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Avatar cashes in Halo’s debt to Aliens

At over two and a half hours, James Cameron’s Avatar is a long film. Like many a recent blockbuster (not to mention his last theatrical release, Titanic) it’s about half an hour too long although to be fair, that’s an impression borne more from reflection post viewing than any agitation in my cinema seat at the time. It’s safe to say then, that two thirds of the way through such an epic is a long time and perhaps it says a lot for Cameron’s subtle and immersive use of 3D throughout that it took so long for the penny to drop.

As military green craft of human design engage the blue alien Na’vi incumbents in battle on the planet Pandora at some point in the future, I mused Ubisoft might have been better off making their widely derided Avatar spin-off game an RTS. Then of course I realised somebody already had, it’s called Halo Wars.

The visual similarities of Avatar and the Halo games suddenly become striking. Set some years into the future, Avatar’s Pandora is a lush, colorful alien world presently occupied by a tall proud, alien race and a sizable force of human marines augmented by advanced technology who are a long way from home. What you’ve likely heard about Avatar’s plot (i.e. that it’s Pocahontas / Dancing with Wolves / The Last Samurai ; but in space) is true, so clearly it differs greatly from that of the Halo trilogy. The Na’vi too, are a vastly different race from the Sanghelli Elites in almost all other respects so the visual similarities are admittedly largely superficial in nature. Nevertheless, were a gleaming Forerunner structure to be caught in shot rising out of the forests, it would not have looked out of place. Pandora is the real star of Avatar and it’s a place you could well expect to find on a Forerunner designed ring-world.

Of course, the extent to which Halo borrows from Cameron’s Aliens is well documented, especially when we’re talking about the human marine forces. The man himself pretty keen to point this out only this week to boot. It’s iconic vehicles and weaponry, the Pelican Drop ship, Warthogs and Assault rifle owe so much to Cameron’s universe. The UNSC Marines, clearly Bungie’s love letter to Aliens’ Colonial equivalents. That Avatar would lean on Cameron’s previous work for source material in the same way that Bungie has is no surprise. But where the tone and atmosphere of Aliens is dark and gritty, Avatar’s Pandora is a bright and colorful environment comprised of elements you could pull from levels in any of the Halo games. Be it from ‘Halo’ , ‘Silent Cartographer’ or ‘343 Guilty Spark’ from the original game, the lush vegetation of Delta Halo in the second or more recently the African forest of ‘Sierra 117′ in Halo 3 to name the most obvious. Unlikely as it may be that Cameron used the Halo games as inspiration for Pandora, the similarities go beyond the shared source material of Aliens.

It’s ironic though, that Avatar brings Pandora to our screens in such vibrant fashion just as the Halo series is heading away from it. The recent premiere trailer for Halo: Reach sports a much darker, grittier feel accompanied with suitably gruff dialogue from the members of Noble squad. Where the colourful tones of Halo distinguished it somewhat from Aliens, it appears in Reach it will at least be even less clear cut. If anything, Reach bears a greater resemblance to the Halo 3 shorts directed by Neill Blomkamp who at the time was working on the ill-fated Halo movie or more recently, that of the promotional trailer for Halo 3: ODST.

There are Halo fans who don’t particularly care for this dark and gritty aesthetic, eschewing that the world of Halo should always be bright and full of colour as in the original trilogy. This was never a view I subscribed to ever since I saw the first CG teaser for Halo 3, a desaturated sixty seconds of awesomeness that tells you all you ever need to know about the Master Chief. Blomkamp’s work on Halo: Downfall was different, but to me, incredibly compelling and District 9, the film borne from the ashes of the Halo movie’s demise (and my film of the year by some distance) was the ultimate indictment of what might have been. If a Halo movie was ever to be made, that was absolutely the way to do it. Cameron’s Avatar however, has shown us this isn’t necessarily the case.

Unsurprisingly given the staggering cost at over $250m, there is much debate as to Avatar’s impact on cinema. It’s a film that begs to be seen, especially in 3D. Concerns about the plot, dialogue or length are largely immaterial, even if Cameron doesn’t so much drum the over-arching anti-imperialist message into your head as repeatedly hit you in the face with it. These aspects are more than competently presented as you would expect from an expert film-maker. What blows you away is the spectacle and technical tour-de-force. After years of hype and false starts, a use of 3D that genuinely adds another level of immersion and the most believable incorporation of CG characters yet. Plaudits awarded before perhaps but like Star Wars did in it’s day, the bar has just been moved an awful lot higher.

For me, Halo’s inevitable transition to the big screen need not now be the darker, grittier path that Blomkamp envisioned, even if Reach would appear to be following in those footsteps. The technology is there for the lush, alien environments of the Forerunner ringworlds, the alien races of the Covenant, The Flood and a futuristic human military force to be brought together without risk of it winding up like the Spirits Within. The potential spectacle of an epic three way battle shot properly in 3D notwithstanding.

Not everybody mind, is now going to throw $250m budgets around at forthcoming releases, which should thankfully spare us endless cheap knock-offs of Avatar’s technology ala The Matrix ‘bullet-time