Damion Chaplin

Damion Chaplin
Bay Area, California, Earth
August 22
Rev. Dr. Taciturn
Please read my ongoing sci-fi story at: http://open.salon.com/blog/aric_dante Look for a new entry every Friday.


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JANUARY 18, 2010 12:19PM

Unobtainium is a Joke, and So is Your Movie

Rate: 22 Flag

     First, let me come right out and say I have yet to see Avatar.  However, having read a number of reviews and articles (not to mention being bombarded with ads on the FOX network) on Avatar, I am dismayed and very disappointed that James Cameron was so unoriginal that he actually used the term 'unobtainium' as the fictional mineral the humans are mining on the fictional planet Pandora.

     You see, unobtainium is not a real element, and isn't meant to be.  The term 'unobtainium' is a humorous term used by engineers to describe a metal (or other material) that is either so rare or costly it can't be practically used (e.g. antimatter), or is physically impossible.  It is used to describe a material that is perfect for a certain project in every way, except for the small fact that it doesn't exist.  Two classic examples of unobtainium are matter that is unaffected by gravity (i.e. massless), and matter that is unaffected by conventional matter (i.e. frictionless).  Basically, engineers use the term 'unobtainium' to describe a material that is so advanced it is, by definition, unobtainable.

     There are a few variations of that definition, but for the most part, they all describe the same thing:  Something that is virtually, practically, or literally unobtainable.

     The concept of unobtainium has been in use in science fiction probably since the very beginning.  Science fiction writers are often faced with the fact that what they envision isn't possible given what we know of physics, so they turn to unobtainium.

     In fact, the use of a material that doesn't exist (and probably can't) is a long-standing tradition in science fiction.  The Warp Drives in Star Trek use a crystal called dilithium that is able to contain and channel a matter-antimatter explosion.  Star Fleet vessels also use a metal known as tritainium for their hulls.  Larry Niven's Ringworld is constructed of a material known as scrith, who's tensile strength rivals that of the Strong Nuclear Force.  Marvel Comics' Woverine has a skeleton coated with adamantium, which is described as 'virtually indestructible'.  All of these are examples of unobtainium.

     However, the common thread all those examples have is a unique name.  We, the audience, know these materials don't exist and are probably completely made up, and we don't care.  But by giving these materials their own unique name, the writers are making their own universes unique.  When I hear the word 'dilithium', I immediately think Star Trek.  When I hear the word 'adamantium', I immediately think Wolverine.  However, when I hear the word 'unobtainium', I think Engineer's Joke.

     In 2003, I saw the film The Core.  As a sci-fi flick, it wasn't bad.  However, when it got to the scene when they introduced the Virgil's engineer, The Core veered directly into B-movie territory by announcing the hull of the Virgil would be made from unobtainium.

     I swear to you, I laughed for a solid two minutes.  My wife, of course, didn't understand why I was laughing.  In between guffaws, I said:  "Because unobtainium is an engineering joke!  It doesn't exist and, by definition, can't exist!  I can't believe they didn't spend 5 minutes thinking of a different name!"

     Sci-fi script writers will often insert [technical term] when they want the technical writers/consultants to come up with a fancy technical-sounding term.  This was like the writer had put in [unobtainium] and they decided to run with it.  Now, The Core was based on a book, and the book may have used the term, so I can understand if they just didn't know any better.  Their use of the term, however, dropped the film from B+ to B- in my book.

     Then I heard that James Cameron used the same term in his new film Avatar.  This time, I didn't find it so funny.  I was really more disappointed and sad more than anything else.  Apparently, I was the only one who thought it was hilarious when The Core tried to take the term seriously.  I have always enjoyed James Cameron's films, and I have much respect for him as a director and writer, but I am surprised that he did not sit down for 5 minutes and think about a name for his mythical mineral.  I am surprised that after spending $237 million, he went with a generic term, one that was never meant to be taken seriously.

     Dear Mr. Cameron:  Was 'pandorite' too trite for you?  Was 'centaurium' too obvious?  I thought of those in 20 seconds.  Surely you could have done better, and I can't believe you didn't know better than to use the word 'unobtainium'.  Now I'm afraid I just can't take your movie as seriously as I would have liked to.

     Unobtainium is a joke, and by using it, I'm afraid your movie has become a joke as well.

