Avatar, directed, written, produced, and co-edited by James Cameron, is a journey of self-discovery – in the context of colonialism and deep ecology – disguised in a riveting sci-fi action adventure. The film combines live-action with computer-generated characters and live environments, using groundbreaking stereoscopic motion capture techniques. It stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, and Sigourney Weaver.
Development of Avatar begins in 1994, when Cameron writes an 80-page treatment. Filming is supposed to take place after the completion of Cameron’s Titanic (1997), for a planned release in 1999, but Cameron finds out that the technology is not yet ready to achieve his vision of the film. Cameron instead focuses on making documentaries and refining the technology for the next few years. When watching Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Cameron is convinced that CGI effects have progressed enough.
20th Century Fox advances $10 million to Cameron to film a proof-of-concept clip for Avatar, which he shows to Fox executives in 2005. Meanwhile, Cameron works on the script and develops a culture for the film’s aliens, the Na’vi who are living on the moon Pandora (their language is created by Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguist at USC). Production design takes several years, involving two different production designers, and two separate art departments. Stan Winston, who collaborated with Cameron in the past, supports him in the creation of different species living on Pandora.
Principal photography begins in 2007, using Cameron’s digital 3-D Fusion Camera System – a new way of directing motion-capture shots (allowing the director to adjust scenes on set by showing the actors’ virtual counterparts in their digital surroundings in real time). New Zealand-based Weta Digital creates the visual effects for the film, with ILM working alongside Weta to create the impressive battle sequences.
Cameron gives fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson a chance to test the new technology. Spielberg says, “I like to think of it as digital makeup, not augmented animation … Motion capture brings the director back to a kind of intimacy that actors and directors only know when they’re working in live theater.” Jackson and Spielberg will later use the technology in their film The Adventures of Tintin (2011).
According to Cameron, Avatar implicitly criticizes the United States’ role in the Iraq War and the impersonal nature of mechanized warfare in general: “We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America.” Not incidentally, the destruction of the towering Na’vi Hometree, collapsing in flames after a missile strike, eerily resembles the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
In his third collaboration with Cameron, James Horner composes the brilliant score, recording parts of it with a small chorus singing in the alien language Na’vi. According to Horner, “Avatar has been the most difficult film I have worked on and the biggest job I have undertaken.“ British singer Leona Lewis sings the film’s theme song "I See You” which is criticized as a “Celine Dion clone singing in Na’vi.”
Before its release, various critics and fan communities predict the film would be a significant financial disappointment. Criticisms range from Avatar’s whopping film budget of $237 million (or more), to its use of 3D "blue cat people“.
Avatar premieres in London on December 10, 2009, to positive critical reactions. In his review, Roger Ebert calls the film "extraordinary” and gives it four stars out of four. “Watching Avatar, I felt sort of the same as when I saw Star Wars in 1977”, he says, adding that like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, the film “employs a new generation of special effects” and it “is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It’s a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message.“
During its international theatrical run, the film breaks several box office records, eventually grossing $2.788 billion. It becomes the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing Titanic. It is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, winning three, for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.
Cameron says his inspiration for the film was "every single science fiction book I read as a kid”, acknowledging that Avatar shares themes with films such as Dances with Wolves (1990), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), and Princess Mononoke (1997), all featuring clashes between cultures and civilizations. He admits that he got the idea for Avatar after watching Disney’s 1995 animated film Pocahontas (1995). Due to these obvious inspirations Avatar is not nominated for a Best Screenplay award.
Following the film’s success, Cameron signs with 20th Century Fox to produce three sequels, all directed and co-written by Cameron. They will be released each year starting from December 2017 to 2019.
A themed land called Pandora—The World of Avatar is being constructed for Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida and set to open in 2017.