"Avatar" a triumph of technology, storytelling

Fri Dec 11, 2009 2:11am EST
 
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - A dozen years later, James Cameron has proven his point: He is king of the world.

As commander-in-chief of an army of visual-effects technicians, creature designers, motion-capture mavens, stunt performers, dancers, actors, music and sound magicians, he brings science-fiction movies into the 21st century with the jaw-dropping wonder that is "Avatar." And he did it almost from scratch.

There is no underlining novel or myth to generate his story. He certainly draws deeply on Westerns, going back to "The Vanishing American" and, in particular, "Dances With Wolves." And the American tragedy in Vietnam informs much of his story. But then all great stories build on the past.

After writing this story many years ago, he discovered that the technology he needed to make it happen did not exist. So, he went out and created it in collaboration with the best effects minds in the business. This is motion capture brought to a new high where every detail of the actors' performances gets preserved in the final CG character as they appear on the screen. Yes, those eyes are no longer dead holes but big and expressive, almost dominating the wide and long alien faces.

The movie is 161 minutes and flies by in a rush. Repeat business? You bet. "Titanic"-level business? That level may never be reached again, but after the film's December 18 release, 20th Century Fox will see more than enough grosses worldwide to cover its bet on Cameron.

But let's cut to the chase: A fully believable, flesh-and-blood (albeit not human flesh and blood) romance is the beating heart of "Avatar." Cameron has never made a movie just to show off visual pyrotechnics: Every bit of technology in "Avatar" serves the greater purpose of a deeply felt love story.

The story takes place in 2154, three decades after a multinational corporation has established a mining colony on Pandora, a planet light years from Earth. A toxic environment and hostile natives -- one corporate apparatchik calls the locals "blue monkeys" -- forces the conglom to engage with Pandora by proxy. Humans dwell in oxygen-drenched cocoons but move out into mines or to confront the planet's hostile creatures in hugely fortified armor and robotics -- or as avatars.

The protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is a disabled former Marine who takes his late twin brother's place in the avatar program, a sort of bone thrown to the scientific community by the corporation in hopes that the study of Pandora and its population might create a more peaceful planet.   Continued...

 
<p>Canadian director James Cameron and U.S. actress Sigourney Weaver pose for the media to promote the latest movie Avatar in Berlin, December 8, 2009. The film opens in German cinemas on December 17. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz</p>