21st century sci-fi masterpiece

2009-12-21 00:00

AVATAR is a project on which Jim Cameron has been working for close to a decade. He set high expectations when he announced that the 3-D technology he was working with would irrevocably change the landscape of 21st century film making. The sceptic in me wondered whether he would be able to transcend the gimmicky status of 3-D that has been widely viewed as a failed experiment. To my delight, one of the opening shots is filmed in depth and creates the deep-focus feel of Citizen Kane. The use of the technology is truly awe-inspiring and Cameron always uses it to serve the narrative. The experience is at times close to that of viewing a hologram, the future of cinema as expressed by Huxley in Brave New World. He named this type of cinema “the feelies” and Avatar is certain to touch many science fiction and adventure story fans

Unfortunately for Maritzburg audiences, this film is available only in 2-D here and reflects the slow roll-out of 3-D cinemas across the world due to the global recession (Gateway and Pavilion have 3-D cinemas). The success or failure of Avatar at the box office is likely to dictate the pace of change to 3-D and there is a lot riding on this $200 million opus. For audiences watching the film in 2-D, it needs to work well on the narrative level and for its large cast of digitally rendered characters to effectively convey emotions. To this end, Cameron has pioneered new technology that is light years ahead of that used in Lord of the Rings. He has named this technology “e-motion capture” (e-mo cap) and its strength is the ability to capture the subtle nuances of a performance.

Each frame of the digital sequences took over a 100 hours to render at Weta’s render farm — the fifth most powerful computer on the planet.

The plot involves ex-marine paraplegic Jack Sully (Sam Worthington) being sent to the verdant planet of Pandora to join the experimental Avatar programme. Here Sully’s consciousness is projected into a hybrid alien body modelled on the local Na’vi people. Seconded by the ball-busting Colonel Quaritch to spy on the Na’vi, he eventually finds himself at odds with his mission objectives as he begins to understand and love the Na’vi.

A central theme in the film involves the humans as greedy exploiters of Pandora willing to displace or go to war with the locals, a refrain likely to resonate with climate change activists. The film works on many levels at once, however. In one way it is like Pocahontas as we follow the growing attachment between Sully and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana); in another it sets out to satisfy the more adolescent love-of- gun porn. As in Titanic, the strength of Cameron is his ability to make his films work successfully on multiple levels without distracting viewers.

Personally I have an attachment to the imagery, which is startling, bold and original. Using the technique of bioluminescence Cameron paints the planet in dappled pinks, purples and ocean blues, illuminating the mystique and spiritual ethos of the Na’vi and their traditions. This painstaking attention to visual detail elevates Cameron’s work into the sublime and he has created a masterpiece that will no doubt be a benchmark for 21st century sci-fi cinema, especially when viewed in 3-D. *****

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