In this futuristic tale set on an alien world, a U.S. Marine whose brainwaves have been transmitted into a genetically-created body (or avatar) takes up the cause of his adopted native population. The 20th Century Fox release, nominated for nine Oscars including Best Picture, won three Academy Awards.
By CBSNews.com producer David Morgan
Welcome to Pandora
Produced in 3D, "Avatar" is an immersive adventure in which the audience gets to experience a world called Pandora, filled with unusual life forms and natural wonders. The filmmakers used state-of-the-art technology to mesh actors with computer-generated imagery in ways never before seen.
A contingent of U.S. Marines is assisting a corporation mining an invaluable natural resource (dubbed unobtanium). The only things standing between them and the complete plundering of Pandora are the native population of Na'vi, and a toxic atmosphere that impedes the humans' mobility.
Meet Your Avatar
Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a disabled Marine recruited by the corporation's scientific team to interact diplomatically with the Na'vi community via his genetically-created avatar. But his Marine commander promises an operation to restore Jake's mobility if he spies on the Na'vi to assist their military mission.
Jake finds his 10-foot-tall avatar body, and the ability to move again, exhilarating, and soon demonstrates his rebelliousness in ways that could jeopardize both the scientists' program and the corporation's goals.
Entering the Na'vi's world, Jake encounters Neytiri, a Na'vi female who saves his life during an encounter with dangerous creatures but who soon finds herself charged with teaching Jake their people's ways.
Jake discovers that all creatures and life forms on Pandora's bioluminescent world are interconnected, as in a neural network. The Na'vi traditions also support the view that the fate of one species or creature affects the entirety of Pandora.
Jake also learns how to tame and fly a banshee, winged creatures that are unfortunately prone to predators that, like a clever fighter pilot, attack from the sun.
Jake is eventually welcomed as one of the Na'vi, although some tribal members suspect his presence will bring about their destruction at the hands of the humans. Yet Jake begins to strike back at the Corporation, sabotaging their mining equipment.
When Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) finds out that his spy is now in league with the Na'vi, he orders his Marines to attack the natives.
Quaritch launches a gunship strike on the Na'vis' hometree, which rests above the most lucrative ore deposits.
The film's climax features an extended battle between the Marines and the Na'vi, but the humans' superior technology does not ensure victory.
In a spectacular sequence Jake leads swarms of Banshees piloted by Na'vi against the Marines' gunships.
Love and Bullets
Director James Cameron has already proved his technical and storytelling gifts by launching the unstoppable "Terminator" franchise and the romance "Titanic," which won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. "Titanic" was the reigning box office champion until "Avatar"'s release, which has nabbed more than $1.8 billion worldwide.
Cameron wrote the script for "Avatar" in 1994, but had to wait for years as the technology for creating the special effects improved enough to render the ambitious production feasible. Even then, Cameron worked to develop new cameras and imaging technologies to make the avatar characters believable and in 3D, no less.
Actors were filmed using performance capture, in which their minutest movements and expressions were recorded to a computer, at which point animation artists could translate them into alien lifeforms.
Zoe Saldana ("Star Trek") even wore cameras, so that her computer generated Na'vi counterpart would more accurately reflect the emotions expressed in the actress' eyes.
All the World's a Virtual Stage
Unlike more common green screen special effects photography, where actors are filmed before a blank background which is later filled in, Cameron directed his actors on a virtual stage while their movements were replicated in real time in a virtual environment, as in a computer game, so that he could see his characters within the Na'vi world.
Weta Digital (creators of the effects for "The Lord of the Rings") and Industrial Light & Magic devised the bulk of the film's visual effects. Nominated for Oscars are effects supervisors Joe Letteri and Stephen Rosenbaum, animation supervisor Richard Baneham, and animation director Andrew R. Jones.
Sigourney Weaver (who received an Academy Award nomination for recreating her role as Ripley in the Cameron-directed sequel to "Alien," poses with her director in Berlin, Dec. 8, 2009. Weaver plays the chief scientist behind the Avatar program.
Zoe Saldana arrives for the world premiere of "Avatar" in London's Leicester Square, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009.
Actress Michelle Rodriguez (Marine pilot Trudy Chacon who pitches herself into the Na'vi's cause) arrives at the premiere of "Avatar" in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009.
Kings of the Alien World
Producer Jon Landau and director James Cameron pose with the award for Golden Globe Best Motion Picture - Drama for "Avatar," Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Director James Cameron and wife Suzy Amis each sport Na'vi blue as they arrive at the 82nd Academy Awards Sunday, March 7, 2010, in Los Angeles.
James Cameron applauds his "Avatar" DP, Mauro Fiore, for winning the Best Cinematography Oscar, as "The Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow looks on. It marks the first time that a movie shot on digital video with no actual film spooling through a camera has won an Academy Award for cinematography.
The winners for Best Visual Effects: "Avatar"'s Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones.
Despite the fact that "Avatar" did not receive a nomination in the makeup category since Na'vi makeup wasn't actually applied to real actors Ben Stiller appeared as an "Avatar" alien while presenting the Best Makeup award. He spouted alien-sounding gibberish, then helpfully translated it as: "This seemed like a better idea in rehearsal." The winner was "Star Trek."