- How could the First Order take over the galaxy in days after their superweapon plan failed?
- Rebels evacuating, and they need to buy time. This is how the second part of a trilogy starts. Sounds familiar?
- But no, it was just a trick. This isn’t a Hoth imitation as you thought it would, there is no ground assault. Gotcha!
- Hux explains he has orders from Snoke to wipe out the Resistance once and for all, obliterate the fleet and so on. These orders could not be any more generic and bombastic. Snoke should have given orders to be evil and successful.
- Cheap comedy scene in Star Wars.
- Poe destroys the laser turrets of a flagship with his fighter despite those turrets are precisely installed there to combat fighters, a lot at a time.
- Some random officer says a one line cover-up that anti-fighter CIWS turrets can’t track fighters.
- Same officer complains that the TIE fighters should have been scrambled five minutes ago. Exactly. In fact TIE fighters normally patrol continuously.
- BB-8 “plugs” “holes” with his “fingers”. And then with his head screaming.
- The bombs are released with a mobile button panel instead the main control panel. The bombers has dedicated personnel to push this button.
- Slow motion does not belong in Star Wars.
- Totally stupid scene involving kicking a metal ladder to acquire the red button panel.
- Hux makes a scared face when the Resistance jumps to hyperspace, even if this is part of the plan.
- Snoke now can appear anywhere, rendering his huge communication hall even stupider than before.
- Hux did not tell Snoke about his plan, so his face is smashed in front of the entire crew.
- Snoke learns about Hux’s plan only after smashing his face, and thus makes a fool of himself in front of the entire crew.
- Finn smashes his head against the glass.
- Finn is walking around sprinkling some medical fluid to every direction.
- Luke throws the lightsaber to the sea as a fourth wall breaking commentary on the stupidity of the ending of the previous episode.
- Rey looks ten years older, and potentially fighting with alcoholism, despite literally seconds have passed since the last episode.
- Stupid looking owl-pinguins. A lot of them.
- Instead of an interesting new planet, we get a random dragon tail.
- Snoke wears a golden bathrobe and looks like an old playboy.
- Hux now talks to Snoke in person, despite a few minutes ago they used a hologram.
- Snoke’s room is essentially plain red. Nobody bothered to create the planed CGI decoration.
- Snoke bitches about Kylo being a useless twat, despite he treated him with respect in the last episode.
- Kylo smashes his helmet, completely destroying a part of the wall. Nobody tells him to stop.
- Milking camel-seals.
- Rey walks inside a foggy tree-cave during his jedi training on a remote planet. Rings some bells?
- No, we were just teasing you! She finds a few books.
- The rebels are shocked to learn that they can be followed through hyperspace, even if it is established in the lore that you can follow a ship if you see it jump.
- Kylo Ren says: “follow my lead!”. This film features the most uninformative orders ever spoken. How do you obey that order?
- Kylo flies into a rebel battleship entirely uncontested. He is not even being shot at.
- Kylo won’t shoot at his mother, but two seconds later someone else does, so it make’s no difference at all. It demonstrates that he still has some light in him, but we have learned that already.
- Leia flies out into open space, and then supermans back to the ship in a slow scene that does not belong in Star Wars.
- Since she flew back, the entire blow up scene has no real consequence, it would have been enough if something just fell on her head, and knocked her unconscious.
- Eighteen hour slow uneventful battleship chase in empty space should not be in a Star Wars movie.
- The First Order keeps firing at the fleeing ships just to show off, knowing exactly that they can’t penetrate their shield.
- No other First Order battleships are jumping in to intercept the rebels, despite them ruling the entire galaxy and probably having thousands of ships all over the place.
- Chewbacca regrets roasting an owl-penguin. Vegan propaganda does not belong in Star Wars.
- The entire Resistance council is wiped out, despite none of them being characters, and they didn’t do anything in the movie.
- Fan favorite Ackbar dies an entirely insignificant death.
- Ackbar did not do anything in this movie.
- Purple hair lady is brought in from nowhere. Her character should have been established at this point, for example being a member of the council (of three or so people), and taking over after Leia had her head hit by a falling something.
- Purple hair lady is an insufferable bitch for no reason.
- Finn attempts to escape after he volunteered to risk his life for the Resistance and Rey in the previous episode.
- Random janitor girl assumes the role of a Star Wars fan within a Star Wars movie.
- Some extraordinarily confusing talk about how the through-hyperspace tracking works, involving code breaking that does not belong in Star Wars.
- Finn has to personally track down the codebreaker instead of trying to contact him through a hologram.
- Rey wakes up at around noon, despite Luke said “tomorrow dawn”.
- Rey and Kylo are connected in a way that does not belong in Star Wars but some low budget sentimental romantic drama.
- Rey does not tell his chosen master about her situation, instead, claims she was clearing her blaster.
- Daisy Ridley delivers the lines “Master Skywalker, we need you to bring the jedi back” so incredibly bad it gives the impression she reads a teleprompter for the first time.
- Rey believes that the force is about controlling people and lifting rocks, despite her almost religious admiration for the jedi order.
- Luke tickles Rey with grass.
- The first lesson in the force is that it is the thing between things. Dismissed.
- Rey concludes that Luke purged himself from the force, which could have meant he found a way to stop being force sensitive. But it would have been cool, so can’t be in the movie. Instead it turns out to be just a pretentious phrasing of going exile. Which we knew already, so there was no reason to tell it again.
- Finn and fangirl commit parking violation. Parking violation does not belong in Star Wars.
- The casino planet is prequel level flashy and impossible to take seriously.
- Small dude inserting coins into BB-8, who has a slot and some internal empty space for no reason. The scene goes on for many many seconds.
- Corporations should not be in Star Wars.
- Anti corporation propaganda should not be in Star Wars.
- Weapons should be manufactured by the bad guys in Star Wars. We did not hear about contractors building the Death Star.
- The second lesson in the force is that the jedi are bad, and Rey should fuck off.
- As a ship runs out of fuel, it is blown up with a guy still in it. The guy says the evacuation is complete. He says that in the ship.
- Finn and fangirl reiterating their subplot in detail to each other in the jail cell.
- There is a master codebreaker there by chance.
- Codebreaker simply walks out of the cell because he didn’t like being there anymore.
- BB-8 shoots five hundred coins from his belly.
- Animal rights should not be in Star Wars.
- Fangirl explains that saving an animal was the important thing, the Resistance can go fuck themselves.
- Kylo Ren shows up half naked, and Rey tells him to dress up.
- Luke tried to kill his apprentice, the son of Han and Leia. This should be the reason he is hiding: shame.
- Earlier they hinted at the famous face-yourself-in-the-mysterious-place scene, but then we didn’t get it. Now we do! Apparently the theme of this movie is to hint that some iconic scenes will be replicated, then give something else, but later show the iconic scene anyway. Double twist!
- We are reminded to Rey’s parents because it is hot topic among fans.
- Tele-touching hands.
- Rey and Luke fights. There is so many things wrong with this.
- When trying to kill Kylo, Luke chickened out in the last moment with his lightsaber out.
- Luke did know about Snoke back then, but for some reason he decided against doing something about it.
- Luke decides to burn the books many years after he concluded that the Jedi Order should be ended.
- Yoda shows up and burns the books himself, thus not changing the outcome at all. Why showed up exactly this moment, why not, say, after?
- Yoda can apparently interfere with physical things. That would have been useful a number of times in the past.
- Yoda lectures Luke about how should we learn from our failures, which does not amount to anything, because Luke will not train anybody in this movie.
- X-wing is manufactured by the same corporation that manufactures TIE fighters. Moral ambiguity should not be in Star Wars. Should we now think that the rebels/Resistance are just as bad?
- Rey’s capsule just flies into a First Order flagship without anyone paying the least amount of attention. Even if she was expected, some escorting ships would have been nice.
- Clothes iron shaped ship landing, followed by robots ironing some cloth.
- The codebreaker manages boarding a First Order flagship without any problems whatsoever, then the team is simply spotted by one random robot.
- The random robot is an evil looking BB-8 variant because BB-8 was popular.
- Codebreaker gives fangirl her shiny thing back.
- Phasma brought back from death.
- Phasma brought back for these scenes only, she was nowhere to be seen up to this point.
- Purple hair lady has to drive the ship, even if they don’t need the ship to go anywhere, and even if they did, a robot could do it.
- Purple hair lady does not even attempt to drive the ship, just stands there elegantly.
- Snoke says he assumed Luke will be the light side counterweight to Kylo’s darkness, but now he sees it is Rey. This balance bullshit is getting out of hand.
- Snoke reveals that this entire Romeo and Juliet subplot was his master plan. This renders the only meaningful subplot of the movie meaningless.
- Snoke insists on Rey telling the location of Luke Skywalker despite he just explained that Luke is not the important figure he assumed.
