E3: First glimpse at Ubisoft's 'Avatar' opens door to James Cameron's Pandora
It was right around the time I took flight on the back of a giant bird-lizard thing, a proud Na'vi warrior at one with my environment, the lush 3D world completely immersing me in this crazy ecosystem that James Cameron and company have spent the last few years creating, that I decided that I will officially tolerate no more naysaying on "Avatar."
You. Are. Not. Ready.
And here's why. In simple language. Because James Cameron is trying harder. Harder than he's ever tried before. Harder than anyone else is trying now. He's just reaching further, and I'm wired to applaud that, and to root for him to do what he's trying to do... expand the language of film itself, to add new tools to the toolbox as we're making these tpes of movies in the future. The ambition of what he's building, the full-world realization of this longtime dream of his... it's sort of overwhelming when you first take it in. I understand why it took him a long time to get his head around how to make it real. You can write that a film takes place on a planet where there are floating mountains going by. But to convincingly create a planet where there are floating mountains, where you make that idea seem a natural part of the natural order... that's huge.
[more after the jump]
I've already heard a few people describe "Avatar" using "Dances With Wolves" as a comparison, and I think that's very true of the movie if you listen to the plot that James Cameron described (in fairly complete detail) at the Ubisoft presentation the other day. But the difference is that "Dances" was a recreation of an actual historic period. Sure, Costner romanticized it all with Dean Semler, those big outdoor spaces, the Indian culture, but still... he was working with something that Americans have some idea of already, With "Avatar," Cameron's trying to build something larger than what people typically build. Really, the scale we're talking about, there's the "Star Wars" films and the "Lord Of The Rings" films, and that's it. Nothing else approaches that level of ambition and accomplishment.
So here's how this afternoon went down. I got a moderately late start out of the house. Turns out, I missed a screening that I forgot was scheduled for yesterday, and I didn't find out until I was already downtown and inside the convention center. I went booth to booth yesterday, hoping to introduce myself to different game company PR people. I found that the best way was by actually trying out the various games that were on display. I thought "Arkham Asylum" was very creepy and very cool. I cannot wait to own "Brutal Legend," which was ridiculous fun. "Bayonetta" looks like it would be hypnotic and addictive. But from the moment I arrived, I started circling that Ubisoft booth. I could smell the "Avatar" display. I immediately saw the giant power suit standing outside the booth. It's "real-size," and it's much more of a military tool than an industrial tool like the one in "Aliens."
I was told yesterday that the only "Avatar" presentation was behind closed doors, by appointment only, and that's that. But when I walked into a friend who told me he'd just seen a sign go up that promised a public presentation at 4:45, I decided that I was going to make sure I made it into that presentation. No matter what. All those other games I saw, that was just me marking time. In the end, I was content to sit for almost an hour at the Ubisoft booth, waiting to be let in. I had to surrender my phone before ducking through the curtains into a small curved room where production art from "Avatar" lined the walls, giant boards divided up by theme. One for "Weapons." One for "Vehicles." One for "Pandora." One for the "RDA." There were two large glass cases with maquettes of some of the animals we'll see in the film.
And then there was the rig.
103" prototype HD flatscreen 3D television. Prototype BluRay 3D player.
There were about 20 of us in the room. One row in chairs. One row sitting in front of them on the floor. We watched a short introduction by Jon Landau, setting up the premise of the film. It's the future, and the RDA is a military organization from Earth, working with a private mining concern to stripmine Pandora, a bounty of natural resources. It's a moon of a gas giant planet, and it's home to a complex ecosystem as well as one mineral resource that is fantastically expensive. It's also home to ten-foot-tall blue alien warriors called the Na'vi, and when the RDA decides that they're going to take whatever they want, they set off a war for the planet that could end up destroying them all. It's that basic. The fun is all the other stuff Cameron layers in, and in particular the idea of the "avatars." See, humans can't breathe on the surface of the planet Pandora. So they have to wear suits to do the physical mining work, but there's another way they can interact. Their DNA can be spliced with the DNA of an indigenous species, and the creature that's grown as a result can be operated from a distance by the person whose DNA is imprinted in it. So in essence, you can operate a Na'vi from a distance. Which is crazy. And it's the big idea of the movie, above and beyond the world-building.
So what Cameron's got to pull off for the film is making you believe that the Na'vi are real, and that the world they live in is a physical place. No small order, eh?
The first few levels we saw for the game, you're playing a human characters working for the RDA. You're flying a double-rotored little Sampson 'chopper, and you're job is to clear a path for other mining ships to be brought through the thick canopy of roots and plants and vines and whatever else. And you're job is just to blast everything in sight. And then the entire first orientation section of the game appears to be a bloodthirsty engagement with the local life. There are these things called Viperwolves, and there are also these red Viperwolves that are far nastier. And there's a giant rhino-thing called a Hammerhead, as well, and you have to bring it down. All of which sounds pretty standard for an action FPS...
... except it was all in perfect 3D. And that means that when you're dropped onto the surface of Pandora... you're really dropped onto the surface of Pandora. The atmospheric detail even on the game was incredibly well-observed, and the guy giving the demo kept telling us that on Pandora, every single thing in the ecosystem can and probably will kill us, and that sort of appears to be the case. I have a confession, though... watching the wholesale destuction of Pandora's flora and fauna, I wasn't gettng the same sort of wish-fulfillment thrill I do sometimes off of games, because the idea of doing that to Pandora sort of made me sick. The majority of the demo was that first level, in which the player is a human being, fighting and even killing the Na'vi.
But there's a point in the game where you're given a choice... you can keep fighting for the Earth military... or you can join the Na'vi and fight for Pandora, fight to preserve it in balance, as is. And they showed us some of that, where you are the 10-foot Na'vi warrior who summons that giant bird-thing I mentioned earlier so you can ride around Pandora's rain forest for a while. The stuff we saw was only one of 16 full environments we'll get to see on the planet's surface, but it felt like two different planets because of the radical difference between day and night. The jungle stuff you've seen is the daytime version of Pandora. When the sun goes down, the whole world becomes bioluminescent, and it's gorgeous. Even your footsteps glow thanks to the moss and the ground and the water itself.
These are all just first impressions, and we're not talking about the movie yet, just the world that's been reproduced by Ubisoft. But already, I covet that rig I saw the demo played on, and I want to get my hands on the game and venture back into the world of Pandora. If something as impressive as what I saw today is just precursor to the main event, the movie itself in IMAX 3D, then we are in for something amazing in theates at the end of this year, and I am desperate now for a taste of the film itself, and not just the game or the article or the odd mention. Today should have scratched the itch, but instead it made it much, much worse.
So bring it on. Game. Movie. The whole nine yards. After today, I will follow Cameron and this project wherever they want to go.
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