Posts tagged "sci fi"

Annotated Avatar

It seemed half my extensive family had gone to Avatar last week, and half those who went were planning to return to see it in 3D. Meaning that, without Twitter, I can tell the film has legs. The dialogue is terrible (half the scenes in the action-heavy latter third could be subtitled “Whoo-hoo!”), the plot creaky (seriously, “unobtanium”!?), but the visual effects were wonderful. For those alone I was happy to pay $12, and I pray for some all-botanical YouTube version soon. For the ladies.

But Avatar is itself a hack, James Cameron is less auteur, more sci fi magpie. I have seen a few slideshows online picking apart the action (including Vulture’s FX comparison) but nothing picking apart the less recent or more sideways sourcing. With the help of my husband and a scuba-certified friend, we decided to start a list. Additions welcome.

1. Many of those spectacular botanicals were not quite such a surprise to those who, like my friend, have done dives around the world. A short list of underwater ancestors for Pandora’s flora would include the Christmas tree worm (the retractable whorl-like plant Jake turns into Whack-A-Mole); crinoids or feather-stars (the empathic “hairs” embedded in the Na’vi braids); young flying helmut gurnard (the pterodactyl-like creatures young braves must tame); moon jellyfish or hydromedusae (the floating seeds of Eywa). And the sand on some beaches in the Maldives is phosphorescent, lighting up beneath your feet like the lichens on the branches and rocks the Na’vi run across. Cameron, as noted in his recent New Yorker profile, is a scuba practitioner, and mined the aliens/sea creatures overlap in the must-despised The Abyss.

2. The tree-as-planet, an idea thoroughly described by Ursula K. LeGuin in her 1971 short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” (title from the famous Marvell poem).

The branches, the epiphytic growths, the roots with those nodal junctures between individuals: they must all be capable of transmitting electrochemical impulses. There are no individual plants, then, properly speaking. Even the pollen is part of the linkage, no doubt, a sort of windborne setience, connecting overseas.

3. Miyazaki. The Japanese animator can do as much with drawings as Cameron with CGI, and was there first (in Princess Mononoke, Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) with a military stampede of wild beasts, a goddess-tree and the magical floating mountains (see image above).

4. Mary Jemison, Indian Captive. Others have noted the triteness of the outsider captured by native tribe, learns the language, defends the tribe against his own people plot (Dances With Wolves being the leading reference). But I immediately thought of this true story with a similar plot, sexes reversed, that I checked out of the library dozens of times as a child. Something about the terror, and then the science fiction-like descriptions of life among the Seneca really captured my imagination, and it seems, Cameron’s. He switches the sexes, much as he switches Wes Studi, an actor I totally identify with Last of the Mohicans, from bad guy to good.

5. Sigourney Weaver, a self-conscious nod to Cameron’s own oeuvre. It was obviously his desire to return us to his first triumph, but also a little melancholic to see her young again, a la Ripley, as an avatar. For a man who consistently casts, and marries, Amazons of her ilk, it seems a little too much like manufacturing your own fifth wife.

6. The first and hence the scariest fight: Jake versus the Pandorized saber-tooth tiger. I know I have seen this in a movie before, with more fur flying, but I can’t think where.

Higher and Higher

In his back-page New York Times Book Review essay on The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, Jonathan Lethem makes many good points about Ballard’s visionary writing, “desolate landscapes” and his linkages with other arts.

Every bit as striking as Ballard’s feeling for entropy is his engagement with arts from which literature too often seems quarantined: music, sculpture, painting, architecture.

It is the importance of the last, architecture, that has always struck me in Ballard’s stories. Science fiction (a tag that should not be scoffed at) spends time on architecture than any other branch of fiction, since where we live can be a shorthand for culture. We know we are not in Kansas anymore when the sleeper wakes in royal apartments, or with a leprotic virus that turns nature into glass, or in a gridiron city without an exterior. What he sees, what he walks through (there aren’t very many shes) is the beginning of our mutual exploration of this new place, and we experience the strangeness of the built environment before we encounter the new life forms, language, or climate. Some of Ballard’s architectures are truly fantastic, but I think his best cautionary tale is in the thin novel High Rise. There Ballard takes the fear of modernism to its logical extreme, transforming shelter porn into savagery in a very realistic glassy condominium tower.

The plot of the novel as I recall it (I do not own it, having run across the book by chance on the shelf of an Umbrian farmhouse my father rented from some British people) is life in a Corbusian high rise after systems start breaking down. This new building, once bruised, becomes first an annoyance, then life-threatening. There are walls of glass and many balconies, a pool and a supermarket and the rest of the city on the ground far below. But no one in the building ever goes out (it is as if they are on the moon), and so when the water stops, the air-conditioning stops, they turn on each other, establishing allegiances based on the hierarchies of floors (the higher you are, the richer you are) and fighting for scarce resources. Even  lapdogs loose their chains. It is a slim book because it just doesn’t take very long for such a civilization to devolve.

What’s interesting about this to a modern architectural historian is obvious: modernism scared people, and still does. It seems like an advance in civilization, but perhaps it is a retreat from everything but advancement. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. High rises are often occupied by the very rich and the very poor, and no one in between. Ballard takes all those fears to their end, creating a doomsday scenario. What if modern architecture was as alienating and unnatural as its critics told us it was, what would happen to its inhabitants? In exploring the possibility, Ballard performs a kind of criticism-as-exorcism, but I think his conclusions are open to interpretation.

He was no dilettante, either. Ballard was friends with the futurist crowd at the Architectural Association in London in the 1960s and early 1970s, a crowd which included Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas’s “Manhattanism” in Delirious New York is an exploration of the same extremes of modernity as Ballard’s high rise and his short story "Build-Up," (aka “The Concentration City”) one of my favorites. All you need to start dreaming of some city of the future is the first line.

Noon talk on Millionth Street:

Commentary on the visual world by Alexandra Lange. Can include design, architecture, parks, movies, TV, books, kids.

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