Pathways into Avatar

[in a discussion with SM the other day I ventured some points on Avatar which I have now expanded upon after seeing the film]


Avatar offers an interesting yet troubling wager for the future of entertainment. Even if the terms in which the film has been heralded are often hyperbolic, even if the ‘death of cinema’ thesis makes a ‘new frontier’ at this late date little more than a charming dream, even if to discover in this film the essence of the cinematic or some absolute triumph of ‘pure cinema’ is another kind of ‘wish’, for all this and even so this much must certainly be admitted — James Cameron seeks to enchant the medium once again and rekindle the once upon a time wondrous in it. This is a worthwhile endeavor and one he often succeeds in for his film truly conveys the experience of a world in a medium which increasingly represents the ‘worldless’.

Cameron imagines the physical co-ordinates of his planet in startlingly artistic fashion. The technological ‘magic’ here including the use of the 3-D format in unique ways is never on display purely to dazzle or overwhelm but to enchant and enrapture. We discover this new land in gradual fashion, we are completely entranced by what we see and we gradually become so naturalized to it that the world we are all familiar with seems impoverished in comparison. This arc of displacement and inversion is completely remarkably by the film much as even more impressively we are so comfortable in the presence of the Navi that the human is rendered alien to us and as the film progresses starts seeming more and more like an ‘intrusion’. Cameron’s dreamscape privileges blues and purples and all other tints work against this background. Therefore, appropriately so his world is often most seductive when it is dark with occasional luminous and really precious splashes of light when floating souls completely a brilliant choreography in these scenes (the entire construction of all this in some ways is reminiscent of elements in Fantasia). There are some other moments similar to this involving the central life-giving tree of the Navi belief system. The creatures on this planet are all the stuff of fable and legend, myth and fairy-tale. And of course the Navi themselves operate in this border region between the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’ (in another more literal and ‘physical’ sense between live action and computer generated animation).

But this does not mean that Cameron’s strengths in the film are entirely those of the painter. He is remarkably effective in the film’s more dynamic moments of flow and action. In each situation ranging from the training with the banshees to the mesmerizing climactic action sequences to the choreographed walks and glides across the branches of trees this movie suggests great fluidity.

I think it is perhaps less to the point to see the central theme of this film as one centered around romance. Even if the love story here is engaging enough that one wishes to see more of it the film offers a far more vast and considerably dark, even at times terrifying, recreation of an entire history of colonialism and imperialism. The destruction moments when these come about are painful to behold and the fate of the Navi is one that tugs at the heart. It is equally true that in his essential New Age framing of the Navi stories and beliefs Cameron repeats the classic move of late imperialism where even as the world of the other is destroyed or appropriated the notion of ‘authentic faith’ is located in the values of this same other. In Avatar one might easily detect African and Amer-Indian anthropologies, tropes of Eastern ‘values’ and Western ‘soul-sickness’. In a way the post-colonial, post-imperial nostalgia for the certitudes of what preceded it. In any case these political messages seem to pivot the film far more than the love story itself. The latter is in fact the greatest human interest story in a film that has proper polemical exercises to carry out (including rather too blunt commentary on the wars of the present). And these involve the history of ‘European man’ and the inheritor of this project in ‘American man’.

