Biologist Carol Kaesuk Yoon has written one of the best essays I’ve come across regarding James Cameron’s masterpiece (yes, I really think so), Avatar, for the New York Times:
When watching a Hollywood movie that has robed itself in the themes and paraphernalia of science, a scientist expects to feel anything from annoyance to infuriation at facts misconstrued or processes misrepresented. What a scientist does not expect is to enter into a state of ecstatic wonderment, to have the urge to leap up and shout: “Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!”
So it is time for all the biologists who have not yet done so to shut their laptops and run from their laboratories directly to the movie theaters, put on 3-D glasses and watch the film “Avatar.” In fact, anyone who loves a biologist or may want to be one, or better yet, anyone who hates a biologist — and certainly everyone who has ever sneered at a tree-hugger — should do the same. Because the director James Cameron’s otherworldly tale of romance and battle, aliens and armadas, has somehow managed to do what no other film has done. It has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world.
The real beauty of it, though, is that you do not have to be a scientist to enjoy the experience. “Avatar” is well within reach of becoming the highest-grossing film of all time. And while the movie’s dazzling animation and use of 3-D has received so much attention, it cannot be anything but the intense wonder so powerfully elicited, rather than merely the technical wizardry itself, that has people lining up to see it.
There have, of course, been many films that have depicted the excitement of scientists during discovery (think of Laura Dern in “Jurassic Park,” gleefully sticking her hand into a pile of dinosaur dung), and, from “Lord of the Rings” to “Star Trek,” there has been no shortage of on-screen fantastical floras and faunas.
But rather than having us giggling at a tribble or worrying over the safety of the children when a T. rex attacks, Mr. Cameron somehow has the audience seeing organisms in the tropical-forest-gone-mad of the planet Pandora just the way a biologist sees them…
[continues in the New York Times]