Saturday, January 2, 2010

But what does the rock *DO*??

I've put this off a bit in part due to my holiday travel schedule, and in part because of the absurdity of it all, but I think it's time we sat down and had a little chat about the movie, Avatar.

The film has already been reviewed by a couple prominent libertarians already, each holding decidedly different views.  I want to talk about them in a moment, but right up front, I want everyone to know that this article isn't meant to be a review per se and it might just contain some spoilers... But mostly, I want to discuss a topic few people are likely to cover:  The Economics of interplanetary conquest in Science Fiction. 

If you're planning on seeing the movie and are going to be bothered by me giving away key plot elements, I'd recommend putting an end to your reading at this point.

* * * * *

With all that in mind, let me touch on the views of Peter Suderman and Stephen Kinsella on this movie and its relationship to political philosophy.  The fact that Avatar is a deliberately political movie isn't exactly a secret, especially with a few choice jabs (obviously directed at the Bush administration) regarding preemptive strikes coming from the stereotypical military commander.  As Roger Ebert notes, it is anti-war - which of course libertarians of all stripes will appreciate - but it's also got the sort of Fern Gully style environmentalism attached, which is what I want to discuss as the main flaw in the film, undercutting any sense the rest of it might have made otherwise.  

So what do the libertarian reviewers have to say?  Well... In his article Blue Man Group, Peter Suderman - who mostly gets it right - writes:

"...the Na'vi, the movie's marble-skinned alien natives, are easily the most convincing humanoids ever to leap forth from a Hollywood effects house's CGI server-farm — that is, at least in terms of the way they look and move. The realism stops, however, every time they open their mouths and reveal themselves to be crude, one-dimensional native stereotypes: instinctive and animalistic purveyors of cheap mysticism and nature worship...

That Avatar's melodramatic attacks on corporate interests and its defense of simple, natural living come packaged as one of the most expensive, and probably the most technically advanced, corporate films in history would seem to indicate that only quality bigger than the movie's stupidity is its head-in-the-clouds hypocrisy. Cameron's made a movie that he intends to be epic and awesome, but the only thing that's awesome here is his total lack of self-awareness."

All true, though I think it's worth noting that Roger Ebert and, perhaps more importantly, my roommates don't mention the corporate interests at all and primarily see the villain as the military.  This makes some sense, considering that the corporate executive (played by one of my favorite character actors, Giovanni Ribisi) is mostly comic relief playing mini-golf in an office, and the facially-scarred military commander is the one calling most of the brutal shots as he barrels through his little revenge story.

So Suderman may take it a little far towards the anti-corporate side, but Stephen Kinsella misses the point entirely...  In the Mises Institute blog, Kinsella wrote a piece entitled; Avatar is Great and Libertarian in which he claims that:

"...at its core it was very libertarian: it was about a group of people (the Na'vi) defending their property rights on the world Pandora from aggressors (the human invaders), and about one of the humans (a soldier named Jake Sully) deciding to join and help the right side. Sure, the movie has some stilted dialogue in parts, and a few cliched scenes (I liked how the evil military commander referred to their outrageous assaults on the Na'vi as "shock and awe," but his telling the troops that they would "fight terror with terror"--when the Na'vi had not really been shown to have done anything characterizable as terrorism--was a bit of a stretch in its attempt to dig at the current American "war on terror"), but overall it was great and fun, and libertarian."

Oi.  No...

No, let's just be clear on this point: Avatar is not libertarian.  At least it most certainly won't be viewed that way by any audience not looking for confirmations of their already refined libertarian principles.

Kinsella does what a lot of us do (especially the more optimistic among us) and finds only what he was looking for in the movie's message.  So I'm not sure I blame him, but the point he makes is completely nonsensical...  There's a grand total of one mention of property and it's in the form of a battle cry by the human infiltrator and it merely comes in the form of a generic "This is our land!" rally.  If you squint your eyes really hard and you twist your brain around all the ridiculousness, you can drag a morality lesson about the non-aggression axiom and property rights out of this film.  But, like Mr. Kinsella, you really need to be searching for it.

That said... I always try to understand what most people are going to get from a film and what the director intends to convey - not only what I personally want to take from a story.

As any film composer would tell you, a big aspect of the job description is being able to effectively get to the emotional subtext being conveyed to the audience.  In Avatar, the audience is meant to care about the Na'vi for their "peaceful", mystical, and harmonious connection to nature... And we're meant to hate the humans for their violence, rapaciousness and excessive consumption.

So we do.  

No one walks out of the theatre thinking, "Gosh, those Na'vi had clearly homesteaded that planet by using it and living there, and the human aggression can be stopped by careful defense of private property rights."  If we're lucky, they'll walk away with the general sense that war sucks and we should stop doing that all the time... But in reality, they're going to walk away thinking; "If only we could be more like the Na'vi, communing with nature and stop ruining the planet by cutting down trees, polluting and strip-mining... The world would be so much better!"

