Avatar: We see you, James!
Yes, no doubt about it: Avatar is certainly this decade’s first ‘must-see’ blockbuster – and not only because James Cameron’s first film since Titanic is a technological landmark.
Three-dimensional cinema has had several waves of popularity in the past. The earliest confirmed 3-D film shown to a paying audience was The Power of Love, which premiered in Los Angeles in 1922. Various experiments continued during the 30’s and 40’s until colour stereoscopic techniques produced the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of 3-D cinema in the early 50’s, during which time Creature from the Black Lagoon and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder were made. There were various revivals during the next five decades, but it wasn’t until 2007 when Scar3D – the first full-length feature film to be completed in Real D 3D technology – that 3-D really hit the jackpot at the box office. Scar3D opened at the Cannes Film Market and went on to become a number one hit in several countries around the world, including Russia, where it debuted in 295 3-D cinemas simultaneously!
If 3-D it is ever to become mainstream, this is probably it. With at least three other major features to debut shortly – all with impressive three-dimensional trailers – it is clear that Avatar is not a flash in a 3-D pan but part of a concerted drive by the big studios to bring a unique experience back to cinemas, presumably in an attempt to challenge the piracy-ridden DVD market.
But never mind the historical context of the film – this is a huge movie, and not just because its $237 million production budget (and a further $150 million for marketing!) reportedly makes it the most expensive ever made. Part of those production costs went into researching and developing a new 3-D technology that uses two high-definition cameras in a single camera body to create depth perception, and new animation techniques that plot the gestures and facial expressions of human actors onto the computer-generated characters with greater subtlety and sophistication than ever before.
The result is an amazingly vivid cross-genre, sci-fantasy epic set some two hundred years in the future on a distant planet called Pandora, where lush other-worldly landscapes teem and pulse with giant, coral-like flora and stampeding pre-historic fauna of amazing variety.
The mainspring of the plot is the conflict between the aboriginal inhabitants of Pandora, a race of blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi, and a ruthless human mining conglomerate, established on the planet to extract a fabulously expensive and coyly named mineral, Unobtanium.
The Na’vi – who have strong African trappings to their appearance, language and world-view – are idyllically in touch with their environment, apologising, like the San people, to the prey they hunt with bows and arrows. However, they are also literally in touch with the spirit of the Great Mother, the planet itself, through sentient hair extensions that let them, as the sympathetic biologist played by Sigourney Weaver puts it, ‘upload and download data’ through a network of tree roots, or directly to the nervous system of certain animals, such as their six-legged horses or their pterodactyl-type flying steeds.
In the end, the Pandoran version of Gaia’s Revenge comes not through global warming and climate change, but through rampaging herds and packs of Pandorian fauna. And the danger of over-exploiting the environment is just one of the film’s politically correct themes, along with: the evils of colonialism, the evils of racism, the alienating vs. the liberating effects of technology, the quest for personal redemption, and the role of the outcast Messiah. There’s even reference to the evils of American imperialism through explicit reference to the ‘shock and awe’ invasion of Iraq. In fact, the film could almost be seen as a massive ‘mea culpa’ from the West to exterminated, exploited and endangered indigenous cultures and people’s the world over.
And of course, there’s also the theme of star-crossed romance, as ex-Marine Jake Scully in his avatar body falls for the lovely Na’vi princess, Neytiri.
Apparently Cameron was concerned that this love story would only be believable if human audiences found Neytiri sufficiently attractive. He’s quoted as saying, in a Wikipedia article, “So the physiological differences — the more alien we make them in the design phase, we just kept asking ourselves — basically, the crude version is: ‘Well, would you wanna do it?’” And apparently the all-male crew of visual effects artists who created Neytiri unanimously agreed that they would!
The Na’vi language was created by linguist Dr Paul Frommer of the University of Southern California who not only generated a vocabulary of about 1 000 words but drew on the ejective phonetic patterns of the Amharic language of Ethiopia, created a fully fledged grammar, and made use idioms common to many African languages.
This is typical of the incredible attention to detail Cameron has lavished on this project since writing his original concept script in the mid-70’s. The visual effects are far more than being a highly impressive demonstration of 3-D technology – although it certainly is impactful on this level, as on more than one occasion I literally felt myself flinching as flying missiles or objects hurtled out at me from the screen. A colleague of mine who saw the film first in conventional two-dimensional form raved about the beauty of the landscapes, but in 3-D it really is a wonderful visual treat. As much three-dimensional detail seems to have been lavished on the peripheral corners of the screen as on the centre of the action.
Avatar is a great big, three-hour adventure epic with sensational cinematography, enough philosophical stuff to keep a family conversation going for hours afterwards, and a feel-good environmental message that is entirely appropriate for our day and age. Kids of all ages will love it. What more could you ask for for sixty bucks?