- Turns out that purple hair lady did have a plan, but kept it secret, so everyone could think she is the bitch she seems to be.
- The plan is to hide on a planet in the system they are in. But the First Order knows that they jumped to this system not knowing about being tracked. It indicates that the system must be important.
- The First Order only tracks large ships, not small transports. How does that make sense to only track ships you know about? First Order ships does not have the ability to track unexpected objects?
- The First Order uses scanners that can find cloaked ships, but only after they learn that there are cloaked ships. Maybe they were too expensive to turn on?
- Codebreaker betrays the girl he gave the shiny thing back to and walks off.
- Snoke smashes Rey’s lightsaber to her head.
- Snoke shows Rey the fleeing rebel army. The only purpose for this scene is to “rhyme” the iconic scene from Return of the Jedi. It made sense there, it was a part of the emperor’s plan to bring out the dark side from Luke. Here, Snoke does not have any plans.
- Snoke instructs Kylo to kill Rey, a scavenger he barely knows, as the completion of his training.
- Snoke dies and nothing is revealed about his background, origin, motivation or plan. This storyline is wasted halfway through the trilogy.
- Rey is on the level of Kylo Ren in lightsaber combat, despite Kylo is not injured this time, and Rey has only got two lessons, both being utterly useless in every way.
- Kylo and Rey attempts to establish a relationship despite learning that Snoke orchestrated the entire thing, and the two has zero reason to be attracted to each other.
- Kylo and Rey can’t come to terms with the relationship, so they decide to break up.
- Kylo Ren informs Rey that her parents were absolutely insignificant. This storyline is wasted halfway through the trilogy.
- Phasma orders his men to slice the captives instead of shooting them, for evilness reasons.
- Purple hair lady gets the idea to ram into the battleship. If this is possible, why nobody did it before? Why the rebel ships that has been destroyed earlier didn’t do this? Why don’t you build weapons based on this technology?
- When the two ships are slammed together, the movie goes silent and black and white. This imagery does not belong in Star Wars. Its tragic tone does not fit the event.
- BB-8 rides a half AT-ST.
- Phasma has super strong armor. Nobody else in the First Order has such armor. In fact, not even X-wings has such an armor, as demonstrated in the previous episode.
- Gwendoline Christie wanted to show her face at least for a second, but only got to show her left eye.
- Phasma dies a totally insignificant death by falling into fire. That storyline is wasted halfway through the trilogy.
- The movie just cuts to Finn and fangirl flying away without showing them boarding a ship. The scene looks like the half AT-ST is a transformer and just turned into a ship.
- Finn and fangirl achieve exactly nothing, a large portion of the running time is wasted.
- The rebel base is Hoth with walkers. In the very beginning tricked to believe it would be Hoth, but it was not Hoth then. Now we have Hoth complete with walkers. At this point the pattern is confirmed. They are trolling us.
- Crystal twinkly thingies.
- It is unclear why they want to call all the other rebels to arms now. They just escaped an ambush and lost most of their forces. If they called the others two days earlier, they would have had a chance.
- The First Order brought a battering ram even if they didn’t know they will need one. The First Order never goes anywhere without a battering ram.
- Turns out that the writers have more tricks up their sleeves. The planet looks like Hoth, but it is not snow, it is salt. Definitely trolling.
- Walkers are basically AT-ATs with just enough changes so they can have different codenames.
- Speeders can fly, but it is somehow necessary to lower a thing that makes nice red dust trails.
- Kylo instructs the AT-ATs to shoot at the speeders. Up to this point, the walkers just stood there and did nothing.
- The speeders are getting shot down one after the other, so decide to fall back. Finn decides to continue. The AT-ATs stop firing, and just stand there.
- Finn drives toward the ram as fast as he can, but the fangirl manages to crash into him from the side.
- The fangirl almost kills both of them.
- The fangirl explains that self sacrifice is stupid, despite the many occasions people sacrificed themselves in Star Wars.
- Awkward kissing scene.
- The walkers watch the unfolding scene totally zoned out.
- Luke walks out to face the First Order to majestic music foreshadowing a great showdown. Nothing of the sort happens.
- Kylo instructs Hux to sit around while he deals with Luke, instead of attacking the base.
- Poe assumes that Luke just stalls time despite nothing at all indicates that. Luke obviously does not fear the walkers and also about to take out the main threat, Kylo Ren. We have every reason to believe that Luke will eliminate the army by himself.
- Luke indeed just stalls time, but does not tell that to the rebels. It is fortunate that Poe stupidly assumed it, or else they might have attempted to help him out.
- It is established that there is only one entrance, but when the plot needs another one, there is.
- They pretend to pull the Obi-wan card, but then not. Is it a new instance of the hint-divert-deliver routine?
- Rey’s cheap joke about lifting rocks.
- Bullet-time does not belong in Star Wars.
- Luke is so tired he disappears. At this point, there was laughter in the movie theater.
- So it was the double twist again. Luke was hinted to die, then shown not to die then finally dies. Is this intended to be smart?
- Luke could have shown up and actually do the Obi-wan thing. It would have been much more impactful.
- Leia claims that there is hope. At this point the entire rebellion is boarded on the Millennium Falcon, and it is not even crowded. Nobody responded to the distress signal. What is so hopeful about it?
- Luke does very little in the movie and is a disappointment overall.
- No new planet types. We have a snow planet disguised as salt planet, we have two regular looking planets with lot of water, and that’s it. The planets have no character.
- We hope the mop jedi kid is not the beginning of a new storyline.
- Two superweapons in one movie, three if we include lightspeed tracking.
- The relationship of Rey and Kylo could have been so much more interesting. They both had unhappy childhood for different reasons. They were both ambitious. They were both searching for themselves. It could have developed into friendship and then love. They could both be ready to give up their struggle and be together. Instead, we get this usual “you turn! no, you turn!” routine.
Long since, if ever, was a game hyped up so much as No Man’s Sky. Even those that didn’t jump on the hype train, expected its world to be interesting, only pointing out how few we know about the actual game itself. When the heat was at the maximum, I predicted the game’s downfall. And not for the possible gameplay issues, which could have turned out good, for all we knew. I predicted that the world will be boring, and nothing like promised. It was easy for me to predict, for what they were set out to do, is not possible.
No Man’s Sky’s world was supposed to be of blasphemous proportions. A technique called procedural generation (discussed later) was used to generate practically infinite number of unique planets to explore, giving the player the opportunity to be the first ever to see them. The planets were about to be populated by similarly generated wildlife, plants and animals, as well as geography, hills, flatlands and lakes.
For some, it does not sound like much. But there is a kind of person who can spend hours in Google Street View, possibly under the disguise of GeoGuessr, or replay Miazmata the 4th time to get some achievements, the kind of gamer that looks behind every tree, and can’t tolerate white areas on the map. The Explorer type of man.
For an Explorer, No Man’s Sky’s premise was like two hundred megatons of your favorite ice cream.
The heart of this universe is procedural generation. Procedural generation is a buzzword that brings in cash these days. Let’s have a look what it does.
The most straightforward way to create a game’s virtual world is to manually build it. You design the map or layout, you place objects of interest in it, you decorate it and fill it with detail. As the world grows and gets more detailed, manually setting up all parts starts to take preventively long time. You need to get help from a computer software.
A lot of tedium can be automated. One can set up an algorithm to generate typical textures like wood or stone. They will all look similar, but will not just be a copy of one another, and also can be tuned for wear, type, etc. One can also generate randomized trees or entire forests. Cities. Mountains with fine detail down to rocks. Maps or floorplans. Or even names.
These algorithms take parameters. Some parameters affects the characteristics of the result. You might be able to change the ratio of water to land, make the terrain more ragged or more flat, make a tree taller or shorter, having more or less leaves, and so on. There is one special parameter called the “seed”. It does not change the average appearance of the object, instead, it just randomizes it. Different seed values leads to different instances of a large class of similar objects. Similarly parametrized mountains will all be roughly equally high, equally rocky, equally traversable. But they will be a different one for each seed value.
Computer-generating landscapes or objects does not necessarily mean they go into the game unchecked. A great many problems can show up with procedural generation. Generated objects might randomly end up being weird. Trees might be lopsided, defying gravity, or otherwise look unrealistic. Terrains might be impassable. The designer might just use the raw objects as starting points, fine tuning or manually fixing as desired.
It is also possible to develop a single, complex algorithm to generate the entire world unattended. The classic game Elite used this strategy in order to save precious bytes of the then scarce RAM memory. It did not store the world. It just stored the algorithm, and regenerated the world on the fly. This of course amplifies the dangers of weird or unrealistic creations. As the rumor goes, during the development, one version of the universe had to be scrapped because a randomly generated name was inappropriate.
But since RAM and disk storage is so cheap now, unless there is some special need for it, modern games usually just dump the world into files, and deploy with the software. Unless we are making No Man’s Sky, which has such a huge world, we can’t even hope storing it all. The game, like Elite did, come with the generating algorithm to its entire universe. It runs on our system to generate the segment we are in. Except while Elite was not so big, 2048 systems total, they at least had a chance to review the entire universe and change the seed until they got an acceptable one, in No Man’s Sky there is no chance of doing that. There are way too many systems to review even a tiny fraction of them. The algorithm has to get it right for every seed. If you want the most unlucky creations to still look okay, you need to tune down the variance. This is one reason why the result is on the duller side. But it wasn’t their biggest problem. The biggest problem is discussed in the next segment.
Content and Information
To cut to the heart of the matter, here is the final conclusion: procedural generation does not generate content. Let me explain.
First we are going to assert that randomness is not interesting. As an example, imagine a large number of dots, randomly distributed in an area. Think of it as a star map in a 4X game. One might assume that the randomness generates all sorts of shapes, kind of like constellations. However, if you try to recall actual constellations, you can see that they in no way resemble what they supposed to look like. They are just a few random dots in no particular arrangement. You are lucky to find anything other than a simple geometric shape. The interesting features of the night sky, nebulae, galaxies, are not random. I know this, because I tried to create this exact “world” as an experiment into procedural generation. I have placed, what a coincidence, 18 quintillion dots in a square, exactly as much as No Man’s Sky boasts. (It is not a coincidence, and you know it if you know the origin of this number.) I can tell you, this Elite on Steroids gigantic star map was just as much a disappointment as No Man’s Sky is. It offers nothing of value. The total amount of entertainment coming out of it is fifteen minutes. Random is boring.
As another example, consider a bunch of independent attributes, like color, shape, size pattern. Let us have five to ten of each. Then create a lot of objects having randomly chosen attributes. Such a system offers a large number of possibilities, but do you think it is interesting? Nope. Our brain quickly realizes that the different attributes are independent, and handles them as such, different things that have a small variance on their own. You will not see a red big circle with stripes etc. You will see the color red, you will see a circle, and you will look for some better things to do with your life.
Second, we are going to argue that order is not interesting either. Imagine your star map as a rectangular grid. How does that work? What if all the planets are rich in exactly one mineral, and it can be sold for a good price in the system just three stars to the left? What if you find that the best loot is always in the basement of houses, or the highest points of islands? What if all orcs always lie, and all elves are always honest? Does these ideas sound like a game you want to play?
Third, we posit that having anything interesting coming out of an algorithm is either really hard or impossible. An obvious counterexample would be the famous Mandelbrot set. Its mathematical formula is extremely simple, yet the resulting image is full with spirals, circular shapes, flowers, more spirals, and … yep, that’s pretty much it. Let’s be honest, nobody spends hours looking at the Mandelbrot set. Yes, it is amazing how complex its shape is compared to the simplicity of its formula. But as a source of entertainment, it fails. You can consume all of its offerings in an hour, maybe a few if you do it in small batches. And this is a one of a kind function, you don’t come across one like it too often.
Fourth, we conclude that your game has as much content (read, interesting things) as you put in it. What is interesting after all? The right amount of complexity. Complexity is the number of rules necessary to describe a system. If the number of rules necessary is too few, we understand it quickly, and move on. If the number of rules necessary equals to the number of observable parameters of the system, like its color, pattern, arrangement, parts, and so on, then we don’t have anything to understand, we can only memorize the whole phenomenon. We can’t make sense of it, it is random noise. To be interesting, there has to be a lot of rules to discover, but once we discovered them, we should see the patterns and see the structure. That is satisfying.
In case of procedural generation, rules are, roughly speaking, the algorithm itself. Therefore we can’t expect a simple algorithm to generate a complex world. You need to work for each and every notable feature. You pay for playtime with worktime, as it used to be, and as it should be.
So how does all this tie in with No Man’s Sky? The sad fact is that the game simply does not have enough content. It barely has any, our brain has nothing to chew on. Despite the lot of stuff, the game has no meat. And it is not just a mistake, an error or an incorrect choice in its algorithm. Meat is not there, because they didn’t create it, and didn’t put it there. They didn’t think they have to. When they realized they had to, it was way too late. Way too late, and also an entirely different task then they were prepared for. They were about to make an algorithm, not figure out what makes a geologic structure or an animal’s anatomy interesting. Heck, they couldn’t even hire a help, as nobody has any clue about these things.
Okay, but what about existing games using procedural generation? If you think about it, they do produce more of the same, pretty much that’s the point to them, isn’t it? The purpose of procedural generation in these games is not to create interesting content. The content is all hand made. The purpose is to give us a different instance of the same game when played a second time. Things are mixed up just enough so we can’t learn what’s next. We can’t memorize the order of rooms, enemies and loot. So procedural generation is there, in fact, to give us the same experience every time. And this is what No Man’s Sky gives you with every planet. The same experience.
The size of this universe in No Man’s Sky is more a problem than a feature. The more planets you visit, the more obvious their emptiness becomes. Why have such a big universe in the first place? Thinking about it, every planet we don’t visit, is exactly like a planet that is not there. Even the most hardcore players will not visit more than a few thousand planets. So what difference does it make if there are a thousand or a quintillion planets remain unseen? The question will be answered in this section.
One of the most spectacular features of our universe is its scale. The universe is so big and so full of stuff that we have no hope to grasp, not even close. All we can do is to create better and better aids that try to help us grasping it, and fail miserably. With each failed attempt, the glimpse of infinity slowly makes a lasting impression in our minds. And what a good impression that is! Almost like a zen meditation. It helps understanding that you are not the center. It helps understanding that things will move on, with or without you. It helps putting things in their place, and reduces anxiety over irrelevant minutia. Everyone should practice it every now and then.
You can start by downloading Celestia. It is a free software that shows the solar system and some surrounding stars in real proportions, Something that No Man’s Sky promised. Except it is only one system (ours), plus a few thousand nearby stars, but without planets. One striking feature of the solar system is that planets are so small. As you travel from one to another, you see the planet’s disk very quickly reducing to a dot, and then you just fly in cold, empty, black space for the majority of the journey, just to see the other planet’s disk appearing in the last moment. Our neighborhood is mindnumbingly empty. You can try to visualize distances like 100 million kilometers, but it’s hopeless. Then you go to the closest star.
How to play GeoGuessr correctly? For those that are not familiar with it, it is a game that randomly drops you somewhere on Google Street View, but with no access to the map. You can walk around. Your goal is to find out where you are. Now of course you can be the slacker, identify the continent, and be satisfied with the 2700km error. But to really enjoy the game, you should go for 10m precision. At one point, you will find your location in another browser window with a full featured Google Maps in it, zoomed to street level. And then comes part when you need locate the same spot on the ingame map. You zoom out until you recognize the greater area. Then repeatedly zoom in to both maps in parallel, finding some notable feature that guides you. At that point you realize how overwhelmingly huge even smaller countries or country-parts are. How overwhelmingly huge this planet is.
So, screw you, Ridley Scott! How dare you make movies without understanding the world you are about to show? Remember that part in Prometheus when they arrive to the planet? Goes as this: they approach the planet right after arriving. They descend, and go from seeing the planet disc to flying over rocks in two seconds. If you tried GeoGuessr as I suggested, you know how wrong this is. They missed a lot of descending. The planet feels tiny! Normally, they should enter low orbit, and observe the planet’s surface for many weeks, to even see it all. Then, after choosing the most interesting target, go down to investigate. It would give the planet the right proportions. What we saw in the movie is weak and does not impress at all, a toy planet to host one artifact.
And screw you, No Man’s Sky! You did that too. The game does many things to destroy the feeling of scale. The world feels small. The planets are in fact small. They are way too close to each other. You can not go from one star system to another in actual space, the systems are separated boxes. The sky is obscured by clouds and some kind of fog that makes distant objects invisible. Despite having trillions upon trillions of systems, the world feels claustrophobic. What a missed opportunity.
We have largely covered our two main topics, the lack of content and the lack of scale. A few smaller points are left to be mentioned. Now we will attempt to show that some other grievances many people have with the game are also the consequences of the main design flaws.
A frequent complaint is the multiplayer, or the lack thereof. It was promised that players, in theory, can meet each other, albeit the chances are negligible. I assume due to some bug, it happened almost immediately with two players. They managed to get to the same place at the same time. However, they didn’t see each other, the game didn’t bother to render the other player, or otherwise acknowledge their presence. One gets the impression that the multiplayer code is entirely omitted. In hindsight, we should have guessed it is not there. It makes no sense for it to be there. Why would you waste precious developer hours to develop a feature that nobody will ever see? In fact, if the players could see each other, that would have warranted outrage. That time could have been used to develop some actual features that average players can encounter and experience.
This is a direct consequence of the game’s main premise, the enormous size of this virtual universe, which was supposed to be a feature. But as we discussed, it turned out to be a non-feature. A possible solution would have been to start all players at the same location, and give them real multiplayer options, like trade, teamwork, guilds, roles. Those that feel like it, could wander out to the cold, hostile, uncharted world, make it known, claim it, mine it. But to do this, you need to develop an entire new game that benefits very little from a grand scale universe, the very thing they were about to sell. A few billion stars is more than enough. Also, probably you want to make the galaxy to have a structure, interesting places to go. We are thousands of developer hours short of this. And you want a galaxy map to see how little you have advanced so far.
Another issue is the grind. It is not a stretch to call the game a progress bar manager. You can’t do what you want to do, because you need to refill the tool you use to get resources to refill other things, while you sometimes need to wait for the tool to cool down. You are managing interlocked status bars all the time. One easily gets the impression that the game wants to stop you, prevent you from advancing. Like it is hiding something. This is exactly the case. Do you honestly think that if you remove or redesign these game mechanics, it will improve the experience? Think again. Without these, the game would be reduced to a walking simulator on very similar and very boring planets. The sheer boredom would make you quit in minutes. The game gives you pointless busywork in order to divert your focus away from the featureless desert you are in. It lets you experience the planet only in small doses, stolen seconds between recharging things or running back to the ship before your personal heat shield melts away. It is entirely necessary in order to maintain some of the illusion.
No Man’s Sky is not a failure in game design nor it is a scam. It is a gross misunderstanding of how procedural generation is, and what it gives. The developers accomplished what they wanted, only to discover that the it isn’t worthwhile. They reached out for the Holy Grail, to realize that it is actually a cheap tin cup. The game you can buy is this tin cup with a rushed paintjob over it to sell better.
Today, a successful and potentially devastating attack was carried out against the Ethereum network. The attack is a work of a genius, so much so that we are tempted to believe that it was just an unlucky coincidence, because nobody is that smart. It is a combination of multiple software bugs, but also social engineering on multiple levels.
The overture was the hacking of a popular virtual organization, The DAO. A significant portion of all the existing Ethers were stolen. This is bad in itself, but poses no threat to the Ethereum network as such. A temporary drop in exchange rate was to be expected, but nothing fatal. If anything, it could have been beneficial, teaching us a good lesson in prudence. However the attack set far bigger things in motion, perhaps unknowingly to the attacker himself.
The Ethereum community was in turmoil. With so many people involved in The DAO itself, and even more fearing a loss of trust in the whole Ethereum platform, people demanded action. Prominents of the Ethereum Foundation were quick to please the crowd, and promise the money to be taken back. The course of the discussion was all set. Soft or hard, when, should we give the Ethers back or burn them, and at what exchange rate? These were the questions, doubtful voices descended.
The hack, despite being a small tremor, started the avalanche of bad memes. For The DAO token holders, admitting recklessness and losing a lot of money was not an acceptable thought. Its developers downright risked losing their respect and reputation for life. Some of the Ethereum developers were endorsing The DAO. This further reinforced the notion that proper care was taken, and it is really not the software’s, nor the investors’ fault. But this leads us to an inconvenient realization. If innocent people can be screwed over, the infrastructure is not safe enough. And if a large number of people leaves the game, Ether might lose a lot of its value. Not to mention it might perish, making everyone involved a loser. This, again, could not happen. Reality can not be this way. Reality must be rewound, and we all need to forget about this.
The meme avalanche was the attack that I’m referring to in the title. It threatened the network in the last few weeks. As more and more minds were captured, the impossible started to seem possible. We were promised that the network is designed to prevent any interference with it. Anyone attempting to bribe or coerce miners, is doomed not only to fail, but also to lose money. It is very unlikely that anyone can coordinate an attack of the necessary scale, so went the theory. However, this assumption breaks down if we consider the possibility of large scale entanglement in human behavior. Unfortunately, human beings are known to be prone to unconditional alignment with group behavior. This was put to a test today.
Today, the Ethereum blockchain was split to a hacked one and a safe one. The hacked one is a result of a software “error” deliberately put in it by programmers, downloaded by miners, all of them infected with malicious memes. As the network is dependent on human action, and humans were possible to hack, thus the network was hacked, no matter how safe its design was. As of now, the safe chain seems to be essentially dead. The attack was successful, and the Ethereum network has been diverted. Today we have learned again that there is no protection against dangerous memes. We need to meet these memes head on, there is no other way out.
This story might not be true. It is written from a narrow field of view of a single individual. As point of views work, the proportions of this image can be greatly distorted, and parts might be hidden. Readers aware!
The greatest tragedy of human culture happened in our lifetime, and most of us don’t even know about it. For most people, the internet is a place where there are content providers, and there are us, consumers. We are, as with all services and products, at the mercy of producers and shopping mall owners. They decide what we can buy and what we can’t. But it wasn’t always that way. There was a short time period, maybe a decade when all information was stockpiled, distributed and available to anyone free of charge. Any piece of art or collection of knowledge was in the reach of every one of us, at all times. That was the library of human culture, unfiltered, inclusive, decentralized and unlimited.
And then it crumbled and never restored.
Maybe it was an idea, maybe the last piece of the technology puzzle was put in place. Either way, the beginning of the new millennium coincided with the birth of peer-to-peer file sharing. The classes of information sources and information consumers seemed to end once and for all. It took a while for natural selection to take its course, but the de facto winner was soon announced, and its name will forever remembered as eMule.
eMule was not a beautiful piece of software. It was not the most beautiful piece of technology either. What it was, is a vast library of everything. At that time, it seemed natural to me, after learning that the allegedly Hungarian animated movie “Time Masters” was, in fact, French, made by the filmmaker René Laloux, it was just natural that I can, out of curiosity, find and download his other works with a few minute of effort. Or when I found out that “moresca”, the closing piece of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, is a type of dance music, and that led me to the discovery of Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, an Italian folk band from the 70’s, which I could also download. Goes without saying that downloading Monteverdi operas performed by Concertus Musicus wasn’t a problem either.
It did not matter how obscure was the piece of work you were interested in. It was there. Books. Music. Movies. Programs. For if anyone on the wide world, any single person using eMule was in possession of it, you could have it too. There was no board of black suits making the decision. It was this simple: is there at least one person willing to allocate the disk space necessary. If there was, the information was preserved and available for anyone.
It is impossible to overemphasize the relevance of niche. Human civilization thrives under the condition of diversity. For its very basis is division of labor, as they usually say, but more accurately it should be called division of activity. We all do what we do the best, and enjoy the best. Or, in the worst case, suffer the least. Everyone has their own way, different from everybody else’s. Not only this offers the most beneficial, meaningful and interesting way to spend our time here. But also provides flexibility to the entire human race. Should circumstances change in a way that we need new solutions, most likely we can find it just by looking around. Somebody somewhere already discovered it. An entire sea of alternative lifestyles and worldviews awaits us to tap into. The world needs all kinds of minds, Temple Grandin warned us. And all kinds of minds want all kinds of culture, art and entertainment. To deny this would be denying water from a plant, or the opportunity of flying from a bird. Uniformity, phalanx, vanity and decay follows.
This Second Library of Alexandria provided platform for every thought, every way of self expression, every story, without prejudice.
The attack was swift and ruthless. A large number of fake servers showed up. They served invalid search results to any query. They served invalid files to any download request. Legit traffic was dwarfed by the noise generated by all these hostile computers. There were a lot of them. This attack was not done by hacker kids, nor actual hacker groups. There is no pride in taking down a file sharing network by brute force. It was not clever, it was not interesting. Nobody ever claimed the trophy. It was a coordinated attack carried out with malicious intent and considerable resources.
Of course there were attempts to isolate the black servers. But as the system was designed, only those users that researched and found the solution, were able to defend themselves. Most users was not knowledgeable enough, some of them didn’t even understand what’s happening. By the time the flames were finally put out, the network shrank to a fraction of its size. Many people left, to never return.
Who did it is subject to speculation. But the only logical explanation I can come up with is that the Content Industry was behind all this. Which one of the big record labels, Hollywood studios, or whatever alliance of them hired the hitman, remains a mystery. But it makes little difference, The Second Library of Alexandria was set on fire. It was not protected. We watched it going down in flames, helplessly.
It was all hubris, wasn’t it? We had this Great Library, and we didn’t think of protecting it.
The Library is still open. You can visit it, as you can visit the Great Pyramids or the many cathedrals in Europe. A handful of monks wander around. In their hands, half-burnt pieces of pages from past books, dug out from under the ashes. The Library is there, but its function in the human society is over.