The fact is, we've seen this story for the last 30+ years in cinema.  And this story has had a profound affect on the attitudes and beliefs of people in my generation, since it's been told and re-told repeatedly, instilling a stupid set of poorly-reasoned, quasi-luddite beliefs in hundreds of millions of people around the world.  It's bad enough that the whole idea of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the most technically advanced movie ever is paradoxical to that film telling the story of abandoning technology and communing with nature, but the foundation of the entire plot and thus its message is horrendously flawed primarily because the portrayal of basic human economic behavior is completely insane...  

So with that in mind... Let's talk about the exciting hobby of rock-collecting!

* * * * *

Like all the other movies of its kind, Avatar spins a wonderful tale that makes perfect sense once we completely gloss over the first premise.  We ignore that, pretend it doesn't matter and can care about all the characters and just let the events unfold as they do... I'm patently incapable of doing such a thing, so while I was watching Avatar, one thought kept popping up in my mind again and again:

"But what does the rock DO!?"

You see, the entire premise upon which all of the action in Avatar rests is that the humans simply MUST have this wonderful rock, unimaginatively called "Unobtainium".  Yes.  That's right... I said Unobtainium.

For those of you who suspect that this might be some kind of inside joke.  It is.  In the sense that every writer on the planet uses words like that as a placeholder until they use their creative imagination to come up with a better name.  Simply put, what James Cameron wrote was just about as lazy as you could get (also approaching this level of laziness was calling the planet "Pandora" and the natives "Na'vi").  But so fine, the rock has an idiotic name.  What's it's purpose?

As near as I can tell... Nothing.

Well ok, not quite "nothing", the rock is a MacGuffin.  It's the reason d'e'tra for the humans to be cool with killing thousands of the sentient native inhabitants of planet Pandora.  It's also, according to the film, worth $20 Million per kilogram (and $40 Million once it's been refined, according to other sources).  As Alfred Hitchcock noted upon coining the term "MacGuffin", the audience could care less what the object is - and in the case of Avatar, that concept could not be better illustrated.  For most people, it doesn't matter why there's a war between the humans and the Na'vi, just like it doesn't matter why they're on the planet to begin with - not really.  Completely generic "greed" is the only answer Cameron gives, and for most people, that's more than enough...  After all, we all know that human beings just do stuff like this cause they're evil!

I actually do care, not only because the fate of an entire fictional species was affected by it, but more importantly because these things actually play a role in how real, live human beings think about humanity, human nature and unfortunately, economics.  It's the continual reinforcement of bad ideas that results in a world where the mass public unwittingly clamors for their own destruction.

This is where a perfunctory knowledge of basic economics (and some science) comes into play in virtually all Sci-Fi of this type and could potentially save generations of people from sinking back down into the dark ages...  Let me lay out some facts & deduce some premises:

  1. High price is always a reflection of limited supply compared to high demand.  Thus, we know that Unobtainium is immensely valued by (at least some of) humanity.
  2. The humans in the Avatar future have enough energy & other physical resources to travel interstellar distances, cure spinal injuries, create super-human half-alien bodies from scratch that can be inhabited via wireless mindmeld, and to build an endless array of massive war machines, forest-levelers, guns, spaceships and colony-bases.  Thus we might assume that they have essentially conquered the energy crisis... In other words, we can deductively rule out Unobtainium as a mineral used in energy production. (Note that for energy to be as abundant in the human world as it would need to be to accomplish the massive levels of production seen on display in Avatar, the raw materials used in energy production simply cannot be tens of millions of dollars per kilogram.)
  3. Unobtainium is a mineral.  Thus it is not useful for any of the other basic needs of mankind like food, clothing, shelter, etc.
  4. Unobtainium as depicted & explained in the movie is available on other planets and asteroids, and is found all over Pandora - though we are told it is most concentrated where the Na'vi live.  Thus, fighting a war is unnecessary to acquire the desired raw material.
  5. The Na'vi have no interest in letting humans dig up Unobtainium from underneath their big treehouse.  Thus, obtaining the mineral from that area will require a war.
  6. The acquisition of Unobtainium is being handled by some variety of "corporation", with the backing of the Marines or Marine-like mercenaries, for profit....  Thus it is reasonable to assume that, in general, the corporate interests' goal is to acquire as much Unobtainium as possible at the lowest cost possible.
  7. Wars cost a lot.

So that's some of what we know.  Since the movie never actually explains what the use is, the best or most plausible explanation I can come up with is that the rock is used in manufacturing or perhaps computer technology... 

As for the exorbitantly high price tag, there are two ways to approach that issue.

