synaptic connections. This is an observation I have not seen anywhere else, which to my pleasure may upset the far right even more.

  7. I was thinking Dances With Wolves throughout most of the movie, mixed in with Aliens and a few other ones…

    I was impressed as it was visually spectacular! The story line, while mostly predictable, had enough variation of the other movies that it carried along nicely. And the floating mountains enthralled me as they appeared like Roger Dean’s Yes albums (with floating islands) come to life! Perhaps they were the inspiration- I don’t know- but I loved them!

    I saw the 3D version and that really helps with the overall feel of the images. I’m afraid the 2D version will be disappointing.

    Scientifically, I liked that the atmosphere wasn’t human friendly, but did see some possible holes. However, as a whole, it did seem good enough to ignore the minor issues. IMHO-fwiw!

  8. Phenomenal

    Must agree: Thrilled with the science & archetypal story themes in the movie. Science: Enjoyed the fact it was a moon, different gravity & atosperic composition, the scientists passion for knowledge & care & respect, transduction between plants, several different layers to the food web, imaginative topography such as floating mountains & giant trees, Gaia theory, biomechanics of the creatures locomotion as six-limbed vertebrates, biolumeniscence & colourations of the flora & fauna. Also the ethno-cultural details such a linguistics, becoming a warrior rites of passage & world view. The archetypal story had many details of interest additionally.

  9. Greyhalo

    This film does rehash several cliches. It also borrows heavily from at least 3 prior works:
    1) Pocahontas (the noble savage)
    2) Dune – offworld messiah
    3) Braveheart (blue-faced warrior cries for freedom).

    Cameron gets away with the heavy handed environmental message because the savages are actually connected to the spirit world. In this regard he has turned one of his previous concepts on its head. Let me explain. In the Terminator series we see a sentient computer network that seeks to eradicate the human race. In Avatar, we have the human race trying to eradicate a sentient organic network.

  10. Phenomenal

    Forgot to add Symbiosis between mount & rider!! Unobtainium was a curious & interesting detail. Even the seeds if the tree or other peripheral flora & fauna such as defensive behaviours were well-realised. The story & various motifs were the highlight for me & surpassed even the 3D & science!!

    Incredible movie!

  11. Patrick B.

    This is hands down the best “world building” I’ve seen in any sci-fi movie, ever. Clearly, great thought went into the physics of the Pandora solar system, to the geology of the planet, to the plants and animals that evolved on the planet, and to the social structures of the Na’Vi.

    1- Pandora appears to be a moon orbiting a gas giant. The gas giant can be seen in the sky in several shots in the movie, and you get the sense that the proportions are realistic.

    2- Pandora’s atmosphere is not breathable to humans. I loved this! In Star Wars, Star Trek, and just about any other sci-fi film, there are countless planets with human-breathable air, which is not very realistic. The air pressure on Pandora is tolerable for humans, but humans need face masks in order to breath. It seems that the face masks somehow modify the Pandora air, perhaps by filtering out the bad gases.

    3- One line in the movie establishes that Pandora’s gravity is slightly less than Earth’s. By adding this line, the film provides sufficient explanation for why Pandora has phenomenon like gigantic trees.

    4- There was clearly a great deal of thought put into the diverse plants and animals we find on Pandora.

    5- The hero has to learn the Na’Vi language! And also, there is a good explanation given for why some of the Na’Vi speak English! How many sci-fi movies bother with being this realistic?

    6- Also the culture of the Na’Vi, clearly influenced by tribal cultures of earth (native american and african, at least), was well conceived.

    As for the floating mountains… when they were first mentioned in the movie, they at first seemed non science-based to me. Were they being pulled by the gas giant’s gravity? That doesn’t quite make sense. Could it have something to do with magnetism? I decided I was willing to suspend my disbelief while watching the film, but I do wonder what the rationale was for these.

    In most sci-fi movies there are big concessions made in the science in order to make it easier to tell the story. One of the many virtues of Avatar is that there is greater attention to the science, and rather than making it more difficult to tell the story, it greatly improves the story.

