There is only a very small number of films which, just shortly after their theatrical release, can be characterized with superlatives such as revolutionary or matchless. But if there is one film that these attributes are really applicable to, it is certainly James Cameron's space fable "Avatar". Even though critics have not yet grown tired of branding the shallow story as too simple, the film has accomplished something no other film has been able to do within the last thirty years: it has re-defined the idea of cinema and lured the masses back into the movie theatres. In a time which saw declining box office takings, an identity crisis of cinema as a medium and sinister forecasts predicting the end of the silver screen as an instrument of mass entertainment, James Cameron, along with 20th Century Fox, has heralded the start of a new era of cinema. Not quite unexpected, but enormously successful. One can criticize "Avatar" as regards content, but even the most blistering critics cannot deny the following: the film is a cinematic experience never seen before. Even the greatest artists of the movie industry could not dispute on that. Steven Spielberg said, "Avatar" was „the most evocative and amazing science-fiction movie since Star Wars“
. His long-time friend, the producer Frank Marshall, agreed just as euphorically („Audacious and awe inspiring. It’s truly extraordinary!“
). Ruben Fleischer, director of "Zombieland" was positive that it was „So next level. So awesome. Avatar is a game changer.“
- and he was proved right. "Avatar" was indeed a game changer, which changed cinema for good. Some say it changed for the better, but some say it changed for the worse.
There is no question about it: since the theatrical release of "Avatar", 3-D movies have become the ultimate in the world of film. Already finished movies are converted to 3-D in postproduction (often times much to the viewers' chagrin), other productions are adjusted to 3-D techniques. Whether you like it or not, James Cameron has undeniably revolutionised and changed cinema - perhaps forever.
But in the beginning, there was naturally just a script - well, not even that to be exact. Already in 1995, James Cameron wrote a kind of rough draft of the story of "Avatar" which already outlined the plot of the finished movie. After having completed his resounding success "Titanic", he decided to devote himself to "Avatar". Naturally, Fox was interested, since James Cameron had just favoured them not only with the hitherto financially most successful film in history (not inflation-adjusted), but had also never in his whole career as a director made a box office bomb.
Cameron was in a position that enabled him to demand everything - and Fox was willing to give everything. This being the case, they admitted the risky production - even then, Cameron was convinced that, in order to create his vision of the film, the computer would have to do at least 60% of the work. However, Cameron was not satisfied with pre-production and the first CGI tests. He wanted to create a real, believable world - not some cheap comic copy. Thus, the project was put on ice for the time being and Cameron applied his attention to shooting several documentaries. Only when the second part of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Two Towers", came out in 2002, he knew that his time had come. He was fascinated by the CGI character Gollum - and he was sure that his SFX people could now transform his world realistically. During those years, he continually edited the script and also adapted it to the technical possibilities.
Initially, 20th Century Fox was unsure about whether Cameron was perhaps going over the top with his vision, but they still allowed him a $10 million test budget. He was to create Pandora, the world in which "Avatar" is set. Should this test be successful, then Fox would be prepared to support Cameron's vision with every effort. In October 2005, Cameron played his test clip to the persons responsible at Fox. After that, no one had doubts about his vision anymore, only the financial realization.
During the two following years, Cameron consistently worked on "Avatar". Countless designers created the world of Pandora according to his directions. While they commited the Na'Vi and their realm to paper at their plotting boards, CGI artists already transformed it on the computer. Even a linguist was especially employed to develop a convincing language for the natives of Pandora. For Cameron everything went as planned - but eventually, Fox got cold feet. They considered the project too wild and too eccentric, so they let Cameron know that they were not going to support "Avatar" anymore. After all, the offcial production costs had been estimated at $240 million at the minimum - and Fox was more than worried after their experience during the production of "Titanic", the production costs of which had soared up from $120 million to $300 million. Even though Cameron proposed a waiver of his salary in case the film should turn out a box office bomb, the people at Fox could not be reasoned with anymore. Only when Cameron actively tried to sell the project to other studios, they pricked up their ears. The Disney Studios took an enormous interest in "Avatar" and were ready to tender horrendous sums. The reason was perfectly obvious: the Disney corporation does not confine itself to distributing movies. "Avatar" could have become their new drawing card, which could have been integrated in the corporation's range of products in a variety of ways. A Pandora theme park within the gates of Disney World? Disney would not have missed that opportunity - even though it is only speculation in the end. But if the Disney corporation takes such proactive interest in Pandora, then the film must have potential! Fox rowed back and supplied Cameron with a budget of $237 million - although insiders speak of up to $310 million (excluding a $150 million marketing budget).
The actual filming only took 31 days. The actors were shot in motion capture during all unreal scenes. They were dressed in body suits, capturing every one of their motions through sensors. A sensor technique, developed further especially for that film, captured the facial expressions. Steven Spielberg, who visited the shooting (alongside Peter Jackson), noticed that this technique provides film makers with undreamt-of possibilites: now it was not about creating CGI creatures by animators on the computer anymore, but letting them be created by the actors themselves, who wore only a digital make-up. Another advantage was the creation of the digital world. Using a rough draft of the environment, Cameron was able to convey to the actors more than just vague ideas of the setting, but could let them immerse into the world of "Avatar". A milestone in the acting work of motion capture. The actors do not have to orient themselves in an environment made of anonymous blue or green screens anymore. The enactments now seem much more natural, precise and convincing. The arts of acting coalesces with the art of special effects.
In order to create the Na'Vi and the world of Pandora convincingly - and on schedule - over 900 digital artists were employed. Most of the visual effects were done by WETA Digital, who had already worked on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. For "Avatar", they had to break the mould and invent new techniques. For instance, WETA developed a new digital lighting system which enabled them to picture the deep incidence of light in the thick jungles of Pandora in a most convincing way. Due to the photo-realistic realisation Cameron had demanded, vast amounts of data storage had to be provided. In order to use them effectively and efficiently, WETA developed the storage system Mari. In the end, the processing and storage of the large amount of data required over 4,000 Hewlett-Packard servers, 35,000 CPUs and an area of 930 square metres for the servers. So as to make sure that none of the dark blue error messages cluttered up the screens, they switched to the Linux operating system. In 2009, the server farm which was made available for the production, ranked among the 200 most processor-intensive computer clusters in the world. Ultimately, an (uncompressed) finished minute of film contained about 17.28 gigabyte - and the results achieved are unquestionably excellent, particularly in the dimension that Cameron had chosen to represent his world in: the third one.
At the start, every film critic and filmfan was sceptic, when they heard that Cameron planned to present his film in 3-D. 3-D was thought of as a simple gimmick. Memories of the anaglyph 3-D (which was just an optical illusion in the end) sprang to mind. It was the 3-D technique that had dominated the silver screen for decades. Cameron's vision, however, was not supposed to be an optical illusion which was seen through red and blue glasses; it was supposed to deliver a real feeling of three-dimensionality. The viewer was supposed to immerse into the world of Pandora. Thus, 3-D technology had to become a part of the production process. Cameron never saw 3-D as a simple gimmick, but as a true narrative device. This might explain the great success of the film, since Cameron truly created a whole new world never before seen, in which the viewer could immerse, instead of just using some visual tricks as a peg on which to hang the movie. And in doing that, Cameron, despite all negative comments, rendered cinema more than just a great service.
Reviewers acknowledged that - even if many, as mentioned before, dispraised the simple and airy story.
Renowned critic Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times
|"Avatar is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It’s a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult."|
The venerable TIME
magazine agreed with Ebert...
|"Embrace the movie - surely the most vivid and convincing creation of a fantasy world ever seen in the history of moving pictures - as a total sensory, sensuous, sensual experience. [...] It’s an impossible but completely plausible and seductive world that invites your total immersion. Don't resist it; sink in and fly with it. All Cameron asks is that you open your eyes."|
The Boston Globe
, however, arrived at the following conclusion...
|"Avatar is merely the latest white man’s romance, and it hits every stop in the playbook: The broken hero who finds renewal by leaving his decadent people, who joins a tribe of noble savages and becomes purified, who leads his new children to victory (because they can’t lead themselves) and becomes a legend in the doing. Tarzan has been here, and Herman Melville, and so has Kevin Costner. As a cultural cliché, it reflects profound disgust with the society of men and a yearning for authenticity - for a connection deeper than anything our fallen modern world can provide."|
But ultimately, the critique of the shaky overall construction of the story did not change anything about the success of the movie. To date, "Avatar" has grossed around §2.8 billion worldwide - a record for eternity (not inflation-adjusted, admittedly). Not included are global TV rights, DVD and Blu-ray sales and merchandise (ranging from the official PC game and action figures to the soundtrack). And the success was not just limited to the viewership. The film also scooped at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. In technical categories, it was able to bring home three Academy Awards. The Hollywood Foreign Press even elected "Avatar" best film of the year.
Left: James Cameron at the Golden Globe ceremony | Right: Worldwide box office takings (BoxOfficeMojo.com)
Reasons enough to announce a sequel. "Avatar" will only be the starting point of a probably very long journey.
Although "Avatar" will not even have seen its first anniversary when the Collector's Extended Edition is released, there will then officially be four different versions of the film, all of which have James Cameron's blessing. For a better understanding, have a short overview of the different cuts.
III. a) Theatrical Version (2009)
Runtime: 155:05 minutes
The Original Theatrical Version was, as its name implies, only shown in cinemas and released worldwide on DVD and Blu-ray in April 2010.
III. b) Special Edition (2010)
Runtime: 163:38 minutes
James Cameron provided an extended version (a so-called Special Edition) of a majority of his movies - with the exception of "The Terminator", "True Lies" and "Titanic". By the way, Cameron does not prefer the expression Director's Cut in that context, since he is convinced that the original theatrical version always represented his Director's Cut. This Special Edition is nine minutes longer and the following censorship report will deal with it. In August 2010, the Special Edition was released in cinemas worldwide, grossing a substantial $40 million. It will be released as a part of the Collector's Extended Edition on DVD and Blu-ray in November 2010.
III. c) Extended Edition (2010)
Runtime: 170:54 minutes
The Extended Edition can be seen as a kind of bonus version. It is based upon the Special Edition and is nearly completely identical to it - except for the opening of the film. Initially, "Avatar" was to start on Earth. In the end, Cameron removed these scenes, because they would needlessly delay the plot. Only small parts of it were shown during Jake Sully's opening monologue. Cameron clearly prefers the classical start of the film aboard the spacecraft. However, the fans' disappointment with the missing scenes on Earth was so profound that Cameron decided to insert them in a kind of Extended Edition. Thus, it must rather be viewed as some kind of bonus for fans.
III. d) Family-friendly audio track (2010)
Runtime: - minutes
Another curiosity is the audio track which the Collector's Extended Edition also offers. Effectively, it is another official version, even though it is limited to the English version of the audio track. The user has the possibility to select a family-friendly audio track. Spirit and purpose of it will not be discussed here.
The Special Edition of "Avatar" does not offer a completely new film and is - purely in terms of its editing - comparable to the Special Edition of James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day"
. While the long versions of "Aliens"
and "The Abyss"
added new contentual aspects to the original films, changed their narrative dynamics and established a new narrational focus, the Special Edition of "Avatar" must rather be regarded as some kind of update - just as it had been the case with the aforementioned "Terminator 2: Judgment Day"
. The story is not altered, but gets deepened by many insertions. A few new aspects were wrested from it, without breaking new ground, however. This was James Cameron's stated aim. In an interview with the Melbourne Herald Sun
, he commented on the Special Edition as follows:
|"I tried to salt the scenes throughout the film so you just stumble upon them every 10 minutes or so and walk a fine line between giving fans of the film little surprises and people who haven't seen it will just feel like they are part of the integrated fabric of the movie."|
Essentially, this outlines the Special Edition very well. There are one or two extended scenes which deepen existing portions of the plot on an emotional level and some completely new scenes. Those, however, only deepen the parts already known, but do not offer the viewer new possibilities of consideration or interpretation of the actual story. Among the highlights of the new scenes is the visit of a deserted Na'Vi school. It is half overgrown and partially destroyed. On the ground lies a copy of a children's book by Dr. Suess ("The Lorax" - a nursery story criticising the industrial world in a simple way), the walls are damaged by bullet holes. It becomes clear that Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) once used to teach the Na'Vi children here and that something terrible must have happened which ultimately lead to the breach between the natives of Pandora and the humans. The pictures speak for themselves, it does not need to be said. Thus, Cameron offers a little review of the planet's more recent past in these scenes and deepens the history between men and the Na'Vi. But eventually, this overall impression had already been conveyed in the theatrical version.
Dr. Grace Augustine: „This was our school. Now it’s just... storage. The kids were so bright. Eager to learn.“
[Norm picks up the book „Dr Seuss’ The Lorax“ from the floor.]
Dr. Grace Augustine: „Oh, yeah. I love this one. The stingbats knocked them down. I keep hoping someone will come back in and read them.“
Another additional scene towards the end of the film deals with Tsut'sey's death. He had survived his fall through the sky. Grievously injured and without any chance of recovery he asks Jake to grant him the honourable death of a warrior, so that he could become one with Pandora. Jake complies with his wish and stabs Tsut'sey in the chest. Prior to that, however, Tsut'sey appoints him to be his successor, thus making him the ruler of the Omaticaya. Here, too, one can say that by Tsut'sey's death in the theatrical version and Jake's final transition into the world of the Na'Vi, this additional scene had actually been conveyed contentswise. However, it indubitably is the highlight of the Special Edition and should have been used in the theatrical version already.
Tsu’tey: „I can’t... I cannot lead the people. You mus lead them, Jakesully.“
Jake Sully: „I’m not officer material.“
Tsu’tey: „It is decided. Now... do the duty of Olo’eyktan.“
[Tsu’tey takes Jakes knife.]
Jake Sully: „I will not kill you.“
Tsu’tey: „It is the way! And it is good. I will be remembered. I fought... with Toruk Macto! And we were brothers. And he... was my last shadow.“
[Neytiri starts to cry.]
The other scenes are often simply contentual extensions. They include, among other things, scenes of Jake and Neytiri fusing their tendril features during their extra-terrestrial intercourse, the Na'Vi and Jake hunting and burning the humans' excavating machines and Dr. Augustine's scientific explanation for the floating mountains. All those small scenes enrich the film profoundly - and especially the world of Pandora which is made even more multifarious by the appearance of many new creatures. These scenes hardly influence the actual plot, though.
In summary, it can be stated that the theatrical version is thoroughly respectable and sound, but that the Special Edition is still the better version. It offers more of everything without redefining it or needlessly dragging on. For fans of the film, the Special Edition is undoubtedly an absolute must-have and the definitive version.
Runtime: 155:05 minutes
Runtime: 163: 38 minutes
In direct comparison, the theatrical version misses 8 minutes and 33 seconds.
The first flight over Pandora has been expanded. Now the helicopter flies past a sturmbeest herd. Dr. Grace Augustine particularly mentions that to Jake and Norm.
Trudy Chacon: "Sturmbeest herd coming up on your right!"
Dr. Grace Augustine: "Got it! Thanks."
[Dr. Grace Augustine points at the herd.]
Dr. Grace Augustine: "Looks like a bull, a dozen cows and juveniles!"
The squad reaches an abondoned school. As it turns out, Dr. Grace Agustune used to teach Na'Vi children English there - until a serious incident came about, which is only insinuated, but not pronounced.
[The squad marches through the thick forest and comes upon an abandoned school.]
Dr. Grace Augustine: "This was our school. Now it's just... storage. The kids were so bright. Eager to learn. They picked up English faster than I could teach it. So we'll take a couple of these PH monitors... and a soil probe. That little yellow case back there. The old microscope."
[While Dr. Grace Augustine issues instructions, Jake glances around.]
[Norm finds the book "Dr Seuss’ The Lorax" on the floor, picks it up and shows it Dr. Augustine.]
Dr. Grace Augustine: "Oh, yeah. I love this one. The stingbats knocked them down. I keep hoping someone will come back in and read them."
[Jake continues looking around and discovers an exoctic species of stingbat.]
Norm: "Why don't they come back?"
Dr. Grace Augustine: "The Ometecaya learned as much about us as they needed to."
[While Dr. Augustine und Norm are talking, Jake spots bullet holes.]
Jake Sully: "What happened here?"
[Dr. Augustine looks at him shortly and avoides the question.]
Dr. Grace Augustine: "Are you gonna help us with this gear? We've got a lot to do."
Jake and Neytiri continue tripping through the neon-like woods some longer.
When Jake joins the circle, a little Na'Vi girl smiles at him curiously - her father, however, holds her back immediatley. In the meantime, Neytiri approaches and hands Jake some fruit.
At dinner, Jake tries to start a conversation with Neytiri and asks for her name. She seems rather annoyed by that.
Jake Sully: "You know, I don't even know your name."
Neytiri: "Neytiri te Ckaha Mo’at’ite."
Jake Sully: "Again, a whole lot slower?"
Jake Sully: "Neytili?"
Jake Sully: "Neytiri. It’s nice to meet you, Neytiri. It’s nice."
Dr. Augustine, Jake and Norm proceed from the helicopter to the secluded research laboratory. On the short track, Jake looks over his shoulder. A voice from the off provides the viewer with a short explanation about the floating mountains.
Jake Sully: "So what does hold them up? Grace explained it to me. Some kind of MagLev effect. Because unobtanium is a superconducter... or something."
Jake and Neytiri run through the luminescent jungle at night.
The following scene has been expanded: after Jake has touched the Fan Lizard, it flies away in a radiant glow. Its fellow species follow suit and, to the delight of Jake and Neytiri, raise themselves into the air.
As Jake and the other Na'Vi climb the mountain, Neytiri flies past them on a Seze.
Here follows one of the longest and most spectacular scenes of the Special Edition: the Na'Vi go on an aerial hunt for Sturmbeest. Much to the joy of him and Neytiri, he manages to shoot one of them. He comments on it with the words „Hell, yeah!“
, which makes Neytiri repeat the phrase.
Neytiri and Jake link in front of Eywa.
The Na'Vi destroy the so-called Hell Trucks of the mining company.
The next day: under the command of Corporal Lyle Wainfleet, the Marines sift through the remains of the Hell Trucks. As it turns out, the Na'Vi have killed the soldiers as well. Colonel Miles Quaritch and Parker Selfrigde watch the live broadcast.
Colonel Miles Quaritch: "Talk to me, Lyle."
Corporal Lyle Wainfleet: "It looks like they hit it with banshees first! See the angle’s steep?"
Corporal Lyle Wainfleet: "They set the ampsuit on fire. Driver’s toast."
Colonel Miles Quaritch: "Rest of the squad?"
Corporal Lyle Wainfleet: "Six bodies. That’s all of them. The equipment’s totaled."
Parker Selfridge: "Jesus Christ."
Heavily injured, Tsu'tey falls from the sky - his fall is only decelerated by a few plants.
A short, yet spectacular expansion: the attack of the Hammerhead Titanotheres has been extended.
The fight between Neytiri on the Thanator and Colonel Quaritch in the MPA was extended a bit.
Probably the most dramatic extension: Tsu'-tey is dying. Jake and Neytiri run there. Since Tsu'-tey is now tribe leader and aware of his certain death, he appoints Jake his successor. According to Na'Vi customs, he has to pass Tsu'tey on to Eywa by killing him with his own hands. Jake refuses to do that, but Tsu'tey insists on it. Neytiri cries, while Jake complies with his wish. Slowly the camera passes him by...
Jake Sully: "I see you, brother."
Tsu’tey: "Are the people safe?"
Jake Sully: "They're safe."
Tsu’tey: "I can't... I cannot lead the people. You mus lead them, Jakesully."
Jake Sully: "I’m not officer material."
Tsu’tey: "It is decided. Now... do the duty of Olo’eyktan."
[Tsu’tey pulls Jake's sword out of its scabbard.]
Jake Sully: "I will not kill you."
Tsu’tey: "It is the way! And it is good. I will be remembered. I fought... with Toruk Macto! And we were brothers. And he... was my last shadow."
[Neytiri starts crying.]
[Jake rams his knife in Tsu'tey's body and prays to Eywa.]
The end titles after the main titles of the theatrical version (accompanied by movie scenes) sets in exactly 10 frames (0.4 seconds) earlier. However, this does not lead to a time difference, since the end titles of the Special Edition were slightly accelerated due to the addition of further credits.
No time difference
The song „Bless the Plague“ by Discovery Zone (which was used in the Special Edition) was added.