First, we might assume that demand is simply immense on earth, and suppliers cannot possibly meet production schedules.  Highly demanded goods in this sense are typically that of the products desired by a massive numbers of people.  Examples of this would include iPods, shoes, medication and other items that millions of people want or need but of which less than millions have been or are capable of being produced.  These must be, by definition, what economists call "final goods" - goods which are ultimately bought and consumed by consumers.

Unobtainium doesn't really fit that model at all - first of all, because it's a raw material which you're as likely to see being purchased at WalMart as a lump of coal.  And at $20 Million a kilo, it's not remotely affordable for the masses anyway...  

So the second option is to assume that the high price is due to an intrinsic limitation of supply.  This would more aptly fit the platinum or other precious metal model.  Platinum is one of the most expensive metals on Earth currently priced at about $48,000 per kilogram, and is the best analog I can think of for the fictitious metal in Avatar.  This suggests that Unobtainium is either purely a luxury item (i.e. made into engagement rings for the ├╝ber-rich), or is used only in tiny quantities, perhaps as plating for microchips or on exceedingly expensive pieces of specialized capital equipment.  It's hard to say since Cameron gives us only one meaningful line of dialog on the premise, but it is decidedly more likely to believe that the mineral is physically scarce, but incredibly useful in some production capacity rather than something millions of people need to survive back home.  In spite of that deduction, the metal appears to be so useful that it is apparently worth killing thousands of people over... Really??

*UPDATE*

The "Avatar" Wiki describes Unobtainium as follows:

"Unobtanium proved to be the most baffling of scientific discoveries in the area of superconductors as it had an extremely strong magnetic field, reversing prior knowledge that all superconductors repel magnetic fields. Furthermore, unlike the fragile crystals of human-created superconducting compounds, the substance found on Pandora was a stable quasicrystal with its atoms arranged in a never-repeating but orderly pattern with fivefold symmetry. This structure was not only structurally rugged but also has mircoscopic voids in the quasicrytalline structure that contain the magnetic flux lines. Unobtanium has a unique magnetic field and properties of superconductivity, causing it to levitate."

So, James Cameron gives a predictably dumber reason - and as noted above, a ridiculously unlikely one, given the fact that humans are traveling in space and using unlimited energy already - prior to landing on the planet.

None of that explanation makes it into the actual movie, but even if it did, it actually makes no sense anyway, precisely because it is so incredibly expensive to acquire.  So it's one effective means of levitating a vehicle or powering a space ship?  Big deal... Are you actually going to buy a $40+ Million car?  I'm guessing not.  The ridiculously high cost of acquisition of this metal completely precludes it from being "useful" to humanity as anything beyond an oddity - especially since it's established that we have other means of getting across the galaxy.  

Imagine if crude oil was $20 Million per barrel, and if it was $40 Million by the time it was refined into gasoline... Would you be driving very much at $952,380.952 per gallon?  No... I think not.  The only way a material could command that kind of price is if it was insanely scarce, and using insanely scarce minerals is a patently ridiculous means of generating power.  There would never be enough to satisfy the needs of billions of people living in hovels, not to mention sending people on interstellar space missions...  So yeah, that doesn't work as a concept.

*/UPDATE*

And herein lies the conundrum that tanks the entire film before it even gets going.

But just for fun, let's take Cameron's premise as if it would ever happen, and accept that the reason humans expended massive amounts of resources to go to Pandora is purely to acquire this mineral (as opposed to, say, exploring a new world and engaging in legitimate trade and social contact with another intelligent life form).  Further, let's interpret the motivations of the military/industrial complex as purely "profit-driven".  When we do this, the movie makes even less sense!

To maximize profits, most people (and certainly most large business organizations) will try to work out the path of least resistance - as it is inevitably the least costly.  Remember that while 1 kilo of Unobtainium might net a massive amount of revenue, profits are the money/wealth left over after paying overhead costs.  The best way to keep profits high is obviously to keep overhead costs low...

Know what doesn't accomplish that goal at all?  Massive, prolonged battles with locals who kill your personnel and destroy most of your stuff!  You know what does?  Mining all those parts of Pandora (and asteroids and other planets) where the Na'vi aren't living already and won't get in your way at all.  Or... You know... Not going at all.

So just from a basic profit-seeking standpoint, going after the "mother lode" which is well protected and which resides beneath a large and hostile civilization of native peoples makes no sense at all.  Starting a war is, contrary to popular belief, really... REALLY bad for business.  It's only "good" if you're profiting from supplying weapons - but that is quite obviously not the case here since you can only lose money by fighting yourself.  Other people have to be the ones fighting if you want to profit from a war, you must only sell them a continual stream of replacement weapons...  Obviously, a company can't sell *itself* replacement weapons as all that does is hemorrhage resources all the way to bankruptcy.

