Of Science Fiction, and James Cameron

I often have a problem with many science-fiction / fantasy movies. It’s not that I cannot identify with technology or ideas that are far removed from what we are used to on present day Earth – it’s just that more often than not the stories are not consistent in their own worlds.

For example, I’m sure you have encountered movies where a principal character is found in a tight spot, with no apparent way to wriggle out unscathed. You wonder how in the world the story moves forward without having the character dead / compromised – and then the character pulls out a ‘special power’, that either no one knew the character capable of, or that violates what a ‘normal’ character would be able to do.

Why that inconsistency, in the movie’s own set of rules?

I think one of the reasons Harry Potter is such a successful franchise is that Hogwarts and the magical universe is incredibly well defined in terms of what is allowed and what is not. Everyone has certain powers, and such powers have well defined limitations. When the author needs to add capabilities that are apparently undefined, she makes a point to give a background – before the power is used by a character – whereby the rules and limitations of that power are defined. It’s complex and rich – and also very self-consistent in its own universe.

That’s my point of view – that good fantasy / science fiction should be self-consistent in its own rules and laws. I usually don’t find too many takers to this – most people around me are often lapping up a movie, while I smirk and shake my head.

And then I find this, from a biography of the director James Cameron:

One of the rules the T-1000 [from the movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day] had to play by was that it could turn into a knife but not a gun, a limitation revealed when the character passes through the bars of a mental institution, but its pistol gets caught. As Cameron saw it, the T-1000 could harden portions of its [liquid metal] mass to form edge weapons and stabbing weapons, but it couldn’t convert part of its mass into a complex machine involving separate, detached pieces or make gunpowder to launch projectiles. It was important for Cameron to show the audience the character’s restrictions. […] “In science fiction you have to have rules and you have to state them, and you have to play by them,” Cameron says. “Somehow it makes the fantasy more real, by adding complexity.”

Perfect, is what I say.

And then we had, of course, Terminator 3, involving another liquid metal character capable, this time, of this:

Using the same logic as before (using ammunition or fuel, along with fire), are you surprised that Cameron neither wrote nor directed it?


As expected from James Cameron, Avatar is an epic. Visually stunning, great details, sweeping landscapes and breathtaking scenery – it’s all there. It’s a pretty decent movie too, I’d say.

It seems, though, that James Cameron conceived the project 15 years ago, but could not go ahead due to technological restrictions. Really, Mr Cameron – 15 years? Which part?

The part about a larger / technologically advanced group invading a smaller / underdeveloped group? Or the underdogs winning, despite being backward? Those are not very new, are they?┬áThe only interesting portion was where the hero can ‘transform’ into other forms – and even that is not new (remember Jonny Quest, the Animorphs series?). Which part did you really uniquely conceive, Mr Cameron?

Nevertheless, the movie is good. It’s probably not going to be as big as Titanic, because where the Titanic had an off-the-beat storyline, Avatar has a predictable routine. Villains invade, insert a spy, spy gets involved with locals, feels for them, and finally goes against his bosses to fight, and win, for his new friends. Predictable storyline – with only the species changed. Even where the film had a chance to deviate from the routine and have some twists, it chose not to.

And then there are the stunning 3D effects. When Cameron talks about new technology to create something special, I am inclined to believe him – the movie is a must watch if only for the stunning Digital 3D and visual details.

If you’re sitting on the fence trying to decide whether you want to watch Avatar – let me decide for you: go watch. You won’t be disappointed. (No promises on the 2D version though – make sure to get to the 3D theater.)