Conceiving the idea for his grandest project to date some 15 years ago, James Cameron had to put Avatar on hold while technology caught up with his precocious vision. When production on Avatar eventually began around 2005, Cameron still needed to personally develop new equipment and software in motion capture and stereoscopic filmmaking to help the film blossom into everything it promised from his imagination.
Including the development of the new technologies and a concept that already demanded a vast budget for the CGI-heavy action, Avatar has quickly become the most expensive film of all time, with a budget of over $500m, including marketing, if there was one man that could helm such an daring project it would be James Cameron, though it was always still going to be a monumental effort to pull it off.
Set in the year 2154, Avatar follows Jake Sully (Worthington), a former marine, paralysed from the waist down, as he travels to Pandora, a distant, lush forest-covered planet, to participate in the Avatar Programme. Mining valuable minerals from beneath the planet’s surface, humans have garnered a bad reputation with the indigenous Na’vi race but the Avatar Programme hopes to change that. Controlling genetically modified human-Na’vi hybrids, the Avatars enable humans to explore the Pandoran world without restrictions, breath the air without the need for a respirator mask. Controlling the Avatars, humans hope to build a relationship with the Na’vi but when it is discovered that the largest mineral pocket is beneath the holy tree where many of the Na’vi live, Jake finds himself caught between sides, and after falling for one of the Na’vi girls (Saldana), is left to decide where his loyalty truly lies.
With the new technologies Cameron developed for Avatar, the film has been frequently tagged a game-changer, and remarkably, it is. From the sheer scope and scale of the project, not just what you see before your eyes, but everything that came to make it, Avatar is epic in the truest sense, largely unparalleled in cinematic history. The aforementioned advancements in motion capture and 3D technology really do make big strides forward in filmmaking.
Around 60% CGI, the forestry and Na-vi characters look photo-real, integral to the believability of Avatar. The design and imagination in the Pandoran world is something that could only come from Cameron. The forests look wonderful, from the domineering trees to the florescent riverside plant life, while standing at 3 metres tall, the Na’vi are a stunning creation. The Pandoran wildlife are equally breathtaking, from the dragon-esque Banshees to the monstrous Thanator, the animals are reminiscent of a video game, which is a parallel shared with the film’s development.
Typically for motion capture, actors would act out the film in the usual mocap suits and their characters and surrounding environment would be created thereafter. On Avatar, Cameron has the Pandora landscape and the whole Na’vi race fully modelled before filming even began, creating a powerful video game-esque engine, which allowed for playback of a scene, CGI and all, on a monitor just a couple of minute after rolling cameras.
Accurate animation of the face is notoriously difficult but mounting a special camera on the head of his Na’vi actors to pick up to pick up special mocap markers, the facial animation of the Na’vi is completely realistic and blows films like Beowulf out of the water.
The 3D is similarly impressive. Cameron is very clever with his use of the extra dimension and shows great restraint to only implement it where necessary. Normally even the foreground would be in created in the split focus double picture effect, but in Avatar the action that is neither reaching out of the screen nor delving deep into the background is in regular 2D. You could watch the film without the special glasses and around 70% of it would be clear. The 3D is subtle and Cameron uses it to give the film depth, mainly going deep into the background.
Though the 3D still doesn’t add a huge amount to the aesthetics of the film, and until the studio’s accounts come to mind, there isn’t a compelling argument for using the 3D at all, but for once, it doesn’t take away from the experience, and will be very easy to absorb for even those given headaches by past films.
Working on a motion capture stage six times larger than for regular shooting, the actors are really able to get into their roles. With Avatar, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña have cemented themselves as major Hollywood players although really it is a great ensemble performance that carries the film through, in both the live action and the motion capture led scenes.
Great technology and acting or not, at 162 minutes, Avatar could have fallen apart if Cameron’s story not been up to the mark but the plot is hugely absorbing and as the credits started to roll I was ready for another two and a half hours there and then. The plot takes the routes you might expect and at times the dialogue could have done with a little work but the narrative so deep and involving it doesn’t matter. Each and every side story feel important, contributing to the overall plot and not just tacked onto the side to bring depth, and the final result is one of the most compelling films of 2009. Despite James Cameron’s desire to go back to Pandora, Avatar is an entirely rounded film, and works completely as a sole entity.
With sumptuous cinematography, gorgeous visuals and action sequences packed with real excitement and tension, Avatar is a breathtaking, overwhelmingly imaginative film, wholly immersive and will truly wrap you up in the Pandoran world. The film is relentless until the last moment, meaning somehow, even costing more than $500m, it’s somehow worth every penny.
Avatar spans genres and will truly please all generations of a family with perfect pacing that makes the 162 minute running time feel like a breeze.
Whether Avatar is Cameron’s best film to date is open to discussion; the Terminator films and Aliens would certainly a thing or two to say about that, but it is every bit as good as his other three legendary creations, and will go down in cinematic history as a masterpiece, somehow living up to its meteoric hype.