There is the danger (probably already upon us) however that with Avatar cinema is advanced along a path where it becomes an entirely virtual medium of pure effect. In other words extraordinary visuals without adequate narratives. Let us also define what the former means. Is it really stunning images artistically oriented or is it a visual grammar that overwhelms any notion of aesthetics? In other words what if we are seeing the emergence of a cinema for which ‘critique’ would be beside the point? You are so overwhelmed by the virtual reality framework (more and more 3-D sophistication, the 360 degree screen etc etc) that you can never quite have the distance from it to comment on it and even if you did it would be irrelevant since such ‘overwhelming’ would preclude more traditional narrative concerns and so forth. This to my mind is a problem. I am always suspicious of any endeavor, even if artistically inclined, that attempts to block off the ‘critical’. I shall risk a certain term here — there is something ‘terrorist’ about such a visual grammar. I also believe we need to avoid the banal strategy of characterizing every new orientation in entertainment as ‘art’. Or everything new as a newer art. Without adequately defining what that newer art means or how it relates to our older notions. It is to avoid thought to simply throw these labels around without ever understanding them properly. Similarly it is not that I am obsessed with ‘narrative’ in the arts. As a student of many currents in artistic and philosophical thought that precisely question traditional notions of narrative (and art and thought!) I would be remiss if I did not. At the same time this does not mean ‘anything goes’. And when I use the word ‘narrative’ I do not mean stories as much as ‘narrativity’. And the concern again is that with a certain sort of technology the ‘narrativity’ question becomes moribund. Why should I be so interested in this notion at all? Because I find the alternative politically problematic, artistically less grounded, and ‘intellectually’ obfuscating. There can be meaning to any art or entertainment form but with a certain kind of technological ‘crack’ at one’s disposal the ability to keep producing the former either goes into the background or becomes almost unnecessary. We are certainly left with an ‘experience’. The question becomes: what does this ‘experience’ mean and what does it entail? For those who want cinema to be an entirely pure, entirely visual medium I would suggest that this is a naive idealization. No art form is ever ‘pure’ in that sense. Does music not have narrativity? Are written art forms only about ‘poetry’? Does the experience of the stage get reduced because it also happens to be about words? Don’t phenomenal buildings also tell stories about the where and who and when? I have said in the past that cinema lost in some ways its truest potential with the loss of the silent medium. Even the use of color it seems to me is not an unqualified ‘good’ in this regard. But that earliest model was still about narrativity. again I am not arguing for discursive thought and certainly not for linear narratives. The best way I can frame it is to posit the following: the production of ‘effect’ without any reliance on ‘inherent’ meaning is a way of avoiding responsibility. Let me provide a stark example which is why I brought up the word ‘terrorist’ earlier (and not in jest) — the blowing up of the WTC buildings on all of our TV screens had the effect of a Hollywood disaster movie, the ultimate disaster movie unfolding in real time (I am hardly the first to say this). But there is also a ‘meaning’ attached to those images which is not entirely contained in the whole sequence of the buildings being attacked and eventually collapsing. However what if one wanted to consume this horrible event as pure spectacle? Why rely on contexts at all? yes there was loss of human life, yes it was a terrifying event but all of this is information not inherent to those images. What we simply see are the planes entering the buildings, the fires, the chaos, the collapse. why not enjoy it as we (later) did 2012? Because one is ‘real’ and one isn’t? But the ‘reality’ is read into the 9/11 images by way of commentary. Nothing in just the images forced us to do so. If we juxtaposed images from 2012 with those from the 9/11 TV spectacle how would be differentiate one from the other? The ‘news’ is often ‘irresponsible’ because it elides context in so many instances. But if we insist on a cinema of ‘pure effect’ we are following a path on which the perverse interpretation I have just offered of the 9/11 event should be considered fair.

Avatar does not succumb to these dangers and yet illustrates much more clearly the path of ‘virtuality’. There is great irony in the fact that the very technology that allow Avatar to become a museum of miracles, a template for the ‘new’ within the medium, is also the instrument which extinguishes this renaissance even before it has begun. Technology does not need art to work its own wonders.

It should be added in closing that what more appropriate subject or theme could there be for our own online presents where we constantly energize our ‘avatars’ every waking day in blogs and sites such as this one? This too perhaps only brings to the fore an already existing feature of human sociality, something that would not have puzzled Shakespeare very much. We are already those who have many masks..

An afterthought: what an extraordinary visual conceit those floating mountains are..

58 Responses to “Pathways into Avatar”

  1. “It should be added in closing that what more appropriate subject or theme could there be for our own online presents where we constantly energize our ‘avatars’ every waking day in blogs and sites such as this one? This too perhaps only brings to the fore an already existing feature of human sociality, something that would not have puzzled Shakespeare very much. We are already those who have many masks..”

    amazingly written ..as always.. (but i expected more longer piece 😉 )..

    on ur critique point my feeling is as today this tech is new we are going for ooh and aahs .. but as it gets stale the critique will come in (if i understood u correctly)..

    between FINALLY WATCHING PAA TONIGHT!!!!!

    avatar will have to wait m going to go mubai for this one..