Furthermore, the costs aren't only monetary.

The decisions the corporate/military interest in Avatar made to get at one highly valued rock cost a tremendous amount of human lives - not only those killed by the Na'vi, but by the wild animals in the forest and the toxic atmosphere of the planet... Many lives are also probably lost to space travel itself and some friendly fire/on-the-job accidents.  Each one of these lives comes at a social cost to the company as well since they are going to have to notify family back home on Earth, and it's reputation becomes increasingly tarnished.

As the reputation grows worse, the cost of compensating employees goes up as well, as finding replacements becomes more and more difficult.  

No, even if you take the whole series of events as given, and you look at the company as a completely amoral or immoral entity, the cost of doing business this way is insane...  The company is just sacrificing profits to engage in a completely unnecessary interaction with an alien species who don't want them around.  Of course, the joke of that is, if the company executives actually behaved like people looking to profit, there would have been no need for them to have committed untold billions in R&D to creating the Avatar program - and then we have no movie at all.

Now.  All this is purely from the standpoint of the worst-case scenario, where not a single person involved and definitely not any of the management in the company or the military have anything approaching reciprocal morality.  Human history has certainly shown a remarkable tendency to justify a lot of atrocities, but there are what appear to be many hundreds, or perhaps several thousand humans living on Pandora.  Not a one of them recognizes that the Na'vi have comparable intelligence and intellectual & communicative faculties to humans?  Not a one of them views the Na'vi as sovereign individuals instead of worthless savages? 

C'mon. 

The stupidity just keeps on going though - The corporate CEO says they offered to barter with the Na'vi - obviously showing that they recognize the indigenous people as A. intelligent, and B. rightful owners of the Unobtainium and other natural resources.  He then proceeds to appear to be baffled as to why they wouldn't trade their ancestral home and displace their entire population in exchange for a couple of ESL Schools and unneeded clothing.

Really?  That's surprising?  I'd like to have been there at that negotiation:

CEO of Evil, Inc.: "We've discovered that underneath your 500' tall tree, which we realize is home to thousands of your people, there is a massive deposit of a mineral we would like to acquire."

Na'vi Ruler: "Why do you want the mineral?"

CEO: "It's worth a lot to us."

Na'vi: "Ok, well our home is worth a lot to us...  So what would you offer for us to allow you to take some of this mineral?"

CEO: "Uhh...  How about a school to indoctrinate you with our customs and language?"

Na'vi: "Yeah... Umm... No... That doesn't sound like a good trade."

CEO: "Whaaaaaaaa???  Why not!?"

Na'vi: *Facepalm*

CEO: "I guess we'll just have to have to start a hugely expensive war then"

Seriously though - when you think about it... This is exactly what Cameron wants us to believe.  But this is why understanding the economics and human behavior behind the movie is actually so important.  If you ignore these fundamental problems, the rest of the movie makes absolute sense...  The Na'vi defend their homes, the military tries to destroy them, everybody fights, the infinitesimal group of humans who side with them are heroes, and it's all done because the military is full of jarheads and corporations are greedy.

Perfect.  Greed kills again.  But why? 

If you stop to ask the only question that mattered; "Does the premise make any sense?", the entire plot falls right apart.  If the company were really greedy it wouldn't have wasted it's time dealing with the Na'vi at all, it would have done everything possible to avoid them - and avoid paying for a war or hiring wasteful Marine mercenaries, avoid building the stupid Avatar bodies, avoid creating 15' high mechanical armor suits, and would have picked as much Unobtainium as possible from the easiest places possible.  If none of that were possible, then the cost of acquisition vs. the utility and demand for Unobtanium would skyrocket, and the company would be better of figuring out how to lab-create the damn thing like cubic zirconia.  If you actually understand the economics of all this, one thing is abundantly clear: There is *no* profit in what happened on screen.

The natural response to all of this is of course, "Who cares?  It's just plot-holes in Hollywood movie... Nothing new there, right?" 

True enough.  But I obviously do care, primarily because this is yet another incredibly well-made example of a film that hangs a hugely negative message on a terrible premise.  Avatar shows contempt for humanity in general and for what most people view as "capitalism" (though it is actually just classic corporatism).  That message is conveyed nicely, and in a way that yet again buttresses people's ignorance of economics and further inhibits critical thinking.  I view this as a bad thing in general.

So yeah... I encourage everyone who's seen Avatar to stop for just one moment and ask yourselves one simple question: What does the rock actually do?

Underneath all the fighting, the destruction, and even the whole body transfer concept itself lies one of the flimsiest premises of all time.  Without thinking about this one little thing, the movie - and half of it's political point of view (the part where we glorify living like cavemen in loincloths and trying not to be eaten by monstrous beasts) makes perfect sense - but if you just take a moment or two to look under the surface, the entire story falls to pieces.

