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May not be as big as expected.
A Scene from the Sci-Fi/Thriller "Avatar".
OPENING WEEKEND: $90,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $300,000,000
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

October 26th, 2009: "Avatar" is the story of a wounded ex-marine, thrust unwillingly into an effort to settle and exploit an exotic planet rich in bio-diversity, who eventually crosses over to lead the indigenous race in a battle for survival.

What to Expect: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...or, to be more accurate, in 1997...James Cameron shocked all the naysayers and doom-predictors by releasing "Titanic," a huge behemoth of a project with a ballooning budget and ever-shrinking hopes of success, and watching it become the top grossing movie of all time. Then he stood on the podium at the Oscars and declared himself King of the World, immediately earning the loathing of...well, everybody. And then, with all this newfound clout and cred, he did something surprising.

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Well, not nothing. He produced some films and TV shows. But he has not directed another theatrical film since. One might say that he's spent that time getting ready for "Avatar," as well as for the next Big Epic he has planned, "Battle Angel," which we might see in 2013 or thereabouts. He wanted to make "Avatar" after "Titanic," but the technology hadn't evolved to the point that he needed it to be, and in order to make the film how he wanted it would have cost over 400 million dollars, which even studios seeing Titanic-sized profits balked at. It was seeing the CGI character Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films that made Cameron think the time was right for him to finally get the project underway.

All right. I'm going to be very up front about this. I may be bucking conventional wisdom here. I think this film is going to be a trainwreck. A colossal giant sized failure that audiences will not connect with in any meaningful way. CGI is pretty and all, but no amount of effects work makes up for having a story that people get emotionally invested in, and I don't think Cameron has any idea about that. He's venturing into Michael Bay levels of whiz-bang preoccupation and thinks the rest of the moviegoing audience is going to be as impressed with his cool new toys as he is, when in fact most of them will go "meh" and then go home and watch Lord of the Rings, films in which effects were utilized in service to the story and characters.

Feel free to laugh at me. Feel free to bookmark this review and fling it back in my face when "Avatar" makes a gojillion million dollars and tell me how wrong I was. I'm perfectly fine with the possibility that I'm wrong like a very wrong thing. But that's my prediction and I'm sticking to it. So there.

Anyway. Movie.

So right after "Titanic," Cameron started work on this script/treatment (which the Tubes insist on tagging with the ridiculous moniker of "scriptment") for a project he called "Avatar," that would be prohibitively expensive. Onto the shelf it went, although the scriptment (gah) circulated on the Tubes for years. Fast forward to 2005, when Cameron announced he was working on two projects, first would be "Battle Angel," based on the manga "Battle Angel Alita" about an amnesiac cyborg. The second project would be the mysterious Project 880. He then reversed the order of the productions, saying that 880 would be first, followed by "Battle Angel." Soon afterwards he revealed that Project 880 was a retooled version of his old "Avatar" script.

Now would be a good time to clarify something.

"Avatar" is in no way, shape or form connected to or based on the anime "Avatar: the Last Airbender" which is a popular series on Nickelodeon with a lot more name recognition than Cameron's film. It doesn't help that there is ALSO a film of "Last Airbender" being released next summer, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Hey, at least they're not being released concurrently, but I can't imagine that it isn't a huge marketing dilemma to keep people from assuming that Cameron's "Avatar" is based on "Last Airbender." It's clear from the previews that it's not, but we film geeks tend to forget that 95% of moviegoers pay a lot less attention to these things than we do. A casual passing familiarity is what they go on, and that's a problem for this movie.

Back to the King of the Virtual World.

So now that Cameron's developed all this new technology, including radical upgrades to more conventional motion-capture tech and totally virtual cameras that allow the director to watch the actors in the virtual environment, it was off to shoot a movie. "Avatar" was shot two years ago, giving it one of the longest post-production periods in movie history, which was necessary to realize the photorealistic CGI work in the film, which is described as 60% CGI, 40% live action. Some footage was shown at Comic Con and online, and was met with very enthusiastic responses. Reports say that it looked great, it was amazing, blah blah. I've no doubt. But a lot of things were said to have looked great at Comic Con. I seem to recall a lot of enthusiasm about "Van Helsing" from Comic Con, and that ended up being one of the worst movies ever made. It's not hard to get enthusiasm from an audience of self-professed geeks who came there specifically to hear about your movie and are self-selected as a group of people likely to respond to it. Tell me how you feel about after sitting through 3.5 hours of it in the dark with the images projected on a huge screen that cuts the footage no slack whatsoever.

