The Genius of Avatar

After attending a show-and-tell with James Cameron, Kim Masters says the groundbreaking project has leapt from a giant question mark to a must-see film. Plus, view an exclusive photo.

12.13.09 10:55 PM ET

Game over.

After James Cameron’s long-gestating Avatar premiered in London on Friday night, the Internet exploded with euphoric reviews. Just like that, Avatar went from gigantic question mark to must-see film event. All the snarky comments about blue goat people were forgotten and it started to look as though the director would indeed save his investors, save 3-D, and possibly even save the Oscar telecast.

Cameron’s genius is this: He makes movies for women disguised as movies for men.

Cameron is a genius. Regardless of whether you think Titanic has true artistic merit and regardless, even, of whether Avatar is actually a good movie, he earns that title simply through his ability to conceive and execute spectacles using groundbreaking filmmaking technologies.

And when it comes to storytelling, as a veteran producer shrewdly observes, Cameron’s genius is this: He makes movies for women disguised as movies for men. Every one of them, Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, right on through Avatar, involves an exceptionally strong female lead and an old-fashioned love story, whether it’s man-woman love or mother-child love. From Sarah Connor to Ripley to Rose, Cameron's women can kiss you or kick your ass. In the early going, Avatar was tracking strongly among men but not so much among women. If that issue hasn’t vanished already, it will soon.

A couple of weeks ago, before Fox started screening Avatar, I was one of a handful of journalists invited to Lightstorm, Cameron’s film company, to see about 30 minutes of the film. It turned out to be a show-and-tell with Cameron. As he displayed models and drawings and talked about the techniques that he used to generate the alien world of Pandora, I began to feel half-brained.

“Do you know exactly what your IQ is?” I asked, finally.

He gave me a canned answer: “I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am and they tell me what to say.” I think I may have heard that line before, during a visit to the set of the Titanic in Mexico about a dozen years ago, the last time critics and audiences were locked and loaded for a Cameron disaster. It’s an even less credible claim now than it was then.

Kim Masters: James Cameron’s Titanic Gamble Having said that, Cameron does surround himself with very smart people—possibly those who are evolving in a way that represents the future of our species. Among them is veteran effects man Rob Legato, who came to Cameron with the idea for the virtual camera. That enabled Cameron to see the actors as big, blue creatures in their alien world as he was filming humans in body suits covered with the many sensors that are used in the 3-D motion-capture process.

Cameron and his team also came up with a special rig—a small camera attached to headgear—that allowed the director to capture subtle facial expressions and avoid the dreaded dead-eye look that is so often criticized in motion-capture films. This rig allowed the actors to perform without lots of annoying sensors on their faces. (Zoe Saldana is wearing the device in this photograph. The dots on her face are markers to help align the camera but those are unobtrusive compared with the sensors.)

At the show and tell, Cameron was on his very best behavior, patient and personable. With this much money at stake—there are assorted estimates on the cost of the film, mostly in excess of $300 million and record-breaking—Cameron did not want an antagonistic press. He wanted the media to carry a message: that despite the extensive use of computer-generated imagery, this is not an animated film.

“It’s an important message for the acting community in general,” says the film’s producer Jon Landau. “We’re not looking to replace the actors but to empower them to play characters they would not otherwise be able to play.” He argues that this is “the 21st-century version of prosthetics—but prosthetics dull performances and [this technique] gives a more nuanced performance.”

This message is important in part because actors make up the biggest voting bloc in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Naturally, they would be less inclined to support an animated movie for Best Picture as opposed to one that is performance driven. Landau says Cameron doesn’t even call the technique used in the film “motion capture.” Rather, it’s “performance capture.”

To make the point, Cameron and Landau have put together a side-by-side comparison showing Saldana as she performed the role of Neytiri and as she appears in the film—big, blue, tough and kind of hot. This footage, which is being shown on HBO, is meant to show that the actor’s performance drives the technology on a “frame by frame, almost pore-by-pore level,” as Landau puts it. He wants actors to know that Saldana trained for the role, working with a movement coach, for example, and learning to ride a horse. (So what if the ones in the film have six legs?).

Whether actors buy this argument or not, it does feel as though Avatar is now a game-changer in this year’s Oscar race. That’s exactly what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been wanting for Christmas: a really big hit that can still be a strong contender for Best Picture. So far there isn’t one, unless you count Up—certainly a brilliant film and a commercially successful one, but not a magnet that will draw viewers to the ceremony.

When I dutifully put on my 3-D glasses in Avatar, I was expecting something vastly different from what I’d seen before with this technology. It wasn’t, really. The 3-D aspect was, as Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy noted, is “unemphatic, drawing the viewer into the action without calling attention to itself.”

But Cameron has gone off the deep end, using computer-generated imagery to create a world of brilliantly colored flora and exotic fauna. (In typical obsessive fashion, he even commissioned a functioning language for his creatures.) And he has avoided the “dead eye” look, though he made it a bit easier for himself by giving the Na’vi characters eyes as big as saucers.

As I listened to Cameron talk, I could feel the Kool-Aid trickling down my throat. I didn’t see enough to know how the movie plays as a whole but it was already clear that people were going to want to see the world that he had created.

Exactly how much money Avatar needs to make to get into profit has been the subject of a lot of guessing in Hollywood in recent weeks. All we know now is that the movie will open big and it will have those 3-D screens to itself for a long time. Can it break Titanic’s record and become the highest-grossing film of all time? My guess would be no. The young Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t in this one.

But if we’ve learned anything over the years from watching his movies it’s this: Never bet against Jim Cameron. Seriously. Never.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.