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  2. Brilliant piece, I have shared this on my blog .. of-course with reference .. 🙂

    This is technology driven movie, i still remember the hair rising experience of “Beowulf” with 3D format. I am wondering why Beowulf didn’t click the same way in india.

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  3. This is a stellar review on all counts Satyam. Being the Oliver that I am, I would have liked me some ‘more’!

    Coming to the specificities of your review, I certainly believe that no endeavour in art should ever attempt to ward off criticism. A critical assessment alone can ground any work of art (be it film, music or painting) in the psychosocial and sociopolitical intercepts of its given age.

    Where I do disagree is in your suggestion (though not explicit) that an ‘experience’ precludes an absence of ‘narrativity’. A technological advancement in filmmaking (I’m taking cinema as my case-study for it is the medium I’m most familiar and comfortable with), isn’t relieved of or removed from its responsibility towards the ‘art’ and the ‘artistic’. As it stands, the clamour around the game-changing impact of Avatar might die down, and in time to come the film will be assessed with better clarity…but to imply (not that you are suggesting it) that an advancement of this nature serves only the ‘effect’ in a work is faulty. That charge I believe lies more squarely on the maker and not the science of it.

    To make myself clearer, stories were always there…in the written, oral and mural tradition. Music and theatre also told stories. Cinema wasn’t born as a medium to enable telling a story. Making movies was born as a technological innovation…the first films had no narrative. Films came to be used to tell stories. To a generation born into films, it seems hard to believe so, so deep is the whole fictional narrative structure of films tied into cinema!

    So while that may be, any advancement I believe enables, and not impedes, better telling…and in essence stays true to the self-serving nature of filmmaking as an art and science, and the ‘narrativity’ of the medium.

    Sound, colour, Dolby, CGI…each of these advancements, even if they were born as pure ‘effect’, in due course facilitated in carrying forward the cinematic movement and endeavour to tell ‘stories’! Yes, the responsibility lies with a filmmaker to not reduce these advancements to mere ‘effect’. An Emmerich is guilty of that, JC I believe is not. For all his clumsy allusions to the present day situations, Avatar has a definite heart…maybe controlled less by emotion and more by intellect. But that’s fine with me.

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    • Agreed on all counts Abzee. To be precise I didn’t mean to suggest that experience precluded narrativity but that a certain kind of experience might tempt many filmmakers to avoid the latter totally. And while that temptation is always there a certain ‘advance’ in technology might overwhelm audiences to the point where such questions become irrelevant. I personally don’t think that the path to ‘virtuality’ is really like the advent of sound or color. CGI I think was problematic along the same lines. And I even brought up the word ‘experience’ to suggest that virtuality does offer this but one must interrogate the nature of such experience.

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  4. I should say that I quite agree with Dargis (NY Times) in that Cameron has perhaps more than any other director (even Spielberg) sought to re-engage cinema with wonder. I see the Abyss, Titanic and now Avatar as very linked in this sense.

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    • hey didnt understood.. can u elaborate (seriously, no pun intended)

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    • Very true. It is indeed quite surprising that Cameron’s prestige and ‘significance’ in a sense has increased in retrospect! I read a piece in some American media outlet (the name doesn’t come to me now…I’ve read over 100 reviews of Avatar!) where the writer very rightly called him a filmmaker whose oeuvre (even in lesser successful but infinitely superior works like The Abyss) will only grow in esteem. As someone who thought of coming into filmmaking because he felt he could match the experience of a Star Wars (Cameron was a happy trucker until the evening he saw Star Wars in a Canadian cinema hall changed his mind about his choice of career!), Cameron’s is a very ‘pure’ approach to filmmaking.

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  5. ok oftopic has anyone seen presumed innocent…

    also has anyone here written something on original matrix and its technology and how it changed action or reinvented etc..

    has anyone seen burden of proof..

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    • has anyone read burden of proof?

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    • Rooney, I’d written a rather lengthy essay on The Matrix at one point. Let me search it and put it up in the comments here…or I could mail you.

      But the piece is an attempt to ‘unlock’ The Matrix and not a review of it. I’m a big Matrix fan btw!

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      • well would love it .. i also m not looking at a review but a piece.. and unlock the matrix sounds exciting..
        please mail at masoomrooney@yahoo.co.uk

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      • between abzee m looking for legal thrillers for my winter vaca.. if u coould help it will be goood… (i assume u r reeader of novels 😉 ) i have read rage of angels, street lawyer, firm, pelican brief etc.. but m more looking at legal courtroom drama.. (may be like few good men).. i hope u could suggest something..

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  6. Found it! I hope Satyam doesn’t mind me hijacking this much space!

    THE REVELATION OF THE MATRIX!

    A few days after watching The Matrix Revolutions and still reeling from the shock of disappointment, I began talking to a few friends of mine and the discussion answered it all. I’ve tried to briefly analyse the movie for you. It may be a bit long, but the discussion was well and truly over four hours. And factually, nobody can really analyse The Matrix. That’s the beauty of it. So, here we go………….

    [rest of the piece here: https://satyamshot.wordpress.com/2009/12/19/revisiting-abzees-matrix-piece/%5D

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  7. I am seeing it on Monday and will visit this piece for sure when I do.

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  8. This is a magnificent piece of writing–provocative, thought-provoking, insightful.

    I am still processing my thoughts, but this was an emotionally OVERWHELMING, visually ravishing, metaphysically challenging and ravishing experience like none other I have ever witnessed. I am numb and speechless.

    The King of the World has returned with a vengeance and given the world a masterpiece for the holiday season.

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  9. This film as I guess earlier has really stayed with me and I can’t wait to revisit it which will be at some point later this week.

    Meanwhile Invictus and Broken Embraces stay on the radar..

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  10. TheSkeptic on NG.com’s shoutbox: “I see Satyam’s “review” of Avatar is up at SS. As is his wont these days, every review of his whether positive or negative somehow always end up sounding like a dirge. I would seriously ask him to cheer up a bit. Yes, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but cinema is the least of our worries.”

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    • Ah.. if only I could separate ‘cinema’ from the ‘world’ I’d be happier! We live in the age of ‘cinematic hell’. ‘Hell’ on its own wouldn’t be as bad!

      That dirge bit is hilarious though! LOL! Guilty as charged.

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    • but TS should be happy with all the coverage Avatar has got here! From Sandy’s piece to Abzee’s to mine and then the longer Guardian story that kept getting updated.

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    • In fact isn’t cinema already a long dirge? In its essence something of a great ‘memorial’?

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  11. TS cannot stand any opinion contrary to his-at least as far as this movie goes or RGV goes.. Anything less than an overly exuberant enodrsement of this movie is not enough for TS.

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  12. I will say this about Avatar — I saw it Sat morning and it has really stayed on my mind. I am extremely eager at this point for a revisit which will come about soon. I also believe now that I will like the film more on a second viewing.

    David Denby and A O Scott made the point that this 3-D was an ‘immersive’ technology that drew one into the film as opposed to throwing things at the viewer from the screen. Hence it was a technology that also “empowered” the viewer. This characterization is I think extremely useful for the film. But I am actually rather looking forward to re-experiencing the sheer visual palette of the film because the level of detail here is such that you cannot take it all in in one viewing.

    I also believe now that the last half hour in the film is possibly one of the most impressive bits of filmmaking I’ve come across in this context. Which is not suggest that there are not other very striking moments in the film (I’ve already alluded to the sense I’ve had of the floating mountains being a very unique visual trope).

    In terms of the ways in which I find this sort of technology problematic those concerns remain but for this film I am perhaps on reflection more aware of the thought that has gone into it. Also think (and I didn’t have this problem to begin with) that the film definitely does have an emotional core. I was certainly very moved in the last half hour at points. And yes I would have liked to be more moved by the central romance but I can’t say that this deal moved me all that much in Titanic either. But Avatar definitely does have a soul (no pun intended!).

    It would be a crime to miss this in 3-D.

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    • well u r one lucky fellow buddy .. interesting observaation of immersive tech.. and that u feel it has soul.. i cant wait.. but will have too.. and to put it badly i guess i wont even be watching 3I soon.. i already feel guilty of crime

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    • the one gripe that I still have here is that the Navis look like something between live action and computer animation. I wish this could have been done better.