Which brings me to the question everyone asks: what the heck is it about? The plot involves a disabled veteran, Jake (Sam Worthington) who travels to the planet Pandora, where humans can interact with the natives by remote-controlling biological "avatars," who are basically clones of the Na'vi natives on Pandora, tall blue-skinned folk with prehensile tails. If this concept of acting through a surrogate of some kind sounds familiar, it should. It's showed up in at least two other films this summer. Jake, as a Na'vi male, develops a relationship with a female (played by Zoe Saldana in an entirely virtual performance) and throws in with them as they struggle to protect their natural world against encroaching human military-industrial forces.

And there's where I think the movie might be a disappointment. One word: preachy. Audiences don't like preachy, especially when it's laid on with a trowel, and given Cameron's writing skills I have no doubt that it is. The whole thing sounds dangerously close to a Greenpeace co-production. Yes, we know. Natural wonders good, evil technology and industry bad. Global warming bad, polar bears good. Not that I disagree. But tooling an alien conflict in your giant sci-fi epic around this idea has not worked so well in the past.

In recent years, audiences have not responded well to films about alien or might-as-well-be-alien civilizations. "Apocalypto" and "10,000 BC" spring to mind. So does "Waterworld." Granted, there have been films that were wildly successful that were about alien worlds. "Star Wars," for one. But they didn't hit you over the head with a moral message, and they still allowed you that toehold of humanity to provide a frame of reference for the audience. This reminds me of one of the main reasons that the Matrix sequels failed. It's because the films spent so much time on the fate of the Zion colony. The directors made the mistake of thinking that since THEY cared about Zion, WE would care. Nope, didn't care. You have to give us a reason to care, guys. You have to give us someone to identify with, a story to relate to, not just a bunch of people and places that you show us and go "hey, this is cool, right?" and expect us to care. You know what else? That's the same reason Episode One failed.

Funny I've brought "The Matrix" into this, because when you're talking about films that change the landscape of moviemaking (which "Avatar" is being widely touted as) the last one to do so was really "The Matrix." It landed in the middle of the cinema zeitgeist like a bomb going off, and the thing was...we could tell. From that first trailer when Neo dodged those bullets, we knew it was going to be something huge and revolutionary. I've seen the trailer for "Avatar." All it left me with was a sense of confusion. I worry too about the Uncanny Valley effect. It's possible for CGI characters to be TOO photorealistic. Witness the profoundly creepy inhabitants of all of Zemeckis's animated films of late, the ones he keeps making and making us look at publicity for, to further populate our nightmares with his dead-eyed animadroids. Cameron may escape this by using CGI for non-human characters. We forgive CGI more when it's used to depict images we don't have a frame of reference for. If you don't know what it SHOULD look like, it's hard to see how the CGI fails to present it accurately.

The advances Cameron's made for this film are significant. He's expanded the reach of performance capture photography a great deal, enhancing the facial recognition abilities and incorporating a virtual camera to enable the director to guide the actors within the scene in situ. Instead of the uncomfortable dots-on-the-face method, actors in this system use a lightweight head-mounted device to capture their expressions and movements instantaneously. Cameron claims that the resulting footage will be 100% photo-real. I have my doubts that such a thing is really possible, with the many subtle distinctions that the human eye can make to distinguish between real and virtual. But hey, maybe I'm wrong, and it'll be some revolutionary piece of technology and we'll all shake our heads in disbelief that he pulled it off.

Another issue is the running time. Now, Cameron's making this movie for conventional, 3D and IMAX 3D(is anyone else getting a little dizzy with all the formats available now?). Rumors have it that the running time for the film is something like 189 minutes. Except...IMAX 3D non-digital films can only run 160 minutes, due to the physical setup of the cameras. This has been gotten around a few times through a few small cuts in the film (Harry Potter did this) or speeding up the credits, but now I've turned up someone online who says they know an IMAX rep and he said that "Avatar" runs for a whopping three and a half hours, and the IMAX version will have an intermission. Thank God, those Slurpees are big.

Did I mention that Sigourney Weaver is in this film? Sigourney Weaver is in this film.

In Conclusion: I'm going out on a limb predicting failure for this movie. I know, I know...everyone thought Titanic was going to sink like a stone, too. That's okay, I like to live life on the edge. I'm just having trouble envisioning anyone other than sci-fi geeks or techie fanboys going out to see this. For a holiday release and a blockbuster like they want this to be, you need families, you need groups of girlfriends, you need repeat viewings, you need universal appeal. Maybe it has it. Maybe I haven't seen enough to really get it. Maybe it'll be a wildly successful runaway behemoth of awesomeness.

I'm not holding my breath.

Similar Titles: Titanic, Lord of the Rings, Aliens
December 18th, 2009 (wide)
April 22nd, 2010 (DVD)

20th Century Fox

James Cameron

Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Wes Studi, Lola Herrera, Peter Mensah, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Laz Alonso, Michael Biehn, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Gerald

Total: 473 vote(s).

Action & Adventure, Science Fiction, Suspense

Click here to view site

Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.

162 min





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