* * * * *

[PS: Standard Libertarian Disclaimers all apply... Human activities on Na'vi as written are indefensible.  The planet's inhabitants own the planet, not the humans - thus, using force to take their resources is theft and should not happen.  The point I'm making is not to defend the theft or the aggression, but that based on the story as written, the theft & aggression makes exactly no sense.]

16 comments:

Will Ramsey said...

Good review, I agree!

My 2 cents: the Earthlings are going to such great lengths to acquire Unobtainium because it provides superb anti-gravity properties. Such properties would have some good commercial uses, but more likely the mineral is used in military applications.

Sean W. Malone said...

I could see that as being valuable to some extent, but not *that* valuable. Consider the show "Ice Road Truckers" (yes, this is related).

The first question that comes to mind on that show for me is: "Why don't they use hovercrafts or boats or something less dangerous to transport goods in that part of the world?"

The answer is: Because it is a better use of available resources (read: less costly) to simply replace a truck every so often, than it is to build a fleet of ice-proof hovercrafts.

Now apply that idea to Avatar... If Unobtainium is useful in anti-gravity technology, fine... But at $20 Million a kilo, you can't exactly plate a ship in the stuff for anything less than billions and billions of dollars, now can you? So if that were the case, it's still much more cost-effective to either not worry about floating around, or to use more conventional means.

In either case, anti-gravity isn't exactly a critical ability for mankind, so traveling X lightyears and expending trillions to come back with an unnecessary product that would still cost ordinary people billions is not only a massive loss but also a waste of time.

JJ said...

Trucks are used on ice roads because hovercraft are way too expensive, and a hovercraft that can carry 80,000# of material takes a crew of three, and breaks down a lot. (Just look at the LCATS). They also don't work against measurable elevation, ie, they can't go up hills. And they can't work on uneven surfaces, which is why they're great on the water and beaches, and pretty much nowhere else.

Sean W. Malone said...

Yes... That's my point, JJ. The cost is prohibitive, and it doesn't do the job as well as what we already have.

It is a fine analogy though... In the case of the real-world example of semi-trucks vs. hovercraft, the reason we don't use them is maybe 50% an issue of utility and 50% an issue of cost.

In Avatar, it'd be more like 90% an issue of cost and 10% a problem of utility.

Sure the Unobtainium might be useful, but the cost is so prohibitive that it makes no sense to use in anything regardless.

The whole issue is about opportunity cost, and the cost of fighting a ground war, hiring the Marines and everything else, simply for the opportunity to access some mineral that you could easily acquire in other parts of the planet or which you could trade for makes no sense. And besides, even if you could get the Unobtainium back to Earth, who could afford to buy it at those prices anyway?

I can think of 1000 ways to get the mineral that would maximize profit... The least profitable method was chosen by James Cameron for Avatar, and he presented that as the only logical thing a corporation would do. Fail.

Ryan said...

Just a response to your comment that out of the hundreds/thousands of humans that settled on Pandora, there is no one who believes in the thoughts and rights of the Na'vi. Well, there was kind of this small and insignificant group of scientists whose entire purpose of being on the planet was to develop relations with the natives. You know, a couple of minor characters like Grace, Norm, and that one guy, I can't remember if his name was Josh, Jack...no, it was Jake, thats right. I believe that you are looking too deep into the movie, and not realizing the basics surrounding it. All this right-wing left-wing crap is just ruining the simple messages the movie is sending out. Believe it or not, Avatar is a simple metaphor, for what goes on in our world today, and how corporate greed can truly get out of hand. What just recently was a huge contributing factor to the recession? A bunch of greedy companies on Wall Street wanting more and more. Who cares how much the rock costs? Does it really alter the meaning that much? The bottom line is that it is desirable, and worth a lot to a "dying planet" (Earth). If that isn't enough for you, then why even dwell on the movie? You are obviously someone who cannot be entertained if the smallest detail is not up to snuff.

Sean W. Malone said...

Thanks for the comment, Ryan, but my *job* is to be critical of film, as I am a media producer professionally... Plenty of films can have all kinds of things wrong with them and that doesn't affect my personal enjoyment of them what-so-ever, but the problem is that the rock is fundamentally the root cause of all the humans' actions on the planet, and it makes no sense.

And as such, the metaphor makes no sense.

What's unfortunate though... Is that you didn't grasp the point of my essay here - which was that your conception of "greed" comes purely from the fictitious movie-world and it actually ISN'T reality based. And that's rather important. Likewise, the financial crisis has very little to do with greed....

The thing about greed is that it actually doesn't go away. So when the times were "good", are you proposing that there's less greed in the world? You think people somehow are perfectly lovely and selfless only part of the time?

