Ray Kurzweil’s Review of Avatar

by Socrates on March 18, 2010

Spread it!

Some time ago I posted a few trailers, interviews and short docs together with a brief review of AVATAR.

Today I happened to fall onto a very detailed and highly critical review written by Ray Kurzweil.

I thought that it is worthwhile to republish Ray’s review in its totality for it does raise many good points that may be worth considering.

The review was copied from KurweilAI.net and its orginal URL page is:



Reflections on Avatar by Ray Kurzweil KurzweilAI.net, Mar. 8, 2010

I recently watched James Cameron’s Avatar in 3D. It was an enjoyable experience in some ways, but overall I left dismayed on a number of levels.

It was enjoyable to watch the lush three-dimensional animation and motion capture controlled graphics. I’m not sure that 3D will take over — as many now expect — until we get rid of the glasses (and there are emerging technologies to do that, albeit, the 3D effect is not yet quite as good), but it was visually pleasing.

3D information visualization displays and interactive multitouch screens as featured in this scene from “Avatar” already exist and are in use today. (20th Century Fox)

While I’m being positive, I was pleased to see Cameron’s positive view of science in that the scientists are “good” guys (or at least one good gal) with noble intentions on learning the wisdom of the Na’vi natives and on negotiating a diplomatic solution.

The Na’vi were not completely technology-free. They basically used the type of technology that Native Americans used hundreds of years ago - same clothing, domesticated animals, natural medicine, and bows and arrows.

They were in fact exactly like Native Americans. How likely is that? Life on this distant moon in another star system has evolved creatures that look essentially the same as earthly creatures, with very minor differences (dogs, horses, birds, rhinoceros-like animals, and so on), not to mention humanoids that are virtually the same as humans here on Earth. That’s quite a coincidence.

Cameron’s conception of technology a hundred years from now was incredibly unimaginative, even by Hollywood standards. For example, the munitions that were supposed to blow up the tree of life looked like they were used in World War II (maybe even World War I). Most of the technology looked primitive, even by today’s standards. The wearable exoskeleton robotic devices were supposed to be futuristic, but these already exist, and are beginning to be deployed. The one advanced technology was the avatar technology itself.

But in that sense, Avatar is like the world of the movie A.I., where they had human-level cyborgs, but nothing else had changed: A.I. featured 1980′s cars and coffee makers. As for Avatar, are people still going to use computer screens in a hundred years? Are they going to drive vehicles?

I thought the story and script was unimaginative, one-dimensional, and derivative. The basic theme was “evil corporation rapes noble natives.” And while that is a valid theme, it was done without the least bit of subtlety, complexity, or human ambiguity.

From the movie “Dances with Wolves” (MGM)

The basic story was taken right from Dances with Wolves. And how many (thousands of) times have we seen a final battle scene that comes down to a battle between the hero and the anti-hero that goes through various incredible stages — fighting on a flying airplane, in the trees, on the ground, etc? And (spoiler alert) how predictable was it that the heroine would pull herself free at the last second and save the day?

None of the creatures were especially creative. The flying battles were like Harry Potter’s Quidditch, and the flying birds were derivative of Potter creatures, including mastering flying on the back of big bird creatures. There was some concept of networked intelligence but it was not especially coherent. The philosophy was the basic Hollywood religion about the noble cycle of life.

The movie was fundamentally anti-technology. Yes, it is true, as I pointed out above, that the natives use tools, but these are not the tools we associate with modern technology. And it is true that the Sigourney Weaver character and her band of scientists intend to help the Na’vi with their human technology (much like international aid workers might do today in developing nations), but we never actually see that happen. I got the sense that Cameron was loath to show modern technology doing anything useful. So even when Weaver’s scientist becomes ill, the Na’vi attempt to heal her only with the magical life force of the tree of life.

Harry Potter rides Buckbeak the Hippogriff (Warner Bros.) while Jake Sully rides a Mountain Banshee / aka Ikran (20th Century Fox)

In Cameron’s world, Nature is always wise and noble, which indeed it can be, but he fails to show its brutal side. The only thing that was brutal, crude, and immoral in the movie was the “advanced” technology. Of course, one could say that it was the user of the technology that was immoral (the evil corporation), but that is the only role for technology in the world of Avatar.

In addition to being evil, the technology of the Avatar world of over 100 years from now is also weaker than nature, so the rhinoceros-like creatures are able to defeat the tanks circa 2100. It was perhaps a satisfying spectacle to watch, but how realistic is that? The movie shows the natural creatures communicating with each other with some kind of inter-species messaging and also showed the tree of life able to remember voices. But it is actually real-world technology that can do those things right now. In the Luddite world of this movie, the natural world should and does conquer the brutish world of technology.