  12. j

    The story was so ridiculously cliched and heavy-handed that it ruined the movie’s visuals for me.

  13. The Real World

    This movie has NO science and the technology to make it is already underwhelming and passe and was surpassed long before they used it on this movie.

    This article is nothing more than an advertisement in a media science magazine.

    This movie is fundamentally an antiAmerican propatainment romp from a notoriously antiAmerican racist movie director who isn’t American and doesn’t make movies about any real side of America. End of story.

  14. Lee

    (To Patrick B: the Na’vi speaking English is explained in the movie. That one Grace lady and some other dreamwalkers had opened a school for the children, and before it got closed down, many of them learned to speak it.)

    However, speaking of the Na’vi language, what are the odds that humans would have the capability, physically, to speak it, and ALSO, by extraordinary coincidence, the Na’vi would have the capability to speak the human tongue? Normally in sci-fi the aliens that can speak human tonuges are explained as having a tremendous vocal range, so that makes sense, but the humans can’t speak their languages. However, I get that it was kind of necessary to move the story along, and it was pretty cool to watch the scenes where the Na’vi language is being spoken, and it seems to follow the structure of a real language, because a lot of sounds and words were repeated in different sentences.

    My main problem was certainly the giant floating mountains. Did the filmmakers just sort of notice the existence of gravity and say “we don’t need you here”? Hmmm… never thought about magnetism before. But what would keep them in that one certain place? It seems that if they were repelled, they’d just move away, fall down to the ground in another spot. And if they were attracted, they wouldn’t hang in the air in the first place, would they? I don’t know. But yeah, the mountains are definitely my big issue with the movie.

    Also, I thought it was cool that you could see an evolutionary resemblance between a lot of the creatures. Everything except the humanoids and the rest of the animals, that is. If everything else on the world has six legs (or wings, or whatever), then why would the humanoids only have four limbs? What possible evolutionary advantage could they have for losing them?

  15. James Cameron is already talking sequels and he has said that they will not be limited to the planet Pandora. I wonder if that means we’ll get to see the “brown” Earth that has no green. I saw this movie after reading Ray Anderson’s Confessions of a Radical Industrialist and the environmental message really resounded. The biggest difference is that Ray Anderson paints a picture of how Corporate America and technology can help save the planet.

  16. Thomas L

    I think that the movie is basically the story of how evil the culture that is most responsible for the creation of the science and technology which allowed it be made (despite its flaws). So while the visuals are interesting (if dated), the story is rather flawed.

    Rather ironic that it is so popular in a society that no longer seems capable of seeing either the irony or the contradiction.

  17. I have yet to see the movie (here in China it doesn’t come out until Jan. 2), but the the part I’m looking forward too most is to hear and learn a little more about the Na’vi language. Granted, the language itself uses nothing that isn’t found in human languages (actors had to be able to perform it without after-the-fact manipulation), but the fact that they had a linguist consultant build it for them could easily fall into the category of “scientific accuracy”.

  18. Hi we are coving the science of this amazing film on our blog The Canadian BioTechnologist blog 2.0.

  19. For those commenting on the plot not being very new – agreed, but not in a bad way. One of the reviews I’ve read (I can’t remember which or I’d link it) pointed out that while the plot is an old one, no matter how many times it’s been told already the human race doesn’t seem to ever actually learn the lesson. (Witness continuing deforestation in Brazil and elsewhere, exploitation of native peoples, and general environmental damage…) So if Cameron is telling a new version of an old story, then it’s one we need to keep hearing again and again!

    I too was very impressed with the science, with the same reaction that the flying mountains were the most implausible bit—and one can probably handwave somehow about natural superconductors and magnetic levitation etc, given the backstory that unobtainium is supposedly a room-temperature superconductor of some kind. I love that they left this bit of jargon out of the movie (which it wasn’t really relevant to), but it’s there in the backstory if you look online.