Of course not. Greed is a constant. And thus it's a useless explanation of why things go wrong this year instead of that year.

And that's kind of the whole thing - you've missed the point of the article, I suspect, because you fundamentally don't understand the economics I was discussing in it... That fact is also why you believe that the financial crisis is a result of greed, rather than the myriad true causes stemming from a massive expansion of credit by the Federal Reserve, low long-term interest rates, and a bunch of laws written specifically to funnel money directly into the housing market.

The bankers weren't any more or less greedy than they'd ever been before, what was different about 2003-2008 was the money supply and the policy directing that money directly into real estate. Beyond that, of course we have the long-term understanding of "too big to fail" corporations being able to pass off their losses onto the taxpayer.

I encourage you to read the massive amount of material I've written (and published) on this topic here on the Logicology blog and elsewhere.

James said...

Well Sean. "You are obviously.."

GREED BAD
CORPORATION GREED
CORPORATION BAD

God you're looking into the politics too much, it's just about the simple message that

GREED BAD!

I mean it happens all the time. That's why James Cameron had to spend hundreds of millions of corp dollars, gathered from corporate contracts using nationwide corporate clients for corporate corporatti to make greedy corporational corporal revenue for his wealthy corporate rich robber baron godforsaken investors to tell everyone!

Anonymous said...

Your analysis of this situation is extremely bias and not considerate of real situations.

Ryan said...

Sean, let me first point out that you wrote a very good article, no arguing that. It seems that you misinterpretated my last post however. I did not say that the recession was caused soley on greed. A perfect storm of events occured, not just greed. I also did not say that people are only greedy sometimes. People have been greedy for thousands of years, and will continue to be. What I am saying is that greed plays a tremendous role in all that is wrong with humans, no matter what the reason or motivation. A guy named Bernie Madoff didn't have a truckload of motivation 20 years ago, but the greed that lived inside him took about $65 billion away from America. So who cares about the legitimacy of people wanting money? Would the entire movie be better if Unobtanium was $2 million a kilo instead? Or if it wasn't a mineral, making it more useful in your mind? I applaud your ability to find these small details, as it shows you are very aware and observant. But those small things should not heavily influence your opinion on the movie. Honestly, if you were James Cameron, would you sit around for hours debating whether or not the Unobtanium price tag was legitimate? The purpose of such a high number is to convince the audience that it is worthwhile for the RDA to stay on Pandora. The entire movie was not just based on the price. The bottom line is that the main character who is supposed to be helping the RDA changes his mind and fights for the cause he believes in, after literally steping into the Na'vi's shoes. Once again, I think you did a wonderful piece of writing. I just believe that small things such as the price of a rock that is mentioned no more than 3 times during the movie should not be the basis of critisism. I hope you see what I mean. By the way, I look forward to reading more of your articles, as they are all very interesting and thought provoking.

Sean W. Malone said...

Ryan, the problem is that the price tag is the entire point...

It would make more sense, given the rest of the film, for the price of the rock to be more along the lines of < $2 million per kilo. But at those prices, no one is traveling across the galaxy to obtain the stuff and they're certainly not doing it if it costs them billions in defense and other equipment.

It's a severe problem with the overall film actually, because Cameron's failure to understand basic economic principles is the foundation upon which the entire plot is based. Without the high price tag, he cannot make the case that greedy people would even be there in the first place. But with the high price, the rock itself is shown to be far too scarce to be of long-term use to humanity (note again that we don't power our cars with $20,000,000 gallons of gasoline), thus not warranting the demand except in very limited applications.

I don't feel the need to rehash half of my article, but the point is not that greed doesn't exist (of course it does!), but that greedy people go for the *EASIEST* way of making a ton of money, not the hardest!

Traversing the galaxy with thousands of humans, including an army with massive amounts of heavy machinery and spending trillions on Avatar R&D only to start fighting a war with a species with home-field advantage, a bunch of special powers, and an entire ecosystem that wants you dead for a mineral as portrayed is about the most expensive venture I could ever conceive of.

There is *no WAY*, in any universe, that that makes any business sense at all... If you think it does, I'm suggesting that your conception of business people, and even greed as a motivational feature of humanity is entirely derived from film and has no basis in reality.

And THAT, Ryan, is why I wrote the article to begin with: People get insane notions of greed and business from the movies they consume, and they believe that that's how the world is because that's how the writers of film & television set up their worlds to be.

But none of it makes any sense.

The entire operation on Pandora, for the purposes as expressed by Cameron and his writing team, would not happen as written.

Now... A government wishing to take over a new planet by force, to expand their territory & power? Yeah, absolutely. But that wasn't the story Cameron wrote. Cameron wrote a story about greed. And his story makes absolutely no sense.

