Last week, I had the good fortune to part of a packed house in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium when director James Cameron came to Caltech on the evening of April 27 to talk about the fictional world called Pandora that he created in the blockbuster film Avatar. Moderated by astronomer and visualization scientist Robert Hurt, of the NASA/Caltech/JPL Spitzer Space Telescope Center, the panelists watched clips from the film and analyzed them for their real-world relevance, focusing on the intriguing question: “Is Pandora possible?”
Well, no, not likely, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of science that went into building Cameron’s fictional Other World. There is a massive amount of back-story information that never found its way onscreen. Much of that has been gathered on an interactive website called Pandorapedia, an official “field guide to the moon of Pandora and the world of Avatar… contain comprehensive information about the Flora and Fauna of Pandora, the indigenous Na’vi people and the technology of the RDA.” It’s now up to 300 pages of exhaustive information, and counting.
Personally, I was very impressed with the huge amount of research Cameron had
clearly done in exploring the underlying science, and how well-versed he was in the scientific aspects he’d
incorporated into his world. He easily held his own onstage, chatting with the scientists. He’s an avid scuba diver, for example, and some of the unusual undersea life he’s seen on dives inspired some of the flora that populate Pandora — specifically, those gigantic red “flowers” that retract at the slightest hint of pressure. And I hadn’t even noticed, until Cameron pointed it out, that the flying Mountain Banshees feature bright colors in coral patterning.
Cameron didn’t want to deal with classic sci-fi tropes such as warp drives and wormholes, so he located Pandora near enough to Earth that humans could get there in 5-6 years, while in a state of cryo-suspension — thereby obeying “the speed laws of physics.” When Caltech geologist and panelist John Grotzinger mentioned that he was disappointed by not seeing volcanoes on Pandora, Cameron responded, “Volcanoes fell off the to-do list. We did one thousand shots in six weeks. We’ll make it up in the sequel.” Ooh! SEQUEL! (The other panelists were Jess Adkins, a chemical oceanographer at Caltech, and microbiologist Jared Leadbetter — also from Caltech — who studies bacteria.)
Really, Cameron admits, “We thought of all this to an unhealthy level.” The result is an “intermediate future,” where we have achieved such technologies as antimatter engines, “light sails” on the ships that reflect laser energy beamed from Earth, and while “Unobtanium” is never fully explained in the film, it’s clearly a type of room-temperature superconductor — the sort of thing that would be critical to fusion energy on Earth. As for the conception for Pandora itself — a moon orbiting a large gas giant — Cameron admits, “It just looked cool,” and he reverse-engineered the details from that image. Let’s just say Europa and similar celestial bodies provided some interesting fodder for Cameron’s fecund imagination.
He also thought deeply, and consulted with scientists, on the question of Pandora’s magnetic fields (Unobtanium levitates in a magnetic field, and those fields knock out navigational instruments in the military aircraft). And here, he had to take a few liberties.
And for all those astrobiology nitpickers out there complaining that it makes no sense for most of Pandora’s fauna to have a six-limb design while the Navi inexplicably evolved into a humanoid form — yes, Cameron addressed that question, too, completely unprompted by the audience. He might have been forgiven for sighing in exasperation and declaring — a la that famous Saturday Night Live skit with William Shatner at a Star Trek convention — “Get a life, you people!” But he didn’t: he took the matter seriously.
It turns that this was another license he ended up taking with the science, knowing it wasn’t 100% accurate. Among other factors, he felt it would be too inhibiting to the actors in their performances. It was already a challenging task for the cast, trying to act in a barren warehouse, or in front of a green screen, or what have you, with all the special clothing/sensors for the motion capture technology needed to shoot scenes in such a way that the CGI could be added in later. Put yourself in the actors’ shoes and think about having to do all of that, and also keep “track” of imaginary extra limbs as you moved and spoke. So relax, science nuts, and take a deep breath. Any “inaccuracy” there is deliberate and for purposes of the art — not from laziness or ignorance on Cameron’s part.
It’s shame that so many scientists can’t keep from carping on scientific “errors” in the film, because this is a fictional world, people, and many of those so-called “errors” (a) are there for purposes of the plot, and (b) are so nuanced, 99.9% of moviegoers could care less, and probably wouldn’t notice. The story is always trumps the science when it comes to film, and most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. (Ironically, while I was blown away by the technical achievements of Avatar, I count myself among those who found the story tepid and uninspiring. But the film grossed mega-millions, so clearly Cameron knows more about pleasing an audience than I do.) What does come through is the sheer passion of scientists working in the field, and the sense of wonder that comes hand-in-hand with scientific exploration and discovery.
That’s really the whole point of creating imaginary worlds on the big screen, isn’t it? As interesting as the discussion was — and as much cool science was featured — the most telling moment came when someone asked whether it was all that fruitful to question whether or not the Other-World of Pandora and Avatar is really possible. Cameron, one of Hollywood’s most gifted World Builders, shrugged and admitted, “Not for me.”
Watch the full exclusive Discovery News James Cameron interview:
Leading image: James Cameron speaks during a news conference about the launching of the movie Avatar in Blue-Ray Disc and DVD in Sao Paulo, Sunday, April 11, 2010 (AP Photo/Andre Penner). Other images: 20th Century Fox (used with permission).