Cameron’s universe is shot through with stars and bursting with detail – by Nick van der Leek
The first time I watched AVATAR I emerged from the cinema shaking. Literally shaking. I had to consciously allow myself to relax, to breathe comfortably. Now that I think about it, I remember a similar tension after ALIENS, Cameron’s seminal flick from 1986. The second time around, I was able to let some of the backdrops, the scenes and the details soak in. That one can sit through a two and a half hour movie just a few days after first seeing it, and still feel nourished by Cameron’s brilliantly beautiful universe is testimony to the richness imbued in this picture.
What also struck me during the second viewing is Cameron’s deliberate use of symbolism, and juxtaposition, to strengthen his story. When Jake Sully [Sam Worthington] first encounters Col. Miles Quaritch [Stephen Lang] for example, Sully feels puny, a wheelchair bound grunt next to the larger, far brawnier physical specimen working out on the bench. Quaritch is scarred but in physically outstanding shape. The point is driven home even further when Quaritch plugs himself into a giant machine known as an AMP [an acronym from Amplified Mobility Platform]. You then see the two juxtaposed in their machines – Sully pathetic, tiny, impotent and ineffectual in his wheelchair, Quaritch magnified and apparently omnipotent, ensconced in a giant, metallic exoskeleton.
Every 24th of a second in AVATAR took over 50 hours to make. Over a Petabyte – one thousand terabytes – of digital storage was required for all the CG ‘assets’ of the film. This includes the myriad forms of flora and fauna. For reference, Titanic was based on just 2 terabytes – 1/500th the amount used in AVATAR.
As a result of all the layers of technology used in the AVATAR project, Cameron discovered that he began drifting further and further into uncharted territory. ‘I’ve always tried to push the envelope,’ he says, ‘but this time it pushed back. So we had to push harder. I liken the experience of making AVATAR to jumping off a cliff and knitting the parachute on the way down.’
Producer Jon Landau describes the tech employed by Cameron as a tool, an enabler: ‘The technology allows Jim to tell a story that otherwise couldn’t be told.’ To this Cameron adds: ‘It always boils down to this question – is it a good story?’
Sam Worthington answers this question, in a sense, by describing the vital hinge around which the story pivots, and that is Jake’s mission, and how it transforms him, both literally, and otherwise. ‘Pandora,’
The metaphors I alluded to above basically set up the opening scene for the flick; it’s an aerial scene – flying over forests. When you realize Sully has lost the use of his legs, you realize how deep-seated these dreams and desires are. He has become so so intensely frustrated, Sully’s dreams are no longer just about walking, but about the completely unfettered state that is flying. This is an inner-child desire shared by almost all of us.
But why did Cameron have to base his story in a system far, far away; why invent a brand new species? Cameron says, ‘In my mind, Neytiri [the luscious Zoe Saldana, last seen in Star Trek as Spock’s girlfriend, Uhuru] and her people represent our better selves in how they live in their world – in symbiosis, empathy and harmony.’ There is an obvious attempt to emphasize this sense of Gaia. I referred to metaphor previously – well it is interesting that Jake Sully actually has a twin, with his brother also representing his better self. His brother, who has died, is scientist. Jake on the other hand is a cripple, unqualified and uneducated, and certainly no doctor. It is his heart that – in the mythos of the story – holds any redemption for him. So there is a real sense of transformation and rebirth in AVATAR which elicits Star Wars and Dances With Wolves.
Zoe Saldana, who plays every teenagers wet dream [a near naked, 10 foot tall supermodel] – in Neytiri – says, ‘The Na’vi’ also can’t understand how the humans mistreat the environment, which is holy to the Na’vi’. In this they have an aboriginal quality that reminds one of the Bushmen in their respect for life, their skills at hunting and their profound connection to their environment. Neytiri combines strength, grace, athleticism, beauty, sexuality, vulnerability and emotional clarity. Cameron says, ‘Zoe captured every aspect of the character I envisioned.’ Cameron in particular praised her for her ‘combination of delicacy and fierceness and incredible physicality.’
Saldana describes Neytiri as ‘the most physically demanding role I’ve ever done, and I trained for months before production to capture the character’s grace and power.’ This from a lissome performer who has developed her talent set as a professional dancer over a period of years.
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With Grace Augustine [Sigourney Weaver in familiar territory] rounding up the good guys, what of the villains? Stephen Lang describes Col. Quaritch as ‘relatable to people who’ve experienced the trials and anguish of war.’ But is there anything redeemable in the Colonel? Lang seems to think so: ‘I found Quaritch to be very moving for what he lacked – that his soul was in such a state of chaos and decrepitude. It’s a sad thing for him to be in a veritable
Pandora is another metaphor – for life. For The Natural Evironment. For Nature. Designing every plant, creature, vehicle, weapon and landscape – along with characters – took a team of world-class artists two years to complete. Cameron said of the filmmaking process, ‘Just by playing back the take, I can get the scene from different angles. We can re-light it. We can do all sorts of things.’ The detail in AVATAR is incredible. Down to little lights reflecting off the Na’vi’s big eyes. Cameron describes Pandora as ‘the Garden of Eden with teeth and claws.’
The creatures on Pandora are larger than life; the Thanator for example is a super-predator which Jim Cameron says ‘could eat a T-Rex and have the Alien for dessert. It’s a panther from hell.’ Smaller, and something like hunting dogs are the shiny-skinned Viperwolves, with characteristic overlapped armor. The menagerie on Pandora features dragon-like Banshees and six-legged beasts like the Direhorses – conceived and designed by Stan Winston – that are a blend of seahorse, Clydesdale and moth – if that makes any sense. Leonopteryx is a scarlet and yellow predator of the sky. It has an 80-foot wingspan, and is revered by the Na’vi as The Last Shadow. A more whimsical lifeform is the floating Woodsprite; these silky jelly-fish like forms are considered sacred by the Na’vi.
One of the most repeated statements in AVATAR is the epithet: ‘I see you.’ This suggests a great deal about Cameron’s vision – not only to create a world, but to imbue an audience with a deeper, perhaps a more existential attitude to ourselves and each other and the environment.
But why has Cameron spent hundred of millions of dollars on AVATAR? Why is this the most expensive movie ever – as some have said? ‘I really want audiences to have a completely satisfying cinematic experience,’ Cameron says. ‘And I hope audiences will walk out of the theatre saying, I didn’t see a movie; I experienced a movie.’ In this James Cameron succeeds, with flying colors.
Running time: 160 minutes
AVATAR is also releasing concurrently at IMAX 3D theatres.