Sean W. Malone said...

As for Bernie Madoff, you're making my point: Bernie Madoff was a greedy guy, sure... But you know what he didn't do? Expend billions of dollars worth of construction equipment and war-machines in a futile search for a rock of paradoxical worth. Nope. He merely tricked a bunch of people into giving him money for doing nothing. Greedy and unscrupulous people do *that* when they can. They AVOID wars since they are expensive, and these greedy people want to hold onto their money, remember?

That said, the Madoffs of the world are largely only possible in a financial environment of expanding money supplies. When the Federal Reserve floods the market with new cash, there are always grifters ready to siphon as much of it as they can into their own little schemes - and because there's so much money flowing freely and the economy always appears to be roaring, people are more willing to risk their money without looking too deeply into what they're risking it on. As a result Bernie Madoff has a much easier time of things.

In a world without a Federal Reserve or other fiat currency system, and in times of economic downturn, people are more careful with their investments and investors look into guys like Madoff much more carefully.

The point though, is that Madoff's level of greed doesn't fluctuate. At all. So greed is as bad an explanation for the financial crisis as there is, and is akin to blaming gravity every time you break a plate.

Naturally greed exists, but it - by itself - has no power, and when there is a flood of cheap money available to greedy people, they *don't* spend it in ways as depicted in the movies.

Anyway, Ryan - I'm glad you stopped by and commented, but I think you're largely only convincing me that writing stuff like this is a valuable thing to do from time to time - as it's just one more confirmation that people take a lot more of their beliefs about the world from movies and television than anyone ever cares to admit.

Sean W. Malone said...

Oh... Also, if you think the solution to Madoff is more regulation... No.

To quote from myself in an article about the recent financial overhaul bill, Who's Ready for Stagnation?:

"Because some random government officials - likely mediocre graduates of business schools in finance who couldn't find work at actual investment banks - are going to be able to understand and regulate such an incredibly complex realm of investment as derivatives markets. Right."


Trouble with all these regulatory schemes is that the regulators will never be smarter or more knowledgeable about investment banking than the guys who do that professionally at a high level - as a result, they're easy to manipulate or "capture", as economists like to say. Madoff was investigated by the SEC numerous times - yet, somehow, they failed to stop his ponzi scheme. More or more powerful regulators won't do any better. What's worse, is that all any of that does is lull the public into an even deeper sense of false security.

But the Fed has already spent most of this year ballooning the money supply - once banks actually start lending that money out, we'll see yet another high profile round of fraud... Though if I had to guess, not for a few years yet given the magnitude of the 2008-09 cockup.

Less manipulation of the money supply & interest rates, combined with a much more free and competitive market place where the incentive is on individual investors to protect their assets, on the other hand, just might prevent the Madoff's of the world from being able to engage in massive crimes.

Ryan said...

Sean, I see all of your points, and agree with a majority of them. However, I am not looking to debate many of the points you have brought up, like the cause of the recession and the basis of greed. I stumbled across your site looking for various opinions on Avatar, and am very glad I came across your article. I am happy that I am encouraging you to right more articles like this; that is what someone with your unique thinking should do. But just to reiterate my point, you are looking to deep into this. I have not yet seen one opinion that involves the in depth attention you have given to a "little grey rock." But just for fun, let's say that your opinions are the correct ones, and everyone believes that James Cameron screwed up pricing the Unobtanium (Which by the way probably took Cameron 10 seconds to think of the price, and was never looked back upon). Fine. Its unrealistic. But there are two very glaring points here:
A. The movie is science FICTION, so no facts or figures have to make sense. People who rely so heavily on those little facts shouldn't be watching the movie in the first place, as it takes a little imagination to enjoy science fiction.
B. The movie has one purpose, and one purpose only: Make money by entertaining. This goal has easily been accomplished, as the millions of people have flocked to enjoy a revolution in Hollywood, many of them going a second time. They pay their $12 to receive entertainment, and there is no doubt that they get that. Even if they do share your opinion that the entire storyline is based on the number $20 million, they are still entertained. I would be in complete shock if someone thought otherwise about seeing this film because of it being "unrealistic." The ENTIRE FILM IS UNREALISTIC! Most of the movie is based on Jake spending his time on Pandora through his Avatar. Last time I checked, it seems a little unlikely that a person can control another body by just lying in a box. And you know what else makes no sense? Flying banshees, connecting with a tree to talk to your god, and little lizards that glow when they start flying. Its science fiction! If you can just ignore that one miniscule number, then I can bet you would enjoy the movie better. Just sit back and imagine! You don't need to be analyzing every little digit here and there. If you do that, you just miss out on the amazing things going on in the movie!
And just one last thing. You say that it is economically improbable that humans would travel light years with billions of dollars of military equipment and that they would go on "spending trillions on Avatar R&D" (Your words). First off, with only 20 known Avatars and each Avatar costing your favorite number of $20 million, operating the program comes out to $400 million. Give the program a godly budget of $100 billion for R&D and you are pretty short of that trillion mark. Second, if you would once again just look a little past this lovely rock we are talking about, you would see that Earth is dying. There is overpopulation, and a extremely bad energy crisis. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Hell, if I am the leader of any country at that time, its time to shoot for the moon, and pray to God that I hit something. While it makes no sense to go on a unobtanium hunt while everything is fine and dandy, your options are pretty limited when things get bad. You are between mining your ass off for a valuable rock or sitting back and watching as your planet falls apart. I think there is a slightly higher chance that you will hit a home run by swinging, as apposed to watching that ball go right past you. If your apartment is on fire, and you are trapped with your back against the 5th story window, what would you do?

