As the trailers for the assorted summer blockbusters start jostling for position, and on the eve of Watchmen making its theatrical bow, a friend caught me cold earlier today and asked me a simple question: what’s the film I’m most looking forward to seeing this year.
I said, almost instinctively, Avatar. Never mind that I can’t wait for Coraline to hit the UK. Nor the fact that I can’t wait for Armando Ianucci’s film debut, In The Loop. Heck, there’s Michael Mann’s Public Enemies which is making me sweat up just at the thought of how cool that could be. Throw in Star Trek, The Surrogates, Up and a good number more I could list, and there’s plenty to look forward to.
But none of them are Avatar. And to paraphrase Scream 2, this isn’t from someone who’s got a “hard on for Cameron”. I loved Aliens, never went mad for – but greatly admired – the Terminator movies, was impressed by The Abyss, could take or leave True Lies, and Titanic could only be consumed by excising the entire first half.
Yet Avatar represents a bona fide gamble, and a major one, in the science fiction genre. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. Science fiction, outside of a few key franchises, is a big gamble, especially so on a non-franchise production. And you strongly suspect that if the green light for Avatar had been needed in the last six to twelve months, it simply wouldn’t have happened.
For it’s believed that Fox has pumped somewhere in the region of $200m into the film (and you can add $100m to that if you believe some sources), which doesn’t – at least from where I’m sitting – look like it’s got a $200m audience to aim for. There aren’t big movie star names here, much though we love seeing Sigourney Weaver getting a juicy role again. But along with Sam Worthington, Zoe Saklana, Michelle Rodriguez and Stephen Lang, she’s going to struggle to open a movie to Tom Cruise levels. Cameron in the past has delivered the biggest grossing film of all time, but Avatar would do well to get a quarter of Titanic’s $600m US box office take.
And yet no matter how the end product turns out, the sheer experience of Avatar has got to be worth the gamble of a ticket price.
Firstly, there’s the fact that this is the film that will tell us once and for all if 3D is the future of cinema. Sure, various animated films are going 3D this year, and the tantalising delight of Final Destination 4 in 3D is one that I’m struggling to resist. But this is James Cameron we’re talking about. Whereas some will approach 3D by looking at what’s available and making the best of it, he’s going to push the technical potential of this so hard that it’ll be, technologically, the most advanced 3D movie to date.
Factor in too that, no matter what you may make of Cameron the screenwriter (and I can take him or leave him, depending on the film in question), as a director there are few who do spectacle or scale quite on his level. Titanic was a messy film, but from the moment the boat hit the iceberg, it was hard to find any kind of big screen spectacle that could match it. Over a decade on, few directors comprehend the potential of a really big screen in quite the way that James Cameron does, and given that he has new 3D toys to play with as well, it’s quite mouthwatering what the man could do with it all.
Finally, this is the film that the man has been working on, on and off, for a good decade now, and is only making it now because the technology for him to realise his vision has become even vaguely accessible. He’s sat on this one for some time, and I can’t wait to see why.
I’m not blind to the problems here. There’s a real potential that this could become a technical circus at the expense of a good film, and what I’ve read of the story and plot – and I’m deliberately keeping myself away from too many details – makes it look interesting, but not yet compelling.
But for me, nothing quite beats a night out at the cinema when there’s someone behind the camera pulling out all the stops to give me something really special. I love small dramas, I love indie movies and I’ve got several creaking shelves packed with world cinema DVDs. Yet does anything quite beat going to see a really big film in a really big cinema with a really big bucket of popcorn on your lap? Life has few pleasures quite like it, and whether it wilts or soars, Avatar is nonetheless the biggest film, in a couple of senses, of the year. The sheer scale and ambition of it marks it, for me, as an absolute must-see.
December 18th 2009 is firmly inked in my diary. And I really hope I’m not disappointed.