James Cameron is coming home. The director of The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens and The Abyss Cameron was, along with Ridley Scott and John Woo, pivotal in creating the grammar of action and genre cinema in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Whilst Scott favoured worlds that were both functional and richly detailed and Woo became ever more fascinated by the heroic ideal and how that could be represented through balletic, creative violence, Cameron remained unusually practical. A former special effects technician who’d learnt his trade working with Roger Corman, Cameron’s combination of invention, vision and willingness to get his hands dirty led him to work with the likes of Ron Cobb to create futures which were incredible and tangible, brave new worlds where the rivets weren’t just visible, they were vital.
Cameron’s return to the genre is a project he’s been working on for over a decade. Initially written in 1995, Avatar was put on hold until special effects were advanced enough for the film to be properly realised. That time has now come and after years of speculation, the film was previewed this week, through a trailer and 16 minutes of footage shown at IMAX cinemas worldwide.
The response, so far, has been unsurprisingly negative as the unusual combination of hype and secrecy surrounding the project has raised expectations impossibly high. There is, inevitably, already talk of it being the biggest flop of the year and that it may signal the end of Cameron’s career.
I disagree, because I think Cameron’s been here before.
The Abyss is his least well-regarded film but arguably his best. The film follows a group of oil rig workers and Navy SEALs as they find themselves caught between natural disaster, human frailty, the very real possibility of nuclear war and a first contact situation on the ocean bed, combining all four to create what is arguably Cameron’s best and most human film.
It also features one of the the single most influential scenes in 1990s genre cinema. At the film’s halfway mark, the crew discover a tentacle of mobile water snaking its way through their badly damaged rig and their reactions tell us everything we need to know about them. Coffey, the SEAL team leader is terrified, Bud, the rig foreman is shocked and fascinated and Lindsay, the rig designer and his wife is completely unafraid. In one of the film’s best moments, the tentacle mimics Lindsay’s face and seamlessly, without any fanfare, we begin to communicate with an alien race. It’s the moment the clocks stop, the moment the new age begins and it’s heralded by nothing more than an alien water tentacle sticking its tongue out.
What’s less obvious is that special effects technology changed at the same time. The water tentacle was one of the earliest examples of practical CGI, neatly sidestepping the limitations of the technology by relying on a basic, elemental substance and texture. Simple, effective and unlike anything seen before, it was the moment that arguably opened the door for everything from the Quidditch games of Harry Potter to the subtle recreation of period San Francisco in Zodiac. It’s less a scene, more a hinge around which over a decade of films turn.
Which brings us to Avatar and to Jake Sullivan smiling with two mouths and two different faces.
Avatar is Jake’s story. A paralysed former marine, he’s given a chance to walk again as part of the Avatar program on Pandora. The only world where an incredibly valuable mineral has been discovered, Pandora is as beautiful as it is hostile and the Avatars are an attempt to even the odds. Grown from a combination of their pilot’s DNA and that of the Na’vi, Pandora’s dominant race, Avatars are ‘flown’ by pilots in a secure location, allowing them to interact with and, in theory, survive the Pandoran ecosystem.
They’re also, from a practical point of view, entirely fake. The film uses a combination of motion capture and computer graphics to create most of Pandora, including the Avatars themselves. Unsurprisingly, they’ve also become the focus of much of the film’s early negative buzz, critics citing the Elvish appearance of the characters and their opaque skin as highlighting instead of hiding their artificiality. Neill Blomkamp’s acclaimed District 9 has also been used as a comparison, the ‘Prawn’ aliens of Blomkamp’s seething Johannesburg more integrated, more real and somehow more alien than Cameron’s stylised Na’vi.
All of this may well prove to be true, after all there’s as much danger as glory in being the first one through the door. But for me, the Avatars are as fascinating and I suspect will prove as pivotal as the water tentacle of The Abyss. The reason, I suspect, lies in the space between Sam Worthington, Jake Sullivan and Jake Sullivan’s Avatar.
Unsurprisingly Worthington, the film’s star, is front and centre for almost all the trailer but what’s more surprising is that there’s only one line of dialogue throughout. As a result, the viewer is naturally drawn not only to the special effects but to the physical acting on display and one moment in particular. There’s a shot of Jake, sitting next to the tank his Avatar is suspended in, bathed in the blue light coming from it. He looks at it for a long moment, then smiles. It’s a fascinating moment, not least because of how much Worthington communicates with that smile. There’s abject wonder, intense satisfaction and recognition there, all wrapped up in under a second of screen time.
It’s particularly fascinating when viewed with a moment that comes later in the trailer. Jake has been downloaded into his Avatar for the first time, a gangly, nine-foot tall creature of incredible power tempered only by inexperience. He stumbles and puts a colossal hand against the glass of the observation room nearby then looks up, smiles a wide, predatory smile filled with teeth and utters the one line of the trailer:
‘This is great.’
It’s the same man, the same face, the same smile but wider, wilder and a little more intimidating. It’s a startling moment, clearly Jake, clearly Worthington but somehow something bigger, something different, something new. It’s a moment of startling parity between actor and character as Sam Worthington’s performance, like Jake Sullivan’s thoughts are filtered through to a new, different body. It’s also a moment, like the water tentacle, around which I suspect the next decade’s worth of science fiction cinema will turn.