Sean W. Malone said...

Ryan, you're still severely missing the point, and considering I've spent the last 7+ years of my life working in the entertainment industry, helping to produce films of all kinds, I don't think I need a lesson in how to view/enjoy Sci-Fi.

In either case, some is dramatically better than others. If you want to watch quality science fiction, I'll encourage you to watch Joss Whedon's Firefly, or perhaps Iron Giant, or any other number of excellent stories that aren't based entirely on flawed premises and actually reflect humanity in a more thoughtful way.

Notably, I wasn't *reviewing* Avatar, if I had, I'd have pointed out that the characters were cliched, the plot has been rehashed dozens of times over the last 30-40 years, and even the concept of inhabiting other bodies isn't remotely new (see the recent Bruce Willis flop: Surrogates for a recent example). I'd have also noted that, while the 3D and CG were good, so what?

The measure of a quality film isn't merely the realism of its special effects. Nor is it the amount of money it's made - if that were true than Transformers 2 would be one of the best films of all time, instead of being one of the worst.

Plenty of Sci-Fi is god-awful. Most, in fact. But that's true of everything. Part of the quality of Sci-Fi, in my opinion, is how well it metaphorically reflects truth about the human experience. Avatar fails miserably on that count, basically foregoing humanity entirely and saying that the only "good" human, isn't human at all, but is rather an alien.

I struggle to think of a more depressing theme. There was little to no hope in that film at all, at least, not for man-kind.

And it's all based on flawed premises to begin with... And the fact that it's a fictional story makes no difference to that point.


PS. Don't confuse what an Avatar body costs (which, I believe the Avatar wiki says cost $20 Million to build - which is apparently James Cameron's favorite number, though certainly not mine), with what R&D to get to that point costs. Now we're getting into pure speculation, but for reference the FDA approval process alone for a new medicine costs around $1 Billion. Several times that amount is what's spent on basic drug development.

Developing a fully functional, wirelessly controlled Avatar assuredly costs much, much more... But yeah... Good luck with your fandom, Ryan.

Ryan said...

There we go Sean, I finally got that review out of you. I wouldn't exactly call myself a fan though. Yes, I did enjoy the movie, but I won't go into detail about that, as our opinions seem to differ tremendously. We can agree to disagree. I have my opinions and you have yours. I respect that. That is the reason I had been searching for an article like yours in the first place Sean. I am more interested in the response to Avatar, rather than the movie itself. The reason I have spent so much time debating with you is because you are the only person I have seen so far with opinions as unique as yours. (Except for the little review that you just gave me. That was a little cliche). I could go on and keep rambling about what the movie meant to me, but I realize you have your opinions set in stone, just as I do. But either way, I just want to make sure you know I'm not trying to be a defensive fanboy or anything. I am merely poking and prodding, looking for something interesting to take part in. I thank you for writing such a unique and interesting piece, and for interacting with your viewers. Sean, you are a very talented writer, and I respect your opinions, just as I hope you respect mine and everyone else's.

Sean W. Malone said...

Ryan, I do - You're perfectly entitled to enjoy the movie... I enjoyed several aspects of the film, especially all the flying scenes and such, but I can think of a dozen Sci-Fi films I would rank much higher. And many many films in general that beat Avatar from a purely cinematic standpoint.

The point though has little to do with my opinions of the movie for cinematic reasons, and everything to do with a personal mission of mine to point out the negative effect on people's understanding of reality and critical reasoning skills that many films - especially the really big, widely seen ones - have on viewers.

There is a school of thought that says that it's just a movie, and doesn't matter, but there is a pile of research that I believe provides substantial evidence to the contrary. And I care, because it's my industry, and because I care about people thinking and supporting things that make sense... I view that as profoundly good for the world overall, and believing that humanity is as they are on display in Avatar just doesn't remotely fit that model.

Cheers.