Even more interestingly, suspiciously perhaps, a new Library was never built. Today, file sharing is done through Torrent, a protocol maybe technologically more advanced, but conceptually inferior. With eMule, you could share your actual files. Whatever you had, and wanted to share, was available to the world. With Torrent, you need to make a special package, and manually register it to search engines. The quality is deemed important, and enforced by the gatekeepers. Variety is sacrificed for comfort and the ease of choice. Niche content is nowhere to be seen.
Today we live in a world in which you don’t have to pay for the summer blockbuster. But the Big Studios still tell you what to watch. The dark ages returned.
The 20th century brought about food items that does not contain nutrients. I know, this article is about science fiction and not food. But please bear with me for a minute, I’ll explain why is it important just a little later. So we have foods like jams or sodas that are sweet, but contain no sugar, fruity, yet there are no traces of fruit in them. We have chips that tastes greasy, yet contain zero digestible fat. Even our food-looking foods like hamburgers are engineered to taste wonderful, yet are seriously lacking in actual nutrients.
What happened in the second half of the 1900’s, is food companies found out what makes something flavorful, and acquired the technology to engineer food down to molecular level. The equation is pretty simple: you have a mathematical function to optimize, the variables of which are chemical components, and the value coming out is the market value, or financial revenue. Science allowed a huge improvement in solving this optimization problem.
The reason why it is an issue is the way our brain evaluates food. The brain is not an oracle or an all sensing detector of nutritional value. Rather, the brain watches some, very few and basic, select parameters. For example our tongue has a sugar detector that fires off when we eat simple sugars, but not for other natural substances we used to find in nature. Sugar molecules suggest ripe fruits, rich in cheap energy and some other valuable substances. The brain has no real clue about the food we are eating. It just observes a handful of such rude measures.
These measures are similar to clinical surrogates, and are seen everywhere. Even we, humans, use it very often. Sometimes measuring the real quantity we are interested in is difficult or problematic. But we might find that by measuring a few other parameters, we can estimate the quantity in question with enough precision. Nature of course figured that out many billions of years ago, and uses extensively. The problem with surrogates, as one might suspect, is their limited scope. If the circumstances change, the surrogates might cease to be good surrogates anymore, and fool us.
Sweet or greasy tastes are surrogates for nutritional value. They served us well for many millions of years. Until science developed the technology that gives us direct control over them. At this point, we were able the tune up the surrogates, creating wonderful sensations, but without actually including anything of real value. We managed to fool ourselves.
It is time to establish the connection of all this babbling to science fiction. Human beings have an innate affection toward mystery, the unknown, the inner workings of the cosmos. Give a human being a tool, he will try to find out what it can be used for. Give him a box, he will try to open it. Human beings want to learn and want to solve problems all the time. If there are no problems, humans develop problems for themselves, and name them games and puzzles. Or sometimes they just imagine situations, and try to solve the emerging problems in theory.
This high we feel when we learn something new or unlock a puzzle is a surrogate. Problem solving and modeling the world is what made us so successful. This is the human way. This is our weapon and tool. We feel good when we unravel a mystery, when we take a step toward understanding the surrounding reality, because that ensures our survival and triumph. Games and fantasy prepare us to real problems in a risk-free way.
And finally I’m arriving to my point. The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century brought about the knowledge to tackle these surrogates directly. We can create the illusion of being part of a grand scheme of progress, scientific endeavor, space adventure, an unprecedented expansion of human capabilities. We can test which illusions, games, fantasies sell well, and which don’t. And we can churn out popular ones as fast as the market can take up.
But we do that without actually including any substance. In fact we are avoiding substance, because realistic things can be scary, confusing or just too complex to be reliably introduced to a typical audience. Realism also comes at a cost for multiple reasons. It needs research on part of the creators, or paying for actual experts, and it also limits what can be put in the final product. Anything that limits what can go into the story is unwanted, because necessarily reduces the market value of the product simply by taking out well marketable elements. Realism and market value are contradictory goals.
As of today, the west is in a state of confusion when it comes to the social status of science. We live in a society deeply plunged into anti-scientific and anti-intellectual sentiments. It is all too common that someone literally brags about not understanding physics or mathematics. It also common to blame science and technology for our miseries, and all the trouble, true or imagined, we cause to the planet. This trend can not be attributed to any actual failure of technology. After all, technology is an enabler, but not a doer. We can decide whether we want to use some tool or technique, and if so, what for. Science can not be blamed for any actual event or action. There must be another source of this hatred.
I claim the source is shame. These sentiments are pretty much just excuses for not having a grasp of the world that surrounds us. We feel we should, but since we don’t, cognitive dissonance kicks in. As a result, we depreciate science and the fruits of civilization to save our egos. Whose fault is our lack of scientific understanding is outside the scope of this inquiry.
As I said, our society is of two minds about science. During all this scolding and blaming, science keeps delivering the most wonderful results in a rapid rate. It needs a huge amount of self deception and chosen ignorance to overlook this fact. Why do we need growth? This question is so often asked, but the obvious answer rarely follows: because our parents died of diseases that might cease to exist in our lifetime. Who wants to stop that progress? If you are told that your children will be protected from the disease you are going to die in, you are not enthusiastic about that? Or to pick a less important issue, don’t you think that it is useful to be able to travel faster and cheaper? Today getting from US to Europe costs you quite some money. You are not going to take that journey unless you need to, or really want to, every once in a while. But what if in a fifty years, such a trip will take one hour, and will cost not more than a bus trip today? You really don’t see any benefit of it? Is it only greed that drives us?
Science is exciting, and there is just no way to deny that. Public sentiments aside, we secretly know that. We hope that those little advancements will never stop coming. We say it is white man’s mental disease, but we don’t want it to stop.
And this pretty much explains the recent upsurge of science fiction. Or, rather, quasi science fiction. The recipe is easy: take a story that involves at least some anti-scientific sentiments, or sentiments about greed or corporate recklessness. Create some actual scientific background for your world and story. Then bastardize it down to be as available as you can. There can be gaping plot holes, blatant violations of science or common sense, self contradictions, transparent pop psychology and open propaganda. It does not matter, because the majority of the audience will not notice, and any criticisms will be largely ignored. What matters is that you never go against the prejudices and misconceptions of your typical viewer. Do that, and you get your big bucks, the audience gets its dose of green babbling and some guilty pleasure of shiny spaceships. This is the recipe behind Avatar, Interstellar, The Martian and many other titles.
Science fiction used to be created by scientists. Today, science fiction is created by artists, professional writers and businessmen. When scientists created science fiction, it was the time when they were the heroes. They created the future. It was all about noble things, hope, will, effort. Today, it is just a business, like Coca Cola and Lay’s. It is not meant to inspire anybody. It does not come from passion. They are just after your money. And you swallow their medicine by the spoonful.
We need to stop this. Emphasis on we, as opposed to them. The cola industry of the mind will not stop while they can make money. It is you that can initiate the change. Start by placing science back on the pedestal it belongs. If you don’t have a clue about basic physics, it is not cool. You are allowed to blame the school system, your parents or the television. It really does not matter, as long as you admit that it is bad, and you wish you understood more. Continue by demanding hard science in stories. Embrace not understanding! If you understand everything in a story on the first read, and you don’t doubt any of its statements, the story doesn’t worth your time. Embrace effort! You have to go online, and google the damn thing. Follow it up! A good science fiction must give you homework for days if not weeks. It must show you a road to knowledge. Be finicky! If you find anything false in it, it has failed its task. It has betrayed you.
We need another golden age of science fiction. It is all on you.
Avatar is the movie with the greatest gap between its potential and the actual delivery. Cameron poured an incredible amount of thought and effort in building a solid, realistic, scientific background. Then pulled a curtain of bastardized “social commentary” over it that hides everything real. Avatar is the crown jewel on Cameron’s mad quest for money or popularity.
Don’t take it seriously. Most criticisms are rebutted by this easy one-liner, so start with rejecting it right away. I don’t take the movie’s message seriously, I can promise you that. My problem is that many people will. It is not a comedy, it is not a mindless blow-em-up action movie. Not presented that way, and not plays out that way. The movie is heavy handed on social issues, and I assume the audience gets it, lets it sink in their unconscious. In no small degree, the movie’s success lies in its message. A message that resonates with the viewers, reinforces them in their current views, prejudices and myths. So yes, we need to take this very seriously. Falsehoods are shouted in our ears from deafening megaphones. I don’t call for the prosecution of those that shout. But at least let’s call them out, shall we?
The cute Na’vi
Ask around in your circles, what the Na’vi are like. They live in harmony with nature. They are brave, honest, wise. They know something we forgot. It takes a genius to paint the creatures we saw in the movie in this light. No doubt, their feline appearance plays a great role. Cameron allegedly gave instruction to the designers to make them sexually desirable. Talk about marketing.
