Being a techie I really enjoy science fiction movies. What ruins one for me is a technical inconsistency or failure to get a technology correct. This post is my first in a series on the subject where I go through popular movies, talk about what they got right and dissecting what they got wrong. I should mention that I have yet to see a science fiction movie I consider 100% technically correct. Numerous fiction films have done so, but creating the perfect science fiction film has so far eluded Hollywood. The allure big explosions, laser beams and warp drive is so much more appealing to the masses than the inner workings of an airlock.

The first winner I’ll discuss is James Cameron’s Avatar. I should note that it will not be the only Cameron film reviewed in this regard. He tends to get a lot “right.”

Winner: Avatar 

Not only is this one a winner, it’s the first science fiction movie that got almost every technical detail right – those that it missed are fairly minor. From the zero gee scene in the beginning of the movie where Jake is shooting through the transport ship to how the characters handled the poisonous atmosphere of Pandora to the weaponry used by the soldiers to the way the Navi communicated with their animal mounts. Wonderfully done! Cameron really has an ability to dig into the technical details and create a rich backdrop. I’m also a fan of how the computer screens were designed – pretty cool. I think we’ll be further along hundreds of years – heck, even decades – in the future, but you can only push so far in a film without distracting the viewer from the main plot. Jacob Nielson commented on web site design: The web site design is like a theater and the content is like the play. You want people leaving the theater saying, “What a great play that was,” not “What a great theater that was.” In other words, don’t let the design draw too much attention away from the story. Science fiction films demand some “theater,” but only to a point.

What did the movie get wrong – wrong is such a strong word – how about not quite right?

The first would be the the floating mountains of Pandora. The leading theory as to how these float has to do with some property of the mineral unobtaineum interacting with Pandora’s magnetic fields. It’s just obscure enough that I can buy it. What I can’t buy is how the vegetation is sustained. While rain would fall to provide moisture for plant life, with minimal ways to replenish, the soil/nutrients would all eventually wash away. Barren rocks? Possibly. Floating jungle? Sorry, but no.

The second things that got me – just a bit – were the AMP suits, or Amplified Mobility Platforms. Not that I think the concept is bad, far from it, I think it is a very strong possibility we’ll see some version of this in our future. My only beef was the design. Unless the suit was specifically designed for use on Pandora (I would find that to believe) it is difficult to see how any engineer would develop a combat “suit” that surrounds the pilot in a huge pieces of relatively unarmored glass.

Lastly, and I can’t fault Cameron for this – almost every science fiction movie has the same issue, is that the movie doesn’t effectively deal with the issues surrounding the time involved with space travel. Yes, they show people coming out of a cryogenic sleep, but what about the time involved in interstellar travel? Did it take months? Years? Centuries? How do the economics of mining years or decades away from earth play out? There are all sorts of issues around this. I would have loved to see something addressing this.

In summary, Avatar is the most technically accurate science fiction film I’ve ever seen. Cameron does an amazing job thinking through technological details and tends to get far more right than wrong.

Technical Accuracy Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Photo credits: Twentieth Century Fox

Posted by Darren Beyer

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