Avatar, World-Building, and Revolutionizing Cinema

In recent weeks, I’ve become casually interested in the hype surrounding James Cameron’s Avatar, a $500 million, special-effects laden, 3-D epic that serves as Cameron’s first feature-length narrative film since 1998′s Titanic.  It’s easy to forget that when Titanic came out, there was concern that the film would sink Cameron’s career and, potentially, a major studio.  But since then, Cameron has assumed a powerful position in the pantheon of blockbuster auteurs, alongside of Spielberg, Jackson, and Lucas (I’d include the Wachowskis here, but they need something besides the Matrix films to really qualify).  As the Avatar buzz begins to build, I’ve become fascinated by the ways in which the film is being positioned as the latest effects spectacle to simultaneously offer us a glimpse of a new world, one populated by an alien race with a distinct language and music, and a new way of seeing the world, one made possible by new cameras and more powerful computing power for rendering lifelike characters.

My thoughts on the promotion of Avatar began to crystalize when I read a recent profile of Cameron in this month’s Wired.  As usual, the article places emphasis on Cameron as a techno-auteur, someone who is equally adventurous in developing and testing new technologies as he is in taking storytelling risks.  In my book, I have a brief discussion of Cameron’s involvement in urging theaters to adopt the digital projectors that would be equipped to display 3-D films, a goal that the article ties directly to 3-D’s (thus far unrealized) potential to provide greater realism.

But I found it even more compelling that Joshua Davis’s profile also places emphasis on Cameron’s exhaustive efforts to create a convincing, coherent world for the Na’vi, the alien race depicted in the film.  We learn, for example, that Cameron recruited USC professor of linguistics, Paul R. Frommer, to create a new language for the Na’vi, discussing details such as whether modifiers would precede nouns, and training actors to speak the language phonetically (more on the language-creation here and in this even more thorough LA Times article).   Cameron also hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to create a taxonomy of the plant life found on the planet where the Na’vi lived, as well as experts in astrophysics, musicology, and archaeology, to help imagine the world he’d created.  And while much of this content may not appear directly in the film, it will show up in the Pandorapedia, a book-length encyclopedia, part of which will be available online, but which has also been linked to the video game.

To some extent, these practices aren’t entirely new.  Fans have been learning Klingon since the 1960s.  Lucas and others collaborated in creating a vast textual universe inhabited by the Star Wars characters, and the Wachowksis create such an elaborate world for the Matrix characters that the final film was virtually incoherent for many casual observers (but much clearer for ardent fans).  Video games are also nothing new, but given the comments in this review from North Jersey.com, I’m curious to check out how the game engages with questions of narrative identification, given that you can play as either a human soldier or a Na’vi.

And yet, as the Wired title promises, Avatar is being positioned as the latest film that “could change film forever.”  On the one hand, it’s easy to dimiss such claims as so much marketing hype (or perhaps the utopian longings of the technogeek).  But I’m also fascinated by the language of transformation that seems to permeate so much of the pomotional materials, whether that is tied to a change in how stories are told visually or to a revitalization of a struggling film industry, as we see John Horn and Claudia Eller’s L.A. Times Cameron profile.  Here, Cameron is a prophet, capable of moving (digital) mountains, and potentially, providing us with a new cinematic language for visuallizing them.  Thus we find that Jon Lewis’s proclamation in the late 1990s that we have reached the “end of cinema as we know it” becomes both the status quo and continued hope for Hollywood filmmaking.

5 Comments »

  1. Annie Petersen Said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    I’m glad you posted on this, because I’ve been contemplating it for a few weeks now. Ever since I read The New Yorker profile on Cameron, I’ve been thinking through the ways that Cameron and the rhetoric around him (both from his own mouth and from others) could be compared to the early days of cinema, when much of the discourse concerning the short films focused on the apparatus itself. Put differently, we don’t talk about the actual content of Cameron’s films, but the technology that’s used to render that content.

    Which actually makes me fearful, if that’s the right word, for Avatar — even though the technology in Titanic was breathtaking, it was the love story that brought teenage girls back time and again. Has Cameron sufficiently infused this new technological marvel with the actual soul necessary to turn it into a blockbuster?

  2. Chuck Said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

    It will be interesting to see how the narrative of Avatar works and whether it will inspire the repeat viewings that sustained Titanic. Given the struggling DVD market, there may be other reasons to be “concerned” (for lack of a better term). But given that so much is being sold here beyond the movie–a method for making movies, new definitions of cinematic realism, new projection tools–the movie itself is only part of the story and of the commodity chain that goes along with it (as you point out with the discussions of the apparatus in both early cinema and in Cameron-hype).

  3. informednetworker.com Said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 3:51 am

    World-Building…

    The Chutry Experiment » Avatar, World-Building, and Revolutionizing Cinema…

  4. dsi r4 Said,

    December 23, 2009 @ 6:01 am

    Movie was not so good…
    You did not find the last 40 minutes of pure action 100% flawless and the best display of a final battle? I mean there were thousands of things on the screen in 3D at once.

  5. Chuck Said,

    December 23, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    I was talking about the hype, not the film itself. I wrote this entry before the film came out, so I’ll judge the film for myself asap.

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