Movie events don’t get bigger than this. James Cameron’s long-awaited follow-up to Titanic, the most successful film to date, is immense in every way: from the ambition and scope of its vision, to the ground-breaking technological wizardry, to the staggering size of its budget.
Estimates of the production costs vary widely, but recent theories place Avatar alongside Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End as one of the most expensive films made.
The success or failure of this high-stakes gamble of a movie will send seismic ripples throughout the film industry. If it tanks, Avatar could pose more of an immediate threat to the Hollywood infrastructure than the San Andreas Fault.
Film fans as well as business insiders have cause to root for Avatar’s success: the failure of such a high profile original concept would mean that the industry will become even more risk-averse and reliant on the proven lure of sequels and remakes.
But on the strength of the film’s well-received world premiere in the Odeon Leicester Square, in Central London, last night the movie industry players of Los Angeles should not be too worried about losing their houses just yet.
Avatar is an overwhelming, immersive spectacle. The state-of-the-art 3D technology draws us in, but it is the vivid weirdness of Cameron’s luridly imagined tropical otherworld that keeps us fascinated.
It’s a world that takes a little getting used to. Cameron’s vision owes something to Hayao Miyazaki’s meticulous fantasies and something to the 1992 Australian animation FernGully: The Last Rainforest. At times it verges on the tacky, like a futuristic air freshener advertisement with the colour contrast turned up to the max. The ethically accented orchestral score certainly doesn’t help matters. But mostly, it’s a place of wonder full of exotically freakish animal composites — iridescent lizard birds, hammer-headed rhinos — and sentient vegetation.
Assuming correctly that the special effects would turn out to be the stars of this film, Cameron avoided the big name casting route, opting instead for the relatively unknown Australian actor Sam Worthington in the central role of paraplegic former marine, Jake Sully.
The wheelchair-bound war hero is selected to take part in a top-secret programme. He will travel to a lush extraterrestrial moon called Pandora which is inhabited by a cobalt-skinned race of ten foot tall humanoid aliens known as the Na’vi.
Aware that the core audience for the film is likely to be teenaged boys, Cameron has equipped the female Na’vi with supermodel looks and curves in all the right places, as well as tails and pointy ears.
Sully finds himself a pawn, caught between two camps: the empathetic scientists led by Sigourney Weaver and the corporate guns for hire who want to aggressively plunder the mineral resources of Pandora.
Thanks to his blossoming relationship with Na’vi warrior princess Neytiri (a CGI motion- captured performance from Zoe Saldana), Sully begins to question the legitimacy of the mission.
With the use of such charged phrases as “shock and awe” and Sully’s curt summation of the situation (“When people are sitting on stuff you want, you make them your enemy”) Cameron adds a thought-provoking political dimension to the story.
Will the film match Titanic’s gigantic box office haul of $1.8 billion. Possibly not. The soppy, soggy doomed love story of Jack and Rose hit a particular chord with audiences. But I would be very surprised if James Cameron didn’t have another sizable hit on his hands.
12 years after Titanic, James Cameron delivers his latest blockbuster and once again takes cinema to a new level of remarkable spectacle. An epic film born entirely of Cameron’s imagination, Avatar uses tailor-made technology to create the most astonishing visual effects yet seen on screen and blends them seamlessly into a mythical sci-fi story about an ancient alien civilisation fighting the encroaching human menace. It’s an unprecedented marriage of technology and storytelling which is on the whole remarkably successful.
Although Fox and Cameron showcased 20 minutes of footage earlier this year, audiences will still be astonished by the gigantic sci-fi tapestry that the film-maker has woven here in crisp and striking 3D images. Avatar should see large figures on opening December 18, but business will also be sustained over subsequent weeks as word of mouth spreads.
Could it hit Titanic numbers? Probably not, as Avatar is more of a boy’s own adventure, lacking the DiCaprio factor which so obsessed teenage girls back in 1998. It does have its own zeitgeist feel, however, with the visual wow factor augmented by its resonant contemporary themes (environmental destruction, war and corporate corruption) in the context of a sci-fi adventure story. And if that’s not enough, it features a love affair between two blue-skinned aliens which is surprisingly romantic and affecting.
Fox has a lot riding on the film which it says cost $237m to produce and $150m to release. It should recoup that, and unlike Titanic, where it brought in Paramount to co-finance, Fox has no distribution pot to share, although the studio has financial partners in Dune Capital Management and Ingenious Film Partners. International revenues should dwarf domestic, as happened on Titanic, and, in acknowledgment of the film’s global prospects, the world premiere took place in London on Dec 10.
Avatar will also benefit from higher priced tickets at 3D theatres and IMAX screens, not to mention the added boost it could get from awards recognition.
The story is an amalgam of numerous well-worn genres and inspirations – the western, the Pocahantas story, The Last Of The Mohicans, Cameron’s own The Abyss, Star Wars, Dances With Wolves and more. Cameron’s characterisations and dialogue are often crude and cliched, as Titanic demonstrated, although Avatar’s hackneyed dialogue feels more appropriate to the adventure genre he is tackling.
Taking place in 2154, the film follows a wheelchair-bound US marine called Jake Scully (Worthington) who wakes up from six years of cryogenic sleep on the distant planet of Pandora, where a large corporation is mining a powerful mineral that could help solve the earth’s energy crisis.
He has been recruited as a “driver”, a human whose consciousness is linked to an avatar. This remotely controlled biological body is a genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA and DNA from the Pandora natives, 10-foot-tall blue humanoid creatures called Na’vi.
Jake is charged with infiltrating the Na’vi and learning their ways in order to persuade them to cooperate with the mining operation. This happens sooner than he expected when his life is saved by a Na’vi female called Neytiri (Saldana), and he is taken in by her clan. But he soon learns to love the culture and values of the Na’vi, who have a magical connection to the forest they live in. As the human forces start to move in and seize the minerals, Jake finds himself torn between two bodies and two loyalties.
The motion capture technique which Cameron pioneered with Weta Digital is extraordinary, and the expressiveness of the Na’vi, as based on full body performances by Worthington, Saldana, Weaver and others, is immensely engaging. The technique moves film leaps and bounds beyond Gollum, King Kong or anything from the Robert Zemeckis canon with the result that Avatar’s digital characters are as compelling as any humans. Most of the Pandora sections are fully animated, yet it is frankly impossible to tell exactly what is and what isn’t while watching.
Cameron’s legendary attention to detail is of course in evidence, not just in the alien language designed for the film but in some of the frames so overstuffed with creatures, insects, colours and painterly compositions that they cannot be adequately appreciated on one viewing. Fox will be hoping, that, like Titanic, one visit to Avatar will not be enough for millions of cinemagoers around the world.