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    • The Scott/Denby stuff you cite here absolutely parallels my experience of the 3D here. This is not only the first time I felt that a 3D film invited me into is grasp, but also the first time I sensed that the 3D was not an afterthought on the part of the filmmakers. Every step of the way, there seemed to be a consistency of thought with how, and as importantly, why the 3D would be implemented.

      Satyam while I’m not in as much of a hurry to revisit this, I do think your experience of the film resembles my own. This piece excellently captures the wonderment with which a viewer experiences Cameron’s creation. You importantly use the word “intrusion” here and for me that sense is something that works for and against the movie. You feel yourself enveloped by it on the one hand, and on the other you are so enveloped that you begin to take note of the details–a computer screen flickering with numbers, the back of a man’s head, a spatter of saliva from a wild creature’s gaping mouth– instead of the action of the scene. It’s a useful and wondrous tool but it’s also one that needs to be used very carefully. It has been here.

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      • Seminal moments in cinema has often combined the spectacle of technology with equally important directorial vision. So audiences watching a Griffith or a Gance would be amazed at how certain technological results were achieved and at the same time be fascinated by the stories as well. However at that early stage the ‘technological’ was cinema itself. People were still discovering the new medium and its possibilities and so what seems a technological innovation from our standpoint was simply a ‘definitional’ aspect of this very new art/entertainment form. In yet other words the ‘split’ as we see it between the technological and the technical did not yet exist. Avatar on the other hand presents the ‘technological’ as an end in itself. Cameron does of course fashion a story but the primary wager here seems to be whether the technology allows the form to be completely reinvigorated where any advance in ‘2-D’ will not do. so the enjoyment of Avatar cannot be separated from the awe with which the viewer soaks in the visuals. This is an interesting move. At one end we have seen for a long time now extraordinary SFX put at the service of a ‘story’. Even a movie like 2012 is really predicated on being the ultimate disaster film and using the technology only to make the artifice as real as possible. But with Avatar the movement is in the other direction. The use of technology to create a world and to then construct a story around it. I know the whole rap on Hollywood ‘explosion’ films and yet those are still ‘bastardized’ narratives. Cameron however seems to exult in these farthest reaches of the technological. He is not looking to be more effective with a given story by being the first to use a steadicam. He isn’t attempting that sort of move. He is aiming here to alter the entire coordinates of the ‘cinematic’ by reorienting it along a path where technology increases the sense of ‘virtuality’, where ‘overwhelming experience’ replaces aesthetic distance. In this sense too your New World/Avatar juxtaposition is to the point. It is not about discovering the ‘virginal’ world at this late date but abandoning this world altogether to just seek a newer one (the film’s entire narrative in some ways ‘tropes’ this idea). Malick is the more grounded director (as one would expect him to be), one who embeds his story within ‘history’. Cameron though seeks to unhinge himself entirely. So there are parallels of historical events in his film, certainly commentary but the sense still is of the ‘bad old world’ being left behind. The ‘new’ takes us to this earlier Edenic stage of imagined human history whose coordinates owe something to various ‘native’ cultures, at least as imagined and (re)constructed by the figure of the ‘European’. We go to another planet only to rediscover Earth and the human in their infancy which is to say ‘unsullied’ state (the ancient Indic tropes here are again very much a part of this ‘European’ project in a historical sense.. India as one ‘navel’ of human history). Malick however revisits a foundational moment of modernity to understand how we got to where we are and at the same time he seeks to deconstruct precisely the ‘narratives’ that Cameron takes as ‘truth’. Now I am certainly not blaming Cameron for not being Malick. as you suggested this is a much more commercial film in every sense. It is also true that one could look toward older seminal moments in cinema and also wonder what the fuss was all about in that pure ‘meaning’ sense I’ve been addressing here. But again the ‘difference’ Cameron brings about is the technological. His tale has meaning but it might be incidental to the larger ‘meaning’ of his project. Which is to make technology the point. So even as this move might seem to be a culmination of all the SFX we’ve seen from Hollywood for so long I am suggesting it is also a ‘new’ one, perhaps even radically so, in that it seems to bypass ‘imagination’ on the viewer side of the equation. The ‘immersive 3-D’ as it has been termed certainly lets the viewer in and makes the film a more interactive experience but at the cost of destroying the viewer’s critical faculties. To put it differently even the minimal distance between screen and viewer (already problematic in this medium) is rendered obsolete. Using, at the risk of sounding pedantic, a Kantian framework in rather muddled fashion, the ‘imagination’ exists only on the side of the maker of he film, on the audience’s side what is really privileged, perforce (!), is ‘perception’. or better still ‘judgment’ is suspended for the viewer. This ‘short circuit’ has in any case been the history of cinema. This is what allows cinema to monopolize our sense of the world. The cinematic in effect blocks off imagination/judgment by forcing a fixed image on its audience and not allowing the audience to reconfigure it (as would be the case with reading a book where every reader forms different images). Cameron takes this always inherent possibility of the medium to its truest end and in this end a new beginning also opens up that is very troubling because it calls for great responsibility and vigilance. Could we one day see the Iraq War on TV with the experience of immersive 3-D? One should think about this..