But what the Na’vi are really like? Even if we look through the colored glass of Cameron, we can still infer a lot about their culture. If you are a Na’vi, you win a debate if you are a better fighter. Tsu’tey, a respected member of the community, draws a dagger every single time he doesn’t like someone. Even attacks Jake when he is lying unconscious on the ground. Such a jerk would not be tolerated in any neighborhood I want to live in. And he seems to be the norm around there. But this anger quickly goes away when Jake comes back on dragonback, as for the Na’vi, it is to rule or to be ruled.
If you are Na’vi, you better be agile, and take care of yourself. On exams, they don’t hand out bad marks. If you can’t catch a vine many hundreds of feet above the ground, you die. If you are not able to tame a man-eating bird twice your size, you die. They don’t use technology. If you get sick, you die. If you break your leg, you die. If you can’t outrun the many predators wanting to eat you, you die. What do you think controlled the Na’vi population? I bet they don’t rely on calendar method. Maybe the other tribes around, and those arrows dipped in a neurotoxin, have something to do with it.
How much the Na’vi care about another intelligent species? Apparently, not much at all. Dr Augustine was banned from their land, together with her school. The only thing that got their attention was a soldier. Scientist? Hell no. Warrior biorobot! That’s something! As Neytiri put it, you have a strong heart, no fear, but stupid. These are worthy traits for the Na’vi.
The Na’vi had a general distaste for science. They had a central knowledge base, Eywa. A consciousness overreaching the entire planet. A mind they could reach easily through those tentacle thingies. We know that, since Jake contacted Eywa, and updated it about human intent. The tree actually listened, and acted. So what about the Na’vi, knowing about Eywa for who knows how many centuries. Did they upload knowledge? Did they access knowledge? Did they ask questions? Nope. They prayed to it.
You can love the Na’vi, but you certainly don’t want them to be your neighbors.
But man still wins
So if you are human, especially if white, god forbid a male, you are the filth of the universe. You exploit nature, you murder anyone in your way, you care about nothing but money and power.
However at the end, Jake is the toruk makto, he takes the chick, he saves the Na’vi and the planet. Despite all the white guilt, we still want to see the white man win. You might say, yes, he learned the Na’vi way. But no, in fact many times throughout the film he did things that Na’vi either didn’t. Jake talked to Eywa, the Na’vi didn’t. Jake decided to ride the big bird, no Na’vi did. Jake did not follow the Na’vi way, but on the contrary, acted quite human, and showed the primitive blue monkeys how to act like a man.
But is Jake a positive character? Not so much. He is a former marine, a minister of death, killer by occupation. He is even proud of it. “You might be out, but you never lose the attitude”, right? All the places he destroyed, were just “another hellhole”. It is easy to sell a soldier these days, but with a dash of realism, you see that nearly everyone is a better and more valuable person than a soldier. Just as the Na’vi are misrepresented through deception and carefully selected information, Jake Sully is also depicted in much more positive light than he deserves. In fact, he and the Na’vi match very well. They are all dumb uneducated brutes. Meanwhile the so called evil people, though definitely no saints, are much more sophisticated and civilized.
The evil of technology
Watching the movie, one easily gets the impression that the mining operation’s primary goal was pointless destruction. The rationale is summarized as “this rock sells 20 million a kilo”. The actual use of the mined ore was not explained at all. Let’s not confuse the poor viewer with weird statements about needs, progress, technology and such. Let’s skip the boring fact that interstellar travel was largely enabled by unobtanium, as well as the Earth’s energy supply, and therefore quality of everyone’s life. No, it is surely greed. Let’s go with greed.
So we hate greed together, watching a movie that cost over 200 million dollars, and available in 3D. But please turn off your smartphones during the film. Also, choose diet coke, it does not make you diabetic. We hope you enjoy double legspace. How can anyone believe for a split second that technology and civilization hurts us? If you honestly believe, how do you play along so easily? I mean, not going to the movie theater does not seem that hard. Hypocrisy much? So yes. It is possible to consume less. If you care, start now. But please stop talking about the greed of mankind, because it is embarrassingly shallow.
But the Na’vi was better, of course. They were not contaminated by greed. It makes things easy for Cameron, as it eliminates the possibility of trade, thus a peaceful solution. Education, medicine, roads, the Na’vi can not be bothered with such greedy things. It’s okay, you say, the Na’vi is a fictional race. They can be that way, writers’ freedom. But it is still a lie. There is exactly zero people on this globe that did not think of colonialism, native americans or other historical events when watching the movie. And the analogy just does not hold.
Actual historical people (those in harmony, you know) did rob and pillage nature the best they could. The reason global warming came in the 20th century is not because we got insane that time, but because earlier people was not capable of getting oil out of the ground, and burning it by the shipload. But for example our great ancestors managed to eradicate many species on ancient Australia, including giant kangaroos and turtles. Such calamities are not limited to humans. Invasive species often cause great waves of extinction, or significant destruction of the environment. In fact, life on earth started with a major climate change, when sea organisms ate all the nutritious carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and poisoned it with deadly oxygen. (Look up Oxygen Catastrophe if you don’t believe.) The harmony of nature is a myth. Nature is just as cruel, only it is slower.
And last but not least, trade is innate to all humans. If you offer medicine, roads, but hell, even nails, and alas whisky to primitive tribes, they’ll sure take it, and offer a great deal of gold, meat, animal skins and young women in return. Because they do want that stuff. Because they are really in need, unlike the film’s audience. They can see how those things improve their lives (well, with the exception of whisky, but mistakes are sometimes made). We, the privileged, condemn smartphones. Poor people don’t.
The movie treats the audience as brainless stupid. This actually works, because for every viewer offended by it, it appeals to at least a hundred actual brainless stupids. A lot of scenes makes no sense at all if you think on them for two seconds. If you happen to have an IQ of 105 or more, you probably facepalmed through the whole movie.
So we have a scientist with a heart. Someone who thinks about taking a sample while dying. Someone that respects the Na’vi, and spends a lifetime studying them, and teaching them. But the very first time she meets Jake, she acts like a spoiled child, bitching about she wants his brother. You know, who is dead. And whose brother, still grieving about the loss, is the one she is talking to. Can you get any more childish and tactless? In reality she would probably say a nice-to-meet-you in a less than excited tone, and turn away. But no, the audience needs to understand that soldier bad, scientist good, and they are enemies. We need to hammer it into their thick skull.
You are not supposed to be running
When Jake first gets into the avatar body, breaks loose, and starts running. It is totally out of character from a soldier who followed orders in his entire life, but whatever. Probably got very excited. But then we have the other guy appointing himself to solve the situation by running after him. Why nobody seems to care about that? He is just as much a first timer, never actually controlled an avatar before. So why the hell they don’t try to stop him too? And why he thought it is a good idea to run after him? Shouldn’t he know better? Also, what is the actual danger? He falls over, and bruises his elbow? So what? This scene makes little sense. But it makes more sense, if we don’t think about it: it just establishes in the movie’s crude way that he is really into this avatar thing. It also gives a little more screen time to an otherwise totally unnecessary supporting role. And last but not least it gives the scene more dynamism, which is needed, or else our tiny attention span would not keep up.
You are making me nervous
Dr Augustine and two rookies go on a journey in the forest. This scene is so wrong on so many levels, it boggles the mind. First of all, what the heck the other avatars were doing meanwhile? They played basketball? How about bringing someone who actually has some experience in the wilderness? To make things worse, she even dismissed the armed security guard. Okay, so what is the plan? Apparently, they wanted to speak to someone (“let Norm do the talking”). It must be the Na’vi, nobody else can speak out there. But the Na’vi banned them, and also issued orders to kill them on sight. A little later Neytiri in fact attempted to shoot Jake, and only stopped because of a divine intervention. Not that it matters, because they had very little chance to get there. As it was explained earlier, Pandora is extremely dangerous. There are a lot of predators preying on Na’vi, and quite clearly the humans had no clue how to handle themselves out there. When they, as was expected, ran into dangerous animals, Augustine had not much helpful to say, except “hold your ground”, and “run”. Yet again, the scene makes much more sense if you just accept it without thinking. It just gives a useless supporting role some screentime, gives Jake an opportunity to get lost in the jungle so he can meet Neytiri, and gives Cameron an opportunity to showcase some cool animal designs. That should be enough, stupid audience!