In my view, there is indeed a crudeness to first-industrial-revolution technology. The technology that will emerge in the decades ahead will be altogether different. It will enhance the natural world while it transcends its limitations. Indeed, it is only through the powers of exponentially growing info, bio, and nano technologies that we will be able to overcome the problems created by first-industrial-revolution technologies such as fossil fuels. This idea of technology transcending natural limitations was entirely lost in Cameron’s vision. Technology was just something crude and immoral, something to be overcome, something that Nature does succeed in overcoming.

Unimaginative, non-futurist props in the supposed future world of the movie A.I. (Warner Bros.). Most sci-fi films depict a few truly clever technologies representing a probable human future, while leaving the rest too ordinary and undeveloped to be believable. The entire world of human technology will evolve in step, affecting all aspects of the way we work, live, play, heal, create, learn or defend. Advanced technology will be embedded everywhere, in even our most mundane objects, interconnected and always-on. In a future world capable of strong A.I. and inter-stellar travel, the landscape of technology merged with our daily activities will actually be far more advanced, and far more interesting than in the film depictions we see today.

It was visually pleasing; although even here I thought it could have been better. Some of the movement of the blue natives was not quite right and looked like the unrealistic movement one sees of characters in video games, with jumps that show poor modeling of gravity.

The ending (spoiler alert) was a complete throwaway. The Na’vi defeat the immoral machines and their masters in a big battle, but if this mineral the evil corporation was mining is indeed worth a fortune per ounce, they would presumably come back with a more capable commander. Yet we hear Jake’s voice at the end saying that the mineral is no longer needed. If that’s true, then what was the point of the entire battle?

The Na’vi are presented as the ideal society, but consider how they treat their women. The men get to “pick” their women, and Jake is offered to take his choice once he earns his place in the society. Jake makes the heroine his wife, knowing full well that his life as a Na’vi could be cut off at any moment. And what kind of child would they have? Well, perhaps these complications are too subtle for the simplistic Avatar plot.

See also:

REUTERS | Human exoskeleton suit helps paralyzed people walk

DISCOVERY NEWS | New exoskeleton gives soldiers super strength

CURRENT TECHNOLOGY | Lockheed Martin’s HULC: hydraulic-powered, un-tethered, anthropomorphic exoskeleton (Lockheed Martin)

LOCKHEED MARTIN | The HULC: Dismounted Soldiers often carry heavy combat loads that increase the stress on the body leading to potential injuries. With a HULC exoskeleton, these loads are transferred to the ground through powered titanium legs without loss of mobility.

The HULC is a completely un-tethered, hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton that provides users with the ability to carry loads of up to 200 lbs for extended periods of time and over all terrains. Its flexible design allows for deep squats, crawls and upper-body lifting. There is no joystick or other control mechanism. The exoskeleton senses what users want to do and where they want to go. It augments their ability, strength and endurance. An onboard micro-computer ensures the exoskeleton moves in concert with the individual. Its modularity allows for major components to be swapped out in the field. Additionally, its unique power-saving design allows the user to operate on battery power for extended missions. The HULC’s load-carrying ability works even when power is not available.

Lockheed Martin is a leading provider of advanced technology solutions for the Warfighter including ground Soldier systems such as wearable situational awareness equipment and mobility assistance systems. Future advancements in exoskeleton technologies will focus on specific user communities, shifting energy and performance requirements. Lockheed Martin is also exploring exoskeleton designs to support industrial and medical applications.

  • http://www.circusblog.ca/ Julie

    Wow - I'm surprised to read such a harsh review of Avatar by Ray. As you said Nik, he raises some interesting points which I hadn't considered before (the role of women, the non-futuristic nature with the technological aspects of the movie, the lack of advanced plot development etc)

    Thanks for the posting - it was an entertaining read!

  • http://www.SingularitySymposium.com/ Socrates

    Yeah, Ray goes in some detail to criticize AVATAR and I bet a lot of people can benefit from reading his review and re-considering the movie…

  • http://www.jrconsumer.com/ Fifth Wheels

    i like avatar sooo much…

  • http://www.SingularitySymposium.com/ Socrates

    The question is: after reading Ray Kurzweil's review, do you still like it as much as you did before that or did you see things that you've missed before? If the answer is “yes,” then it was worth reading it…

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZjOkzpwOKI Canvas Stretching Machine

    well we can never get away with critics…

  • http://www.SingularitySymposium.com/ Socrates

    The question is, though, is the criticism constructive? Are we better off after being criticized? Did we learn something new that we didn't know before? In the case of Ray Kurzweil my personal answer is: Absolutely! Plus, he is not just a critic but someone who has and is still practicing by being at the cutting edge of technology…

blog comments powered by Disqus

Previous post:

Next post: