Media, Sci-Tech

Will Cameron’s new film change Hollywood forever?

By Branko Brkic 22 October 2009

After a twelve-year break from feature films, the man who made the most profitable movie in history is back. Avatar, James Cameron’s sci-fi romance due for release in December, could make 3-D as essential to moviegoers as sound and colour.

James Cameron is known for making obscenely expensive movies. In 1991 he became the first director in Hollywood history to squander US$100-million on a single film, Terminator 2, a feat he then topped six years later by becoming the first director in Hollywood history to squander US$200-million on a single film, Titanic. Then again, as the man himself reminds anyone insolent enough to ask, James Cameron is also known for making obscenely profitable movies. 

Terminator 2 was the highest-grossing film of its era, taking US$200-million at the United States box-office plus a further US$300-million overseas. Titanic, at a staggering US1.8-billion, remains the highest-grossing film of all time.

Which is why Fox studios have given Cameron US$230-million to play with on his first full-length feature in twelve years. Due for release in December, Avatar is set in the 22nd century on the lush, jungle-covered moon of Pandora. The distant world’s inhabitants are the slender nine-foot-tall Nav’i, and they’re at war with the evil humans who need their “Unobtanium” – except, of course, there’s one good human called Jake, who falls in love with a fetching Nav’i princess called Neytiri, and so endeavours to scupper the plans of his species.

You know, a moralising sci-fi romance – like most of Cameron’s work. What’s different about Avatar, though, is the director’s stake in the process. “This film integrates my life’s achievements,” he told Dana Goodyear of the New Yorker. “It’s the most complicated stuff anyone’s ever done.”  

As George Lucas did with Star Wars and Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings, Cameron has set out to create his own fully integrated, one-hundred-percent consistent universe. Typically, he has worked sixteen-hour days for years, obsessing over every last detail. He hired a linguist to help him out with the Nav’i language, which is loosely based on Maori; he drew on his lifelong fascination with the earth’s coral reefs to create Pandora’s flora and fauna; he drove at his digital-effects contractors, Weta, until the Nav’i started looking as lifelike as the actors.

He also developed his own 3-D camera system, the first of its kind to “control the aesthetics of the stereo-space,” as Goodyear put it. In anticipation of Avatar’s release, the number of 3-D movie theatres in the US has tripled – which on the one hand is testimony to the director’s power and influence, but on the other is symbolic of the effect Avatar is expected to have on the entire industry.

“When you look at the history of film, there have been to date two great revolutions – sound and color,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Dreamworks Animation, told Goodyear. “This will be the third great revolution. People are still somewhat skeptical and wonder if it’s a gimmick and if it is better suited to cartoons. I don’t believe that for a second. I think the day after Jim Cameron’s movie comes out, it’s a new world.”  

Still, despite the excitement of heavy-hitters such as Katzenberg, there are dozens of Hollywood A-listers who’d like nothing better than to see Cameron fail. His unpopularity, suggests Goodyear, might have something to do with antics like shouting “I’m the king of the world!” during an Oscar speech a few years back. Humble and charming the man is not.

Of course, it’s the viewers who’ll ultimately decide whether Avatar changes the course of movie history. And on a smaller scale, there’s something at stake for South Africans – in the category “sci-fi sensation of 2009,” District 9 may just turn out to be an also-ran.   

By Kevin Bloom   

Read more: New Yorker


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