You should see your faces
If we spend a lot of money making a good looking location, we better call the viewer’s attention to it, or else they might miss. We also need to prepare the viewer that something really cool will happen, otherwise they might not understand how cool is it. They might mistakenly think it is mediocre. The audience needs guidance. The cooler our scenery is, the more preparation is required. When we finally show our work, it should be accompanied by obnoxious music, and actors making the most overacted awe-face they can summon up. Only then we can ensure the most emotional impact. Observe this principle in action. Before our heroes approach the flying mountains, the scene is telegraphed from a mile ahead in a very embarrassing dialog. The useless supporting character gets overly excited (“yessss”), and scolds Jake for not knowing what those are. Then we get more heads-ups, radio interference because “we are close”, camera angles showing nothing but the fog, hinting on something big is about to be revealed. Intensity of the music is increasing. The actors are showing us how we are supposed to feel (jaw drop), before any images of the mountains themselves actually appear. In case somebody missed the facial expression, which is not possible, another character points that out for us. And then boom, mountains, loud music, orgasm. The whole thing resembles how television shows are recorded. The so called “audience” there is instructed when to laugh, when to clap. Cameron literally instructs his audience what to feel.
Freeze! Scale up! Enhance!
I’m not kidding you. These words are actually uttered in the movie. Is this the 90’s?
The time of great sorrow was ended
At the end, people are boarding the spaceship, and leave. Except those that choose to stay. Question. Those that don’t have an avatar, will do exactly what there, without all the crew to run the base? They will have to go home after a while, aren’t they? But on what ship? They don’t have a spare. And what would they say? Won’t they be put in jail for siding with the rebels, disobeying their contract? Also, after the crew boards the ship, why don’t they just turn some weapons on the Na’vi or the magic tree? They don’t even need actual weapons, just position the ship in the correct angle, and burn the area with a gamma ray beam from the antimatter engines (what the ship actually has). By the way, why didn’t they do that with the tree earlier? But suppose they can’t for some reason. What about the next ship that is expected in three months? And then another one six months after that? Those ships are on route, launching every six month, and can’t be turned back even if they want to. They lack the fuel to turn around midflight. Without proper refuelling and maintenance, they can’t even set sail home after arrival. You will kill them? Also the Earth will learn about what happened in a few months of time (using the superluminal communication system). So you have six years to party, at which point significant military is about to arrive. Is the Na’vi willing to step on the path of technology, and prepare for defense? But you know what? Don’t think! Eat popcorn! Slurp Coke!
Finally, here is a quick rundown on some of the many little stupidities not covered in detail. Like why the heck the Na’vi have one USB port, while all animals had too, why they have four limbs, while every other animal had six, and why they didn’t have breathing holes on their neck. How they grew hair in braid. Why they used the USB port to communicate with animals, with eywa and with their love, but never with friends or kins during meetings. Why animals had USB connectors at all? How Eywa communicated with the animals, because apparently not via the USB ports. Why wasn’t the length of the day on Pandora many weeks long, being tidally locked to the gas giant? If it was not tidally locked, why not? Why did the Na’vi attacked on the ground, if the real danger was the bomb on the shuttle? Why humans attacked on the ground if they planned to drop a bomb? Why humans used usual machine guns, usual rounds with casing more than a hundred years in the future? How the avatar control link worked while radio communication didn’t? Shut up, we are not making some stupid science fiction here! It is about harmony with nature!
It started all well. Subluminal space travel with six years travel time. Huge fuel tanks, huge engines, tractor configuration, heat radiator panels. Moon of a gas giant. Superconductor ore that makes magnetic rocks levitate. The mixing of different gases visible when opening the shuttle door. It is obvious that a lot of thought and care was put in the design of the world. They even made a little featurette, a half minute short trailer of an imaginary educational film on Pandora’s geology and biology.
All this goes down the toilet, as soon as Cameron’s hand refurbishes every tiny aspect to sell more tickets. Can we mention in the movie that Unobtanium was a superconductor? Hell no, science just reminds people of their bad physics marks. Can we have a long daylight cycle? Absolutely not, everything should be just normal. Do we need futuristic technology? Who have time explaining the zombies all that? A big knife will do! Can we have the Na’vi fit in with all the other animals? Are you crazy? Nobody would want to bang a four-armed monster with two weird looking tentacles growing on the back of their neck! Boobs it is! How about some actual interaction between the Na’vi and the humans, which is multilayered, involves meeting and mixing of cultures, interesting questions, dilemmas, etc? Give me a break! This is not a ph.d. thesis! A greedy businessman playing minigolf will suffice.
If you know where to look, you can still see the real movie behind the dollar press. The real script was used as paper to write this lame, dumb, we-are-the-99% crap over it. This movie is an experiment. It asks the important question of how many people can be satisfied with nothing but artificial flavorings and sweeteners. Apparently, most of them.
Interstellar was promised to be scientific. Interstellar was promised to be a fantastic journey, an adventure never seen before. Interstellar was promised to be the intersection of Hollywood money and the fascinating world of physics and technology. Unfortunately, it is neither. It is a below average pseudo-science-fiction, a total logical nonsense with a higher than usual budget, and a shamefully missed opportunity. Let’s see why.
Dude, fix your problem!
So we have a situation with crops. I would not claim to fully understand what they’re saying, but what can cause crop failure on massive scale? Only some kind of germ, a virus or something, isn’t it? It does not seem that hard to handle.
First, find it. You have electron microscopes. You have chemistry. Advanced analysis techniques, like mass spectrometers and others. You have all sort of things to employ when you are looking for a microbe. I mean, we have found HIV after a few years of search, and it was in 1981, and was hardly a devastating worldwide problem. You want to tell me that mankind watches the crops all fail one after the other, helpless? Or, as one character puts it, they train more and more … farmers? Because you know, if we have less farm area every year, we need more farmers. Jeez! Not machines or scientists! No, farmers. They will surely be a great help!
Okay, let’s suppose they don’t find the cause. Why not try isolated indoor farming? Heat up the soil to kill all life, or use hydroponics. And then plant crops from seed banks. Are you telling me that by the time they discovered the problem, every single seed on the planet was infested, and there is absolutely no way to clean them?
Very well then. How about manufacturing nutrients? I get that it might be quite expensive, but surely better than dying in hunger. I mean, proteins, fats, vitamins … it should not be all that hard to synthesize them.
But they don’t do any of these. They come up with two plans, aptly named plan A and plan B. Plan A consists of finding a new planet, and migrating there. Excuse me, how does that help with the crops? I mean we probably still need to eat over there, so we need to bring seeds to plant. Do you think that whatever kills our food on Earth, will miraculously vanish if we move to another planet? Or do you hope to find edible vegetables there? Neither of these options seem to have any viability.
And there is plan B, populating the other planet with the astronauts, leaving everyone else to die on Earth. Now this solution might work a little better with an all female crew, don’t you think? What if not Dr Hathaway, but one of the other members survives at the end alone? That much for plan B. Maybe something you should have considered. But it actually changes nothing, because you still didn’t solve the main problem! What will they eat, damn it? Are we finished with all these nonsense that do not in any way address the actual problem at hand, namely the lack of food?
At the end of the movie, you can see mankind living happily on orbital stations. Risking being terribly boring, can I ask what kind of food you people were eating up there? Somehow the understanding of gravity also solved the crop problem? Or you just happened to find a solution meanwhile? But then, why not solve the situation down on Earth? Why did you go up to live in tubes? How about a plot that makes sense??
Actually, nobody said the spaceship would be scientific. It was lightly implied, but that’s all. But come on! It is a little too much to stomach here.
First of all. Why do we have separated compartments? Would not it be easier to have a sturdy structure, that, you know, can accelerate? Acceleration is pretty much the same thing as gravity (since the General Theory of Relativity, they are exactly the same). If you give the spacecraft one g acceleration, it is the same thing as putting it down on the ground, resting on its engines. The same kind of forces will appear, and attempt to tear the structure apart. Now does that spaceship look like a solid structure to you? That would withstand excessive forces acting upon it?
Second, the spinning. There are multiple problems associated with spinning a vehicle in space. If you want to steer a spinning mass, it will resist. I trust you remember that experiment involving a hanging bicycle wheel. It requires a whole lot of force to change the axis of the rotation. Therefore navigating a spinning object is a hassle. Another problem is the conservation of angular momentum. If you want to spin up an object, or spin it down, you will either need to use reactive forces, that is, rockets, which eject mass that you will never get back. Or you will need to store the angular momentum in a flywheel. But high mass high speed flywheels give you all sorts of engineering problems. In short, getting anything spinning in space is a serious undertaking, and you want to avoid it if at all possible. As a result, you probably want to spin only the parts humans live in, and let the cargo experience zero gravity, it does not mind. In our situation, since the crew went sleeping right away, spinning any part of the ship is a total waste of resources.
