Sizzle surrounds ‘Avatar’ as industry anticipates new phase for movies

Technological wizardry of ‘Avatar’ is more than a gimmick and could transform filmmaking, insiders say.

Twentieth Century Fox/ILM/REUTERS/Handout
A battle sequence is shown in a scene from the James Cameron film 'Avatar' in this undated publicity photo released to Reuters.

Big movies often mean big buzz. But director James Cameron, whose new space adventure “Avatar” rolls out at midnight Dec. 17, is in a class by himself. The film’s estimated cost begins at $200 million and climbs from there, depending on whose numbers you use, and his blockbuster “Titanic” still stands as the global box office champ at $1.8 billion.

Movie theaters across the United States have sold out opening weekend shows, particularly the IMAX houses in major cities. But the extra sizzle in the air this time around is coming from inside the industry, everyone from filmmakers to technical specialty houses and theater owners, who see this extravaganza as a game-changer for the motion-picture form itself.

“Cameron never does anything small,” says Paul Dergarabedian,’s box office president. “And this time around, with all his innovation in the use of 3-D and motion-capture animation, it promises to be the beginning of a new phase for movies.”

To be sure, everyone from horrormeisters to Pixar and Dreamworks has been pushing the 3-D bandwagon forward. But, says Steve Schklair, CEO of 3ality, “this is the first time the tool has been put in the hands of a great director. This is the most important new tool filmmakers have had in a long time,” he points out. He adds, particularly for the naysayers who suggest 3-D is only a gimmick, “Stereoscopic technology is the new tool and this is the first step towards developing the language that goes along with that tool.”

The film tells the tale of a disillusioned, disabled war veteran in the next century who leads a mission to a remote, mineral-rich planet. Earth science has evolved to the point where he can mingle with the local Na’vi people via a synthetic avatar-body. The world, a rich, surreal amalgam of exotic imagery that suggests the deep-water worlds plumbed by Cameron in his underwater documentaries. The detail and verisimilitude of the environment has been receiving glowing reviews from critics across the nation. And, says Greg Foster, president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment, from his peers as well. Mr. Foster says that directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson screened the epic two weeks ago and have been talking it up. “The word is out,” he says. “This is the first real, grown-up film showing what this technology can do in the hands of a real storyteller.”

Despite the excitement within the industry, not everyone is convinced. While he acknowledges the work that Cameron is doing in this area is technically cutting edge, Wheeler Dixon, editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, says the ultimate use that he puts it to is solely for the purpose of spectacle without content. “This is what I call the 'wow’ aesthetic; it impresses the first time, but wears off quickly,” he says. Cameron’s films have little in the way of content, he says. Rather, they are so fixated on the visual impact that the story is thin, as has happened in previous Cameron sound-and-noise blockbusters such as Terminator 2

“Cameron pushes the effects in your face, constantly trying to impress you; there’s no subtlety, just a fanboy mentality writ large,” Mr. Dixon concludes. “He is a competent, professional, action-film maker, who delivers predictable films in shiny, tech-heavy packages.”

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