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  13. Wonderful piece Satyam. It’s not often that a film stays with me these days but after watching it last night… I feel like I’ve had a real cinematic experience. That this is what cinema is really about, you know? And it is very overwhelming, there is so much in it, that I haven’t even written a review because I know I could never do the film justice.

    “You are so overwhelmed by the virtual reality framework (more and more 3-D sophistication, the 360 degree screen etc etc) that you can never quite have the distance from it to comment on it and even if you did it would be irrelevant since such ‘overwhelming’ would preclude more traditional narrative concerns and so forth. ”

    It’s interesting that you mention distance. I couldn’t distance myself from this film, I was so submerged in it. I definitely want to revisit this film at the cinemas and it’s very rare that I go to see the same film twice (I tend to prefer to catch them again on dvd… the ones I like of course!).

    Thanks Satyam.

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  14. masterpraz Says:

    I add here as long the emotional engagement we’re far more at risk. I think audiences are smart enough to not go “gaga” over SFX just for the sake of it minus a strong story (which Cameron effectively has here)

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  15. Deleted Avatar love scene to be released
    Press Trust Of India
    RACE AGAINST TIME: Avatar shows a race of blue-skinned aliens inhabiting an Earth-like moon called Pandora.

    London: Avatar has become a worldwide box office hit, but the fans who purchase the DVD will also get to see a steamy love scene which had been deleted from the movie.

    Actress Zoe Saldana revealed that a sex scene, between her Na’vi character Neytiri and Sam Worthington, was shot but was axed from the final movie, reported a website.

    The gorgeous star said that it was weird filming the scenes because they were both loaded with technical paraphernalia.

    “It was a very funny scene to shoot because there were so many technical things that sometimes you had to keep in mind. Paying attention to all those might disrupt the fluidity of how a scene is supposed to take place,” said Saldana.

    The scenes did not make the final cut because director James Cameron wanted to protect his PG-13 rating.

    The 3D blockbuster which has become the third highest earning films of all, shows a race of blue-skinned aliens inhabiting an Earth-like moon called Pandora.

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  16. James Cameron to pen Avatar prequel

    Los Angeles: After taking the world by storm with his 3-D magic Avatar, director James Cameron is all set to write the prequel to the film in the form of a novel.

    Producer of the film Jon Landau has revealed that the Oscar-winning filmmaker will be writing a “big, epic story”, but it is not a novelisation of the movie, reported a music channel website.

    “A novelisation basically retells the story of the movie. Jim wants to write a novel that is a big, epic story that fills in a lot of things,” said Landou.

    The book will provide details which could not be included in the movie due to time constraint.

    “(We) won’t have time to do (these stories) in the movie, or maybe in sequels. (So the novel will) give a foundation for the world. It would be something that would lead up to telling the story of the movie,” said Landou.

    Although Cameron has written screenplays earlier, from the first two Terminator films to Titanic, the Avatar prequel would mark his debut as a novelist.

    “I don’t think Jim has ever written a novel before, but his first step of writing a script is often in a novella format. So this is just expanding that, and I think that he’ll

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