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Fall Arts Preview - Movies: Ann Hornaday on 'Avatar'

Piece de resistance, or easy to resist? James Cameron's hype-heavy project, with Sam Worthington, above.
Piece de resistance, or easy to resist? James Cameron's hype-heavy project, with Sam Worthington, above. (Twentieth Century Fox Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Have you heard of "Avatar"? I haven't. Well, at least I've tried not to.

Since 1994, when James Cameron (that would be King of the World to you "Titanic" fans) announced he'd written a "scriptment" for a story based on "every single science-fiction book" he'd ever read, "Avatar" has been one of those urban legends of Hollywood. The project's a Go. No, wait, it's been shelved because it costs too much. There it is again, under the mystery name of "Project 880." Whoops, there it went.

Well, now it's back, if not with a vengeance then with a hype campaign that would make P.T. Barnum blush (or at least turn green with envy; no, make that blue, the color of the aliens' skin in "Avatar"). The movie business has always harnessed technology in the service of ballyhoo (remember Smell-O-Vision?), a marketing approach Cameron instinctively understands. So for the past few years we've been treated to tantalizing tidbits about new 3-D cameras invented by the filmmaker expressly for "Avatar," new motion-capture technology and myriad gizmos and gadgets that would supposedly result in the most thoroughly immersive moviegoing experience in the history of cinema. In the final analysis, "Avatar" reportedly will feature 60 percent computer-generated imagery and 40 percent live action, a ratio Cameron hopes will be indiscernible to the naked eye.

In July, Cameron and "Avatar" star Sigourney Weaver appeared at the San Diego Comic-Con with 25 minutes of footage from the film. ("Jar-Jar Avatar," one disappointed viewer sniffed.) In August, the trailer was released, prompting an almost immediate parody by way of the Internet meme of Hitler's outburst-in-the-bunker scene in "Downfall." The same day the trailer was released, the "Avatar" video game and toy line were unveiled.

Through it all, this critic remained steadfastly oblivious, performing the equivalent of walking around with her fingers in her ears singing, "La-la-la-la-la." Although, okay, that "Downfall" takedown was admittedly pretty hilarious. ("Who the hell wants 'Clone Wars: Thundercats'?")

The trick in navigating the ubiquitous, aggressive and increasingly viral world of publicity is to be aware enough of a movie's marketing campaign to register its place in the larger culture, without mistaking it for the thing itself.

As G. Gordon Liddy put it, the trick is not caring. In the critic's case, it's not caring until the lights go down and "Avatar" the film -- not the scriptment, Internet rumor, blog post, game, toy, lunchbox, jockstrap or eyeglass repair kit -- stands on its own two $237 million, 3-D, Imax, CGI, Dolby Digital legs. That's when questions go from "How did he do that?" and "How much did he spend?" to "Where did he take me?" and "Did I believe it?"

And that's when "Avatar" succeeds or fails as what it was all along: only a movie.

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