So the creators seem to have had discussions with an actual physicist who told them that wormholes don’t look like discs, but spheres. The analogy would be that if you imagine two planes connected by a tube, the tube’s connection to the plane is a circle, which is the 2D analogue of a sphere in 3D. A 3D wormhole is attached to our space through a 3D sphere, and extends into the 4th dimension. You can actually find animations about such a thing on the Internet. It is quite cool. Away from the hole, you see your own world. If you look right into the hole, you see the other world. And between the two, there is a region in which the two worlds are weirdly intertwined. This is due to the fact that such a geometry can not be, obviously, flat. You need to bend the space in order to form a connecting tube between two otherwise flat worlds. And as light always tries to travel as straight as it can, it goes along all sorts of spirals and circles on such a warped surface.
The creators seem to got only the fact that they need a sphere. Because how they implemented it in the movie, looks nothing like a realistic wormhole. More like a big sphere with another galaxy printed on the surface. And when they decide to hop in, some usual tunnel like special effects show up, right from the ’80s. Lame! Give us an actual wormhole, damn it!
The writers also don’t seem to understand even the very basics of orbital mechanics. The spaceship does not have some super-futuristic propulsion technology, it is clear from the fact that they needed two full years to get to Saturn, which is only somewhat better than what we can do today. So they are bound by the limitations we understand very well. Or at least they should.
Our main enemy is the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation. Simply stated, it means that if you want to add more units of distance to travel, the required fuel multiplies. That is, having twice, four times, eight times as much fuel gives us only one, two or three additional chunks of distance covered. The easiest way to understand it is through a very simple thought experiment. Suppose we have a little rocket that can propel us, in some comfortable time, to a destination at a given distance. Let this be a million kilometers in one day of time. Also suppose that our cabin weights one ton, and the fuel needed to make this journey is also one ton. How much fuel we need if we want to travel another million kilometers in one more day? One way to do that is to take two more rockets, and put our first rocket with our cabin in the cargo bay. That is two tons of cargo for the two rockets. So we travel one million kilometers in one day, while using up all the two tons of fuel in the two rockets. Then we ditch the outer shell, and unpack the little spaceship in the cargo, and hop in it. Another day, another million kilometers. In total, we needed three tons of fuel. Similarly, we can travel one million kilometers more if we put our two stage rocket, totaling four tons, into a superspaceship with four engines, requiring seven tons of fuel in total. If we continue this, we get large numbers very fast. The next few numbers are 15, 31, 63 and 127. Now, this is a very rudimentary explanation, and largely lacks scientific rigor. But the actual math of the situation is not that far off from it. Alas, the result is that we need exponentially more fuel to travel larger distances.
Another concept to understand is gravity wells and delta-v. If you are in orbit around a mass, it is not easy to switch to another orbit, especially if you want to move closer or farther away from the mass. You can pretty much imagine it like a whole in the ground with sloped sides. It takes effort to climb out. The weird thing with gravity is that climbing down also needs effort. That is basically due to the law of energy conservation. As you orbit a mass, your potential energy (caused by the distance from the mass) and your kinetic energy (coming from movement) sums up to a constant, unless you do something about it. This something can be a swing around another mass, or burning a lot of rocket fuel. The change you make in your trajectory is measured by a quantity called delta-v. In the simplest case, linear acceleration, delta-v means what it sounds like: a difference between the starting and ending speeds. But in more complex situations it is more difficult than that. At any rate, it measures how much you worked on changing your movement, for example how much you climbed out of (or down) the pit. These gravity wells tend to be rather deep. For example in order to escape from the surface of the Earth and achieve a low orbit around it, you need approximately 10km/s delta-v. That is the same amount of effort as speeding up your spacecraft from a standing position to 10km/s in open space. That is some considerable speed, if you think about it. The Earth is 30km/s deep in the Sun’s gravity well.
Now back to the so called science in the movie. There is basically no way with our technology to just run around in a solar (black-hole-ar?) system, and visit multiple planets within a reasonable timeframe, as we were shown. With the Tsiolkovsky equation in effect, the spaceship must have been carrying ginormous heaps of fuel. Essentially, the entire spaceship must be all fuel. Just for comparison, we launched a Delta II rocket standing 40m tall, weighing 200 tons to get a little, one ton spacecraft in Earth orbit that was able to deliver the 185 kilogram Spirit rover to the surface of Mars. And it is the planet just next door. They didn’t have neither the time nor the resources to manufacture, and put in Earth orbit, the many many billions of tons of fuel required for the journey depicted in the movie. Neither they seemed to have have huge fuel tanks.
And then, they descend to the gravity well of the black hole. How deep that gravity well might be? Just remember that the Earth’s gravity well is basically one of the biggest problem we face in space exploration. How much deeper the well they had to descend into was? They actually gave us a hint: so deep the time dilation was a huge issue. According to the Theory of General Relativity, if you go down a gravity well, time slows down. It does not depend on the strength of the gravitational field, but your depth in the well. This effect is observable on Earth. That is why the GPS satellites have their clocks set differently. They are not as deep in the well as we are down here, so our clocks are a little slower. How much slower? 45 microseconds per day. That is microsecond, a millionth of a second. So the gravity well that gives us a huge headache causes a slowdown factor of 1.00000000052. It is not even noticeable if you don’t have precision equipment. The well they descended into gave them a time dilation of seven years per hour. That is a factor of 61320. That is a gravity well so deep, words can’t describe how deep. Our solar system is a shallow puddle compared to the steep chasm of that place. No energy or force ever created by mankind is able to put them down there, let alone get them out later. It just not going to happen.
Life Around the black hole
Planets orbiting a supermassive black hole is a good idea, because it looks good. No, seriously, this is the only reason. The problem is not what it seems to be at a glance. In fact, you can find stable orbits around a black hole, just you need to go far enough, and it is not very far at all. Also, black holes do radiate in visible light too, and thus can warm up planets and possibly feed their biosphere.
But unfortunately, black holes radiate a whole lot of gamma and x-rays. It might be all right for some kind of life. Life forms that evolved in such a hostile environment, and have some clever mechanisms to cope with the constant barrage of destructive radiation. But humans tend to react quite poorly to these bands of the electromagnetic spectra. So if you look for a new home, maybe try an actual star next time. The movie’s science guy says in an interview that the idea was that it is not an accretion disk, but some unstable remnant of it, slowly cooling. I don’t know who do you plan to fool with that, pal.
There is also a problem with the time dilation as presented in the movie. So we have this planet with time extremely slowed down. They find out that the person sent there possibly died minutes ago in her time, although it was decades ago for the outside world. And that is what misled them to think the planet would be habitable, as they received the signal almost to that date. Question. Should not you have realized that the radio transmission is actually a minute of content stretched out over months? How could you even receive such a slowed down signal? No doubt your radio is designed to receive a range of carrier signals. Can your radio pick up signals 60000 times below its designed frequency? And if it can, didn’t you think that “Sooo faaaar iiiiiit iiiiiis fiiiiineeee” slowed down 60000 times is not a very reassuring message?
Also, a little side remark. The physics expert working for the movie is cited to say something along the lines of he was surprised how the simulations turned out. The equations were fed to a computer, but nobody expected such results. This gives you the impression that said simulations were done recently, maybe even for the movie. So we see a cutting edge scientific discovery, possibly even financed by the studio. In fact, very similar animations existed back in 1990. Granted, the results were surprising back then. But presenting it as anything new or related to the movie is just a gargantuan lie.
Every time travel plot ever
There are two possibilities. Either every time travel plot Hollywood comes up with has exactly the same problems. Or literally every time travel plot ever written has the same problems. Either way, it is advisable to follow time travel plot 101: if you want your plot not to suck, do not put time travel in it.
There are two major plot issues with all time travel stories. The first one is what they use it for. Time travel is an extremely potent capability to have. So extremely potent in fact, stories necessarily develop into a singularities if you want them to follow logic. In this movie, the guy went out of his way to communicate the coordinates of a NASA base. Why not go ahead a little bit, sneak peak into the solution for the gravity problem, and tell that instead? Or if we are at it, why not the solution to the crop problem? Or let’s assume the guy was not able to travel to other places, only different times. At the end he is standing there in person, apparently somehow got out of the black hole. So here is an idea! Why not grab some relevant scientific data, and go back to the black hole once more, and tell the young girl about those? Or if you don’t want to go in black holes anymore, just go to your house, dump the data on the floor, the other you can read it from the other side, and communicate to your young girl. In fact you can not fail, because if you do, you can repeat the process any number of times, you can continue to drop other people into the black hole, or present yourself any ideas in your house that you can dump on the little girl in the past.
Time travel also logically removes any sense of urgency. You have all the time in the universe to act, it does not matter when you go back in time, you can arrive at the same hour anyway. So why our heroes are so stressed? Why the hurry? Calm the f down, people, and get your act together. Of course, we understand very well why they need to act fast. It is because otherwise we had time to think the plot through, and that would ruin the experience. My bad. Please keep the pace up.
The good news is that we have a big budget movie with science in it. The bad news is science gets raped by the movie. This is the triumph of symbolism over realism. And I’m sad.