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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

James Cameron's 'Avatar': Game and movie sneak peek

James Cameron's 'Avatar': Game and movie sneak peek

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Titanic director James Cameron’s secrecy-shrouded Avatar is one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated movies. And now I can report that the videogame spin-off of the 3-D sci-fi epic, developed and published by Ubisoft, appears worthy of similar breathlessness by pop culture-lovin’ joypad jockeys.

Representatives of the company, as well as Cameron’s Titanic producer Jon Landau, began giving groups of select journalists a sneak peek at the game yesterday at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, aka E3, the videogame industry’s annual conference. The presentation was a bite-sized trade-show version of a Hollywood movie premiere. Purses, satchels and picture-taking cell phones had to be checked. While we waited behind black velvet ropes, Landau shook some hands like a movie star working a crowd. He even brought something that looked exactly like the Oscar statue he won for Titanic and allowed the folks at the front of the line to hold it. (As I was more in the middle of the line, my hand was unshaken, and I could only glimpse, not hold, this alleged Oscar object, and yes, I am jealous—how could you tell?)

The screening room, tucked within a corner of Ubisoft’s sprawling showroom space, was dark and cozy. Concept art for the movie adorned the walls. We sat on a long bench cushioned with black leather or pleather, and if we scooted or adjusted even an inch our friction could produce some very loud farting sounds. Not that you could hear them: Ubisoft had the volume at its other installations cranked to 11, or at least loud enough to shake the thin walls and vibrate my eardrums. It felt like that at any moment, fight scenes from Assassin’s Creed 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction were about to converge and come crashing into the room and lop off our heads. The din was such that it made listening to Landau’s opening comments and riveting summary of Avatar’s plot something of a challenge. But I’m pretty sure I heard him correctly when he said that James Cameron has described his long-awaited movie as his “magnum opus.” I’m also pretty sure Landau said that Avatar represents the first time in 32 years that a Hollywood filmmaker has attempted to realize a wholly original cinematic universe. (2009 minus 32 years = 1977, which was the year George Lucas’ Star Wars was released. It was also the year that gave us, among many other movies, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall,, and David Lynch’s Eraserhead.) We were then asked to don stylish rubbery glasses and gaze at the spectacle of revelation that flickered across a very big TV screen. Very Joseph Smith.

This is all to say that if James Cameron’s Avatar wasn’t burdened with second-coming-of-Jesus hype and extremely high expectations before yesterday, it is now. But here’s the good news for all the people who have millions to support the director’s vision. Whatever he’s selling, I’m buying, including Avatar: The Game.

Ubisoft’s extrapolation was developed concurrent with Cameron’s film, which blends live action and motion-capture animation in a pretty revolutionary way. The game is a third-person adventure comprised of 16 separate environments that reminded me of Gears of War, minus the gore and braining option. The setting: the planet of Pandora, which humans are keenly interested in because of an energy-rich mineral known as Unobtanium, valued at $20 million an ounce. (This not-subtle symbolic argot is easily Avatar's least-inspired aspect.) The planet is jungle on super-steroids. Floating mountains, 900-foot-tall trees, phosphorescent vegetation that can light up the night. Pretty spectacular.

And pretty deadly, too. The air on Pandora is toxic. The flesh-eating plants and vicious wildlife, like the ravenous, shark-quick jungle dogs known as Viper Wolves, aren’t too friendly, either. In order to bring Unobtanium out of the ground, Earth's interstellar miners require equipment a little more sophisticated than a hard hat, gas mask, and canary: they have to download their minds into synthetic bodies called avatars that have been genetically engineered to survive and thrive within Pandora’s environment.

These avatar bodies blend human characteristics with those of the world’s indigenous humanoid beings, known as the Na’vi. These sinewy creatures are 10 feet tall. Think: Yao Ming...except taller and stronger and more kick-ass. They also have blue skin and tails, like Nightcrawler from The X-Men. They have a regal air and speak their own tongue. (In an interview with EW back in 2007, Cameron described the language as a mix of Polynesian and African dialects, and said it was developed with the help of a noted linguist named Paul Froemer at the University of Southern California.) Like Native American tribes, the Na’vi live in communion with nature, fight with spears and bow and arrows, and are none-too-pleased about Earthlings coming to their tropical Eden with our cranky oily machines, exploitive ambitions, and gross insensitivity. And so there is war.

In Cameron’s film, this rich world is brought to life and explored through the character of Jake Scully (Terminator: Salvation’s Sam Worthington), a war veteran who has lost the use of his legs and is given new purpose—and a brand new body—through the avatar program. But that purpose isn’t as some agent of crude intergalactic imperialism: Jake goes to Pandora, falls in love with a native princess, and is forced to choose between betraying the Na’vi or helping them repel the Earthlings. But helping the Na'vi would cost him his newfound physical wholeness.

The storyline sketched by Landau sounded compelling and filled with intriguing moral drama, while at the same time remaining familiar and accessible to a general audience. He compared the story to the fantasy arc of The Wizard of Oz (hero leaves humdrum circumstances for heroic adventure in an exotic otherworld) and the culture clash romance found in the historical tale of Pocahontas. But for me, the presentation also evoked The Matrix, Dances With Wolves, and Terrence Malick’s The New World, sprinkled with the ecological idealism of An Inconvenient Truth, and the Native American nature mysticism of Godfrey Reggio’s life-out-of-balance Powaqqatsi/Naqoyqatsi/Koyaanisqatsi trilogy. But mostly, it evoked for me a sci-fi Dances With Wolves, accessorized with Cameron's distinctive brand of ficto-functional industrial tech. (See: The Terminator; Sigourney Weaver's hydraulic-suit in Aliens.)

Yet Landau made a point of stating that Avatar: The Game does not replicate the film’s plot. The Ubisoft experience allows you to play from the perspective of a non-avatar human soldier who is tasked with clearing the jungle and keeping the avatar miners safe from killer flora, killer creatures, and those “killer” Na’vi. But it also allows you to play from the perspective of a Na’vi warrior, trying to protect his/her planet from the unwanted alien invaders. (It was unclear to me if the game gives you the choice of playing through the entire experience from either perspective, or if it requires that you play both.)

Just as he did with Terminator and The Abyss, James Cameron seems to have produced yet another extraordinarily expensive exercise in irony and hubris: a wildly ambitious, high-tech entertainment about the human cost of wild ambition and cutting-edge technology. Of course, it would be unwise to come to any conclusions, positive or negative, about the whole Avatar entertainment enterprise at this point. But here's why my wallet and I are looking forward to it. First: It looks awesome. Second: It seems to crackle with a lot of ideas that are worth thinking about, including: our relationship to the environment, our cultural impact on other cultures, our inexhaustible appetite for material goods. But Avatar also strikes me as a provocative thing unto itself--an expression and product of our culture’s embrace of interactive, the entertainment industry’s pursuit for the fully immersive simulated experience, and our appetite for escapism. What are we gaining? What are we losing? What does it all mean? Here's hoping the Avatar experience to come will be interesting and potent enough to spark that kind of cultural conversation. Oh, and I hope it's fun, too.

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