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Please excuse the geek rant.
I thought it was sort of an "in" joke. I don't think many of the audience members even heard it. Sort of like having a character named "Alan Smithee."
Well, if they were thinking it was an in-joke, I'm thinking they failed.
Hee. I haven't seen it either and I haaaaaaate haaaaaaaaaaate haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaated The Core, but this is a righteous rant. :-)
the geek rant is perfect. The movie is dumb in other areas as well. The unobtainium that the corporation is obsessing over sits under a big sacred tree. They must have that unobtainium. The whole reason the movie exists is because of that particular pile of unobtainium. Meanwhile, there's this whole other part of the world that's full of floating islands that could easily be taken with little or no argument from the natives that are made of, you guessed it, unobtainium. But if they just mined them, there'd be no movie. It's a pretty movie, but very illogical.
They should have used Upsidaisium since half the planent is floating around.
I didn't know this and now my science fiction joy is gone! I've been had!

*runs from room, sobbing loudy to go and read some more pages of "American Gods" for comfort*
Interesting - I didn't know the backstory, but even I, a non-engineer, sensed there was something wrong about the name.

Sure, the movie is basically nonsense, packed with cliches, and doesn't stand up to any sustained analysis, but I had a grand time watching it and intend to go back and see it again soon.
Never go see a a hollywood script written to move a series of pre-determined "action scenes" along ... they are always full of absurd non-sequiturs.

In Avatar the first thing you see is a tiny sample of unobtainium floating in the air. Obviously those "floating mountains" (which take up a big chunk of the plot in some scary high-in-the-air action scenes) contain inordinate amounts of unobtanium.

So why at the end are they attacking the other place, the place so sacred ... etc? Why not just scoop up some of those minor floating mountains?

And then of course the "attack plan" is so idiot that a five year old playing with toy soldiers wouldn't be THAT stupid... but never mind ... the visuals were good. 10 foot blue aliens with nice T&A

I went to Stanford for awhile .. .and I wonder what the placement fee was for the Stanford tee ... and why a blue alien voiced by what's-her-body wears a tee.
This post is kind of unobtainium! Just kidding. I didn't even know what unobtainium was, or isn't, or to pricey, or...,
Oh, dear. Unobtainium isn't that funny to begin with, so no version of this ends well. I'm still trying to get over the pterodactyl dragons. But I loved the spectacle, regardless.
I love - love - me a geek joke.

could he have been trying an MST3K thing, you know, only the cool kids will get it?
I hear that the producers of The Core rejected the original material, deus ex machinum
After hearing some of the details of Avatar, it sounds like unobtainium is the least stupid element in the movie... :-/

Fudo: If Cameron was going for a MST3K moment, he may have succeeded (in that, I didn't find MST3K particularly funny either)

Occam: That was priceless.
As a post Architecture Student, photographer, computer geek, the son and brother of engineers, I've always enjoyed engineer jokes while recognizing that it's the engineers who create our reality

That said, being surprised by the lack of "Realism" or "Plot" in "Avatar" (AKA "Dances with Smurfs", AKA "Fern Gully II") is about as pointless as being disappointed that the "Beast" roller coaster at King's Island is not of a recognizable genus or specie.

It's an aesthetic experience. By all means experience it. By no means take it seriously.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even though it still seems to me that the way the left-handed natives hold their bows would result in the fletchng removing some face.
( why are all "heroic" creatures left handed and copious cigarette smokers?)

Anyone care to speculate on proper archery technique among ten foot left handed Smurfs?
PS: My favorite engineer joke

Given to prove: All odd numbers
PS: My favourite engineer joke

Given to prove: All odd numbers
Oh well can't seem to get the joke to post- if you want to read it see my blog post
Will someone please give me $237 million to be lazy?

Heck, $1000 and 'pandorite' is yours...
Yay for nerd rants! I love it when somebody besides me gets in a huff about an insult to the geek fields. Nobody would dare insult a normal profession in this politically correct society. Why are folks so ignorant of what squashes a nerd's toes? Everybody on Zargon knows that!
Actually, I've found the Zargonians to be largely ignorant of the subject. Might you be thinking of the Garzonians? ;-)
It wa goofy but looked amazing. So it's worth seeing ion the big screen. The Star Trek movie also looked good big. Certain horror movies like Silent Hill. Grudge Two. Not the same on DVD. Avatar had some of the most amazing graphics Ive ever seen. Like 2012. Dopey story, visually compelling.
This movie would have been better had it come out of DisneyCorp. Honestly, ever since day one, I hadn't planned to see this movie, and everything I've heard, including numerous first hand accounts has only made me wish Cameron would pay US to go see this thing
upon most of the people I know saying, "you HAVE to see this movie! it was AWESOME!!" I promptly recall what they said about Blair Witch


