New Details Emerge About James Cameron’s Epic 3-D ‘Avatar’

It’s kind of like “Titanic,” except with aliens, genetic-engineering and deep space war. Okay, maybe James Cameron’s upcoming sci-fi thriller, “Avatar,” is nothing like that gooey love story set on a doomed trans-Atlantic luxury liner. Except “Avatar” does have a love story, and it does force its lovers to choose sides between competing sets of communities, and likely it will include a lot of watery deaths. So maybe “Avatar” and “Titantic” aren’t so different after all.

Confused? Join the club. While anticipation has been building for years about Cameron’s mega-budget 3-D epic, almost no one at this point has seen any “Avatar” footage. A lucky writer at Time, however, was granted access to some scenes, and delivered some intriguing details about the production.

More than a 1000 people have worked on the movie and the price tag is surely astronomical. It’s being shot in the 16,000-sq.-ft. hangar in which Howard Hughes built his enormous wooden “Spruce Goose,” the ill-fated airplane that flew only once. The actors did all their work in that barren space; the computer-generated environments were added later in New Zealand by Peter Jackson’s special-effects company, Weta Digital.

The “Avatar” story takes place on an inhospitable planet called Pandora, on which humans can survive only by transferring their consciousness into genetically-engineered bodies and which they want to plunder for its abundant natural resources. An epic battle between the humans and the natives ensues, during which the main character (an ex-solider played by Sam Worthington) must choose between his own people and the indigenous woman with whom he’s fallen in love.

Cameron wrote the “Avatar” treatment in 1995, and when he approached his digital production team with the concept, his crew told him, “We can’t do this. We’ll die.”

But they went ahead, and survived, and in the process revolutionized two technologies: digital 3-D and e-motion capture (small cameras are attached to an actor’s head, the images from which are used to mimic his facial movements). The film is set for release on December 18.

Whether by design or because of an agreement with Cameron, the Time writer offers scant details about what he actually saw on screen. There’s the “lush jungle-aquatic environment” of Pandora and a “9-ft.-tall blue, dappled dude.” The line between what is real and what is animated is completely blurred. The writer comes away very impressed, which doesn’t surprise Cameron.

Watching a 3-D film, the director said, “is so close to a real experience that it actually triggers memory creation in a way that 2-D viewing doesn’t.” In his estimation, 3-D viewing actually uses more of your brain’s neurons.

No shock, then, that Cameron will never return to the banality of only two dimensions. “Certainly every film I’m planning to do will be in 3-D,” he said.

Do you think “Avatar” will live up to the hype? Can a movie that costs so much possibly make a profit?