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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Paleontologic inspirations in James Cameron's Avatar

Like many other sci-fi enthusiasts, I saw James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar.
My opinion is twofold, divided between two aspects of the movie: filming and watching it.

Filming Avatar.
Cameron invested substantial resources in creating a revolutionary filming framework and probably set a reference point for the technology of filmaking. For instance, Avatar introduced a very efficent virtual camera system, displaying an augmented reality on a monitor. Thanks to this technological advance, the director can see the actor's virtual counterparts into their digital world in real-time.

Watching Avatar.
Here Avatar is less revolutionary. The movie is aesthetically impressive, but the final result is fully comparable to the last-generation computer graphics. Outstanding, but nothing new. Similarly the the 3D glasses represent a juicy old-fashioned technology but they are not critical to appreciate the elaborate visuals. Despite the significant hype raised, Avatar is not a breakthrough in the aesthetics of moving images.
As most of the movies, Avatar isn't only visuals. Indeed I greately appreciated the themes, revolving around a sense of ecological awareness. Avatar criticizes the environmental and social effects of imperialism, coming out at the right moment of the development of human civilization.
Unfortunately, the themes are developed through an extremely linear plot. After the first 30 minutes you know already all the movie. Nothing unexpected happens and there is the persistent impression to have seen something like that before. As many people said, Avatar is nothing more than 'Dances With Wolves in space'.
Avatar is a phenomenon you can't ignore, entertaining and done with extraordinary expertise. Nevertheless, it is definitely not a masterpiece.

Paleontology in Avatar. You might ask why I dealt about Avatar. Isn't this a blog about Geology and Art?
The answers are quite subterraneous, and they regard the fictional biology created by Cameron.
Avatar witnesses an enormous effort into bringing a fictional biological world to life. The result is convincing, although many creatures are modeled closely on familiar animals.
Under this point of view, Avatar is an eye-catching interpretation of how evolution might toss up on another planet. Paleontology is one of the strongest evidences of evolution, therefore I started to look for any paleontological references in Avatar.
Many creatures are obviously dinosaur-like or pterosaur-like, but I didn't find any explicit reference to precise prehistoric animals. Consequently my quest could finish without a result, but then I found the words of Wayne Barlowe, one of the creature creators of Avatar:

I was influenced by manta rays and skates – sea life motifs were prevalent in my thoughts at the time – when it came to my initial concepts. Their lines informed everything from wings to head profiles.
And, yes, being a huge paleontology buff did make me think of the vast variety of relatively little-known pterosaurs and plesiosaurs with their many, unique aerodynamic and hydrodynamic solutions."

Bingo! This demonstrates the origin of the reptile-like flying critters from planet Pandora, coming straight out from geologic times. In conclusion, Avatar is neither a paleontologic movie or an example of geologic art, but it shows how fossils can inspire modern artists.

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