MST3K was really just watching bad movies with your friends - if you have really funny friends. The first time I saw it I was crying.
Love geek rants, #2. Thanks for yours.
Glad to have discovered your blog, and this great post on unobtainium! My feelings were that Avatar had a great potential to grasp biology and thrust it onto the big screen...with hired botanists and biologists and linguists on staff...but alas, even that was unobtainium.
Adding this to my list of best science posts on OS!
I too think they were thinking of an in joke. Not "in" enough, obviously. A better one was the name of the main character in "District 9". In SA, a lot of the jokes told about Paddy the Irishman by English people, or Poles by other Americans, are recycled through Van der Merwe, the archetypal dumb Afrikaaner. That movie has been called racist for its treatment of other races, but it's taking the mickey out of the whites too.
'( why are all "heroic" creatures left handed and copious cigarette smokers?)'

@token: we just are. it's got something to do with the...oh, i don't know, i'm heroic, not smart. ;-)

i didn't know the inside joke about unobtainium; i just thought it was a stupid name. lazy job or something.
the story of avatar is very basic and predictable, which i found the main problem. visually it is stunning, but after awhile that wears thin if the story isn't compelling enough to compete with the visual. jmho. did i hate it, no. it was more of a 'meh' moment for me.
im not going to waste my time reading something about something that was in a movie that you didnt see and had to comment on even though you didnt see it.
Seems to me you've done what you've just accused me of doing:
Commenting on something you couldn't bother to read.

In any case, I did not need to see the movie to express my opinions on the use of the term Unobtainium. Which you would have known if you had bothered to read the piece you just criticized.
I don't suppose someone could tell me who's linking to this post..?
Another place the movie short-changed itself is in the title design; it's done in a typeface called Papyrus which is essentially a joke in the design world (according to one blogger I read, think "5th grade paper on Egypt"). They maybe made some minor modifications, but you'd think with all that money they could afford to splurge on a more original design.

From a "design geek" -
Good point. Haven't seen Avatar either. Maybe I'd pay a dollar for it at the DVD dispenser that sits in front of the Kroger store, though. As I understand it, Cameron is aware of this script failure, and has announced that a fictional element described as the "most destructive substance in the universe," and an essential plot device in his next film, will be called "Toyotitanium."
Avatar was simplistic and naive at best, with a highly sophisticated overlay to cover up for a thin, weak plot line and non compelling characters who we couldn't give a rat's ass about. While endeavoring not to be "preachy" it was preachy in the extreme with wide eyed Navi's waxing euphoric on their relationships to animals and plants--it looks like a movie invented by a thirteen yera old on drugs and--guess what? It was! Cameron dreamed this up as a young boy! Not all of us get to make our stupid dreams into bazillion dollar films, but hey--waste not, want not.
Typical OS irony--your geek rant has an ad for Choicehotels that is headlined: 1 + 1 = FREE.

Maybe they needed the unobtainium to build the hull of the ship in CORE to save the EARTH!!!????
See the movie, then review it. Cameron, an avid science fiction fan, used the term as a homage.
or maybe the jokes on you, wink
Fantastic rant.

Salon's review of Avatar makes me wonder, too:

"Their goal is to mine a special ore -- its name, "unobtanium," is one of the movie's only truly witty jokes -- that will allow them to solve the Earth's energy crisis. "

Does the reviewer think this is James Cameron's joke? Shudder.
Good to know someone else is appalled that nobody working on this big budget movie was smart enough to think of a name for this element. Calling it unobtainium is unbelievably stupid for all the reasons you listed. I could look past the silly plot problems and pretty much enjoy the ride because of the great special effects, but I can’t get over characters in the movie holding a chunk of this stuff and calling it unobtainium! If you have the element in your hand it is then by definition not “un-obtainable”. (And Pandora is a disappointingly obvious name for the moon.)
Yeah, I felt the same way when they said "unobtanium." I immediately thought of "The Core," and honestly, that movie treated the name as the joke that it was. To have people walking around seriously referring to their "unobtanium" would be like trying to enjoy "Citizen Kane" if Charles Foster Kane manufactured "widgets." It just pulls you out of the movie.

I actually had a few other problems with unobtanium from a scientific perspective. Check out my post at Geek Twins: