Saturday, April 25, 2009

James Cameron 3-D sci-fi film to focus on disabled soldier who inhabits an alien body

From The New York Times:

LOS ANGELES — In an old airplane hangar near the beach here, James Cameron (pictured) has been working feverishly to complete a movie that may:

(a) Change filmmaking forever

(b) Alter your brain

(c) Cure cancer

For certain expectant movie fans, the answer might as well be all of the above.

Eight months before its scheduled release on Dec. 18, Mr. Cameron’s “Avatar,” a science-fiction thriller filmed with his own specially devised 3-D technology, is stirring up a kind of anticipation that until now had been reserved for, say, the Rapture.

That might foretell a hit on the order of Mr. Cameron’s “Titanic,” with $1.8 billion in worldwide ticket sales.

Or it might just be a giant headache for 20th Century Fox, which is backing “Avatar” and will have to spend much of the year managing expectations for a film whose technological wizardry is presumed by more than a few to promise an experiential leap for audiences comparable to that of “The Jazz Singer,” the arrival of Technicolor or an Obama campaign rally.

To date, neither a trailer nor even a still photo from the film, which tells the story of a disabled soldier who uses technology to inhabit an alien body on a distant planet, has been made public by Mr. Cameron or Fox.

But a number of enthusiasts who have been swapping notes on the message boards at claim to have already seen the movie — in their dreams. “The special effects were mostly drawings and cartoons, but they looked 3-D still,” wrote one “planetshane,” whose particular dream involved a pirated copy of an early version.

“It was the best movie I had ever seen,” the post continued.

Only a few weeks ago, Joshua Quittner, a technology writer for Time magazine, fed the frenzy when he reported feeling a strange yearning to return to the movie’s mythical planet, Pandora, the morning after he was shown just 15 minutes of the film. Mr. Cameron, Mr. Quittner wrote, theorized that the movie’s 3-D action had set off actual “memory creation.”

Questioned by telephone recently at his home in Mill Valley, Calif., Mr. Quittner said he was still reeling from the experience.

“It was like doing some kind of drug,” he said, describing a scene in which the movie’s hero, played by Sam Worthington, ran around “with this kind of hot alien chick,” was attacked by jaguar-like creatures and was sprinkled with sprites that floated down, like snowflakes.

“You feel like the little feathery things are landing on your arm,” said Mr. Quittner, who remained eager for another dose.

Executives and producers of the film declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement Fox said: “Jim Cameron is breaking new ground with this film. Like all movie fans, the studio is excited by the prospect of such an original piece of entertainment.”

In a brief interview reported by The Associated Press in December, Mr. Cameron said he was worried that “Avatar” could not live up to the expectations that were building around it.

“Whatever they think it’s going to be, it’s probably not,” he said at the time about those who were speculating about the movie on the Internet and elsewhere.

Yet Mr. Cameron has done his share to feed the hype with his repeated assurances that a coming wave of 3-D cinema (yes, it still requires glasses) would have the power to penetrate the brain in a way that movies never have.

Some fans believe that Mr. Cameron and his colleagues have finally crossed the “uncanny valley.” That is a supposed point at which a viewer’s responsiveness to a simulated human takes a sudden drop into revulsion as the image comes close to reality but strikes the watcher as being zombielike, or not quite right.

Dr. Mario Mendez, a behavioral neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, said it is entirely possible that Mr. Cameron’s work could tap brain systems that are undisturbed by conventional 2-D movies. One, he said, is a kind of inner global-positioning system that orients a person to the surrounding world.

“Three-D demonstrably creates a space that triggers this GPS; it’s really very stimulating,” Dr. Mendez said. He added that he had used virtual-reality therapy in working with soldiers at the Veterans Administration hospital in Los Angeles — and found himself jarred by his experience with a “virtual Iraq” simulation.

“It was with me for days and days,” Dr. Mendez said.

At ShoWest, a convention of movie exhibitors, a few weeks ago, Mr. Cameron in a short promotional video compared watching “Avatar” to “dreaming with your eyes wide open.” (It was a neat complement to those who have been viewing the movie in their sleep.)

But, sooner rather than later, an increasingly restless group of the fans would like to sample the real thing. And that presents a conundrum for Fox, which will be hard pressed to release a conventional, 2-D trailer online — one of the most powerful ways to promote a movie these days — without undercutting the promise of a transcendental 3-D experience.

“I can’t believe they would spend 12 years developing the technology and telling us in words how great this is, then show us in 2-D,” said T. F. Powell, who runs, an unofficial fan site devoted to the film. Mr. Powell recently spoke by telephone from Kansas.

Some fans are already teasing their peers about expecting too much.

“You would think this movie cures cancer,” taunted a skeptical Danny Danger in his “movie preview extravaganza” on a MySpace blog in January.

Typically, studios have given a peek at some of their biggest science-fiction and fantasy movies during the giant Comic-Con convention, an annual summer gathering of the fans in San Diego. But that also poses problems for “Avatar,” in that Comic-Con’s convention hall setting has not been equipped to showcase films in 3-D.

“I can’t imagine we will not have something, but nothing has been confirmed,” said David Glanzer, the convention’s director of marketing and public relations, speaking of the prospects for an “Avatar” moment at Comic-Con.

As for the movie’s release in December, Mr. Glanzer said, “Maybe they should have nurses in the lobby.”

It was a joking reference to a ploy once used by the producer William Castle. He posted fake nurses in the lobby of theaters that showed his own neuron-challenging horror film “Macabre,” while insuring every member of the audience for $1,000 against “death by fright.”