    Another example that hasn’t been mentioned yet: sub-lightspeed space travel! After I left the theater, I was explaining to one of my friends that based on the stated travel time by the cryosleep doctor, and the distance to Alpha Cen, one could work out the ship’s velocity profile consistent with relativity. And few hours later at home, I stumbled upon the web page by the movie staff where they lay out exactly that!
    Someone did their homework on this one. Even the propulsion technology of the ship is quite plausible, given the just one highly speculative step of being able to manufacture large quantities of antimatter for fuel. I especially like the hybrid antimatter/fusion rocket combined with a beam-powered light sail. That’s exactly the sort of complicated trick that real-world engineers would use to reduce fuel and mass constraints on the spacecraft.

    The other thing I really puzzled about was thinking evolutionarily about the mental links between Pandoran life. Is there any plausible benefit to a giant predator for having the right biological wiring for connections to other species? Can we spin some sort of evolutionary tale that makes sense of an ecosystem where this is possible? I hope this mental link is explored more in future tales: how it works, what its limits are, etc. Can parent animals use the link to ‘upload’ lessons into the minds of their newborn young? What happens if two Na’vi connect together? Etc.

    Between this and District 9, this has been a heck of a good year for science fiction films with a brain.

  20. kchiou

    I wholeheartedly agree with this review–the positive and accurate depiction of science is very well done in Avatar. I wasn’t thinking at all of the physics of Pandora or of the technology, I was impressed most by how real the scientists were. Two related points that stood out:
    1) Despite their futuristic tools and their corporate ties, the scientists maintain a childlike curiosity and sheer bewilderment with nature. As a field scientist, that depiction really resonated with me because I see it all the time in the faces of field researchers. Just a thought: do you think Sigourney Weaver’s performance as a scientist was in any way affected by her work on Planet Earth?
    2) As an extension of the first point, the scientists are conscious of the sheer wealth of knowledge in the Pandoran ecosystem and are careful not to presume too much. This is much more in line with true science. The way that Sigourney Weaver’s character said “What we THINK we know is . . . ” can be pulled right out of any science lab.

  21. Phenomenal

    Some really interesting views by lots of people on the science in the movie.

    The floating mountains were satisfactory for me, the magnetic vortex very curious explanation adding mystery and alternative physical interactions into the world, but the sense of other-worldlyness & traversing danger they possessed very effective transition in the story. The genome combination of the avatars was another fascinating backstory detail. Guessing the twins were identical therefore having identical genomes that therefore matched the avatar? Certainly a tragic start.

  22. Gary Thomas

    Avatar may have got many things right, but I found it very annoying that they got the sound of the ducted fan aircraft so wrong. The whoop whoop sound of a large slow speed rotor on a helicopter is not the sound that counter rotating blades, especially small diameter ducted ones would make. The only ducted fan aircraft that I can recall had a wankle engine with the ducted fan housed in the body of the aircraft behind the cabin and in front of the tail section. It was reportedly nearly silent during flight and was offered as a substitute for jet trainers.

  23. The floating mountains were very clearly explained in the movie. They even show the unobtainium superconductor floating in a magnetic field several times in the human base, and then there are multiple lines of dialogue about the mountains being in a region of strong magnetic field. It does make me wonder why they aren’t mining the mountains though.

    The original “scriptment” from the ’90s shows that Cameron put a lot of thought into the science of Avatar. It’s worth reading the first ten pages or so, at least:–James-Cameron

  24. Also, it’s refreshing that the scientists are the good guys in the film!

  25. Enrico

    Let’s say we’re willing to accept floating mountains. Ok, fine, done. But where does all the water that’s constantly seen pouring down forming impetuous waterfalls even from some minor, almost bare rocks in the sky come from? How does the hydrologic cycle works on Pandora? It must rain quite a lot up there, on the small top of those floating rocks.

    I know, the fantasy boys think waterfalls from floating rocks look cool. It does not. I’ve been bored to death by this imagery…

  26. I love the bioluminescence of the plants and how the eco system was connected. It reminds me that most of our deep oceans remain unexplored I remember watching a show about it and it just sprung back memories of some of the plants. The native theme in the movie was also nice how the natives in America were connected with nature and understood it on a personal level thanking the animals for giving up their life. I worked in the oilsands and the way the corporation and their equipment was portrayed was mirrored in today’s world. The birds resembling dinosaurs the way the screens were place to avoid too much information from distracting the pilots the way you could move one screen to the other. I do think however that there will be no need for screens soon at all and any surface will be used as a screen.

    Check out India for the inventor there. I hate plugging other sites but I love that site.

  27. Here’s what I really liked:

    This is big imagination science fiction.

    Thanks to stuff like Battlestar Galactica, Gattaca and Firefly, we’ve gotten stuck with sci-fi that feels very small compared to the good, old stuff.

    I mean, BSG = robots. Big deal. How sci-fi is your vacuum cleaner, really?

    Gattaca = genetic profiling. I mean, sure, it’s a nice step toward implementing death panels, but anything that kills Sarah Palin’s baby can’t be that sci-fi.

    Firefly was just cows in space.

    Point being is this last decade+ has been a freakin drag on our imagination. We deserve bigger, better imagination. And dammit, if scientifically plausible floating mountains aren’t good enough, nothing is.

  28. Patrick B.

    One commenter called the film heavy handed. I raved about the science of the movie in an earlier comment, but I’ll cede this much: while the “world building” of Avatar was far better than most space movies, the premise of the movie (a greedy corporation threatens an indigenous species for the promise of short-term profits) was not terribly inventive.

    The concept of an evil corporation is pretty hackneyed at this point. Yes, it resonates with modern corporations, which are profit-motivated and can sometimes do great evil. But even in our current age corporations are much more environmentally conscious, not to mention better regulated, than the corporation depicted in Avatar. Since the trend seems to be toward greater environmental consciousness, it just doesn’t seem realistic to me that a corporation in the far future would be callous enough to murder sentient aliens. To explain this, the film would have needed to explain that at some point after 2010, the trend toward environmental consciousness and government regulation completely reversed.

    Rich — I’ll accept your explanation about the unobtainium superconductor floating in a magnetic field. I guess the floating mountains were full of unobtainium… or… something… That’s good enough for me.

    A side note:

    The hero’s Avatar is not a true Na’Vi, because its DNA has been synthesized with human DNA, right? This has interesting implications, because the hero becomes a leader of the Na’Vi and mates with a female. It seems probable that his efforts to save the Na’Vi people will end up spreading human DNA into their future generations. This could be a worse travesty than merely stealing their unobtainium.

    Another side note:

    Unobtanium is a stupid name.

    Another side note:

    Did the film ever explain how a human’s consciousness could be transferred into the body of his or her avatar, when the avatar was far away and was not hooked up to any kind of machinery? This is potentially a big flaw in the science of the movie.

    That is all.

  29. The $400-million, 162-minute mega movie will be more scrutinized than Bigfoot photos snapped by Geraldo or Willie Nelson’s agricultural deductions on his 1040EZ form.

  30. What amazes me is how little I am amazed at the lack of compassion for story lines where it steps on the toes of manifest destiny disguised as “American Patriotism”, I am proud of my home, but not its leadership, why is that wrong? Voting to change hasnt worked for generations because we have the rich two party system that keeps the class system in place. Viet Nam was classic of greed run rampant and the hell with middle class lives. We are once again embroiled in a battle of the rich trying to tell the rest of the population what rights they will be given as far as health and safety go, taxes to overwhelm the backs of the middle class, but not increase the burden on the wealthy. I applaud anyone who makes a statement like the film Avatar!

  31. In most sci-fi movies there are big concessions made in the science in order to make it easier to tell the story. One of the many virtues of Avatar is that there is greater attention to the science, and rather than making it more difficult to tell the story, it greatly improves the story.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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