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Avatar - Gateway to a new world

James Cameron's long-awaited 3D science-fiction epic Avatar opens this month. Geoffrey Macnab recounts the Titanic director's long struggle to make it, and asks whether the film will revolutionise cinema

At the Las Vegas trade event ShoWest in 2005, the film directors James Cameron, George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez and Randal Kleiser all appeared on stage together in 3D specs. These titans of the US film industry were there to herald what they were confidently predicting would be the next big revolution in cinema – a revolution that might even have the transformative powers of the birth of the talkie in Hollywood in the late 1920s... namely 3D.

Nearly five years on, that revolution may at last be in sight. This month sees the release of James Cameron's Avatar, the movie that advance hype suggests is supposed to change our filmgoing experience forever. Fourteen years in the making, boasting almost 3,000 effects shots and costing (it has been claimed in some quarters) as much as $300m, the film – the publicity tells us – will take us "to a spectacular world beyond our imagination". Avatar is being billed by Fox as "a fully immersive cinematic experience of a new kind, where the revolutionary technology invented to make the film disappears into the emotion of the characters and the sweep of the story".

The film is about a wheelchair-bound human ex-marine who ventures to a faraway planet full of rich, terrifying life forms. Here, he encounters the Na'vi, a humanoid race. They live at ease with their environment and don't welcome human beings trespassing in their backyard in search of valuable minerals.

Cameron likes to take gigantic gambles. Although Avatar is being marketed on the back of its technology, he is a curiously old-fashioned director: a figure in the mould of Howard Hawks who relishes making macho, boys' own adventures and yet still retains his status as an "auteur". He heaps the pressure on himself. As we all know, he hasn't made a full-length dramatic feature film since Titanic – and that was 12 years ago. Like Titanic, Avatar has taken a small eternity to complete and has cost more than almost any other film that preceded it. "This film integrates my life's achievements," Cameron said in a recent interview. "It's the most complicated stuff anyone's ever done."

When footage of Avatar was shown at cinemas around the world earlier this summer, the response was far from ecstatic. Some viewers talked about enduring an experience akin to seasickness. Avatar is an action movie – and it remains a moot point whether 3D technology is ready as a format for action yet. Too much Sturm und Drang, especially if a film is cut quickly and has strobing and a pounding soundtrack, is liable to make spectators feel very queasy.

When you shoot at 24 frames a second and show fast lateral movement, the image will appear to be jumpy. With 3D, shooting with two cameras, this problem is compounded. Film-makers need to slow down the pace, shoot at a higher frame rate, or risk their audiences feeling nauseous.

"If he [Cameron] succeeds in doing it [making a 3D action film] without giving people headaches, then it will be a revolution," suggests Ben Stassen, director of 3D animated picture Fly Me to the Moon. "If anybody can do it, he can, but to me the technology is not ready for that sort of stuff."

Stassen adds that action films seem to be working fine at the box office in D. The Dark Knight was a huge money-spinner last year, and it wasn't shot in 3D. "In a way, action films already deliver the goods," Stassen suggests. "These big blockbusters are already so dynamic."

The irony is that 3D is arguably better suited to intimate, dialogue-based dramas than for the epic sci-fi saga that Cameron is telling. Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre, the celebrated two-hander that shows the playwright Wallace Shawn and the theatre director Andre Gregory talking over dinner in an upmarket New York restaurant, would probably make the perfect 3D film. That, though, is not a movie that Cameron would ever be interested in making.

Inevitably, when a mammoth-budget new Hollywood movie is released, there are commentators sitting on the sideline, willing it to fail. Cameron's ambition has always seemed close to hubris. As he told The New Yorker, "If you set your goals ridiculously high and it's a failure, you will fail above everyone else's success."

Accounts of the making of Cameron movies make them seem as much like gruelling scientific expeditions as like artistic endeavours. Crew members are pushed to extremes but can't complain because they know that their director is driving himself even harder than he is them. There is also often a curious mismatch between the technological sophistication of Cameron's movies and the naive, childlike stories they tell. Avatar, judging by the trailer and advance material, seems a little like a Narnia-style fable directed by Stanley Kubrick or a version of Apocalypse Now made with trolls. He has boasted that the inspiration for Avatar comes from every science fiction he read as a kid about male warriors in "exotic, alien lands".

Cameron first conceived of Avatar 14 years ago. It is part of the myth of any Cameron movie that it should take a Herculean feat of endurance to be made. The director's struggles with the technology and battles with the financiers are part of the background that the marketing executives use to sell the story. At this point, around a fortnight before the release of Avatar, the film's success is far from assured. That, one guesses, is how Cameron likes it. The same doubts about Titanic existed right up until its release. The film was wildly over budget and over schedule. Cameron had to forfeit his own fee for making Titanic as part of the deal for him to be allowed to go on and complete it.

All the signs were that this was going to turn into the 1990s answer to Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, the movie notorious for bankrupting United Artists. Titanic's seaworthiness was in question until the last minute. Kenneth Turan, the film critic for the Los Angeles Times, panned it. His review was headlined "'Titanic' Sinks Again (Spectacularly)". "A hackneyed, completely derivative copy of old Hollywood romances, a movie that reeks of phoniness and lacks even minimal originality," opined the critic. Cameron wrote a letter to the newspaper's editor calling for Turan's impeachment and accusing him of "the worst kind of ego-driven elitism". Despite Turan's barbs, Titanic chugged on to make a record-breaking $1.8bn.

Whether or not Avatar does the same, the film is already helping push the 3D revolution that Cameron, George Lucas and company have been predicting since 2005. Last summer, there were only around 800 screens ready for 3D screenings in the US. Now, that number has jumped to around 3,000 screens. Theatre-owners, knowing that the new Cameron film was on the way, made efforts to embrace the new 3D technology. "Avatar, for the 3D revolution, has already been a milestone," suggests Stassen. "It has already triggered a huge expansion."

What isn't clear is why Cameron felt such a need to shoot the film in 3D. As with many recent 3D movies, Hollywood is hedging its bets with Avatar, which is being released in a D version as well. On one level, this would appear to be a matter of economic necessity. Despite all the fanfare about 3D, many cinemas aren't yet equipped with the technology to show it – and audiences don't seem that bothered either way.

As Cameron has shown in films from The Terminator to The Abyss, he is one of the masters of D action filmmaking. He knows how to tell a rip-roaring yarn, how to crank up the tension and how to stage spectacle. When you're a consummate storyteller in control of your medium, does it make that much difference what format your film is in?

'Avatar' is out on 18 December