Movie News & Reviews

Awaiting 'Avatar'

James Cameron was king of the world once. That was 12 years ago, when he wrote and directed a little movie called "Titanic," which went on to tie "Ben-Hur" for most Oscar wins ever — 11.

Cameron's first narrative film since then, the space epic "Avatar," opens in theaters on Friday. With it comes a leap forward in 3-D technology, a gargantuan price tag and Cameron's reputation at stake.

Here's a look at the film and the frenzy surrounding it.

The synopsis: Trying to fit this into one paragraph is like trying to carry those 11 Oscars in a paper sack. It ain't gonna happen.

Anyway, taking place in the future, there's a planet called Pandora, which has toxic air that humans can't breathe. But there are valuable minerals on the planet, which is home to a humanoid race called the Na'vi, very tall blue beings that look like really big Smurfs.

Well, humans need those valuable minerals found on Pandora in order to survive, so they've started the Avatar program, in which human "drivers" have their consciousness linked to an avatar, a remotely controlled biological body that can survive in that lethal air.

We follow Jake Sully, a paraplegic war veteran who signs up for the program so he can once again have a working body, and is sent to Pandora with other recruits, who begin a war with the Na'vi.

But Jake's life is saved by a young Na'vi woman, Neytiri, and he falls in love with her. As he becomes a member of her clan, he finds himself caught between the military forces of Earth and the beautiful world of the Na'vi — forcing him to choose sides in an epic battle.

Then he screams "Freedom!" and — wait, wrong blue face, wrong movie.

The cast: Relative newcomer Sam Worthington (who had another high-profile role earlier this year in "Terminator Salvation") plays Jake, with Zoe Saldana (Uhura in "Star Trek") as Neytiri. Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi and Wes Studi also star.

The production: Cameron first conceived the film 15 years ago, so he's had a little time to think about it. Actual production on the film took four years. Most of the film's live-action scenes were shot in Wellington, New Zealand.

The technology: Cameron is no stranger to special effects, and used groundbreaking (for its time) technology in his "Terminator" films, "Aliens" and "The Abyss."

But he raises the bar in "Avatar," combining live-action and computer-generated technology being dubbed "stereoscopic 3-D."

Cameron and director of photography Mauro Fiore employed new motion-capture techniques using live actors, who wore special bodysuits and head rigs equipped with a camera that took constant images of their faces (to eliminate the "dead-eye" effect that has made the faces of some performance-capture characters seem lifeless). That data was then transmitted to another camera that created a real-time image of the live actor "wearing" their computer-generated costume.

In other words, when Cameron looked through the camera, he saw the avatar and not the actor.

Cameron and his team also developed the "simulcam," a revolutionary camera able to superimpose computer-generated images over live images being filmed in real-time. In other words, actors weren't simply pretending to be in space against a green-screen background. It looked like they were really in space.

Audience members will wear polarized glasses to watch the film in 3-D.

The gamble: The New York Times reported that the escalating budget for "Avatar" is nearing $500 million, including marketing costs, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made.

The producing studio is 20th Century Fox, which is relying on overseas success to add to the film's tally. But it will have to do absurdly gigantic business to make its money back. It's not impossible, though. The Times reports that "Titanic's" overall haul was $1.8 billion worldwide.

But "Avatar" has no big-name stars at its center. It doesn't come with a built-in audience, as do big-budget adaptations of comic books or popular novels. It's something completely unfamiliar.

The buzz: Early footage was shown at the huge Comic-Con convention in July, with critics' and fanboys' reactions wildly enthusiastic. Some called the film an "evolutionary jump, not a revolutionary leap" in the way we watch movies.

But the trailer was released to the Web in August, and reaction was mixed. Perhaps the low-tech viewings of "Avatar" footage didn't do the visuals justice (numerous comparisons to the kiddie animated film "Delgo" didn't help).

The premiere: All eyes were on London this week, when the film premiered on Thursday. Anticipation is again high. Cameron could be king of the world again.

Or, at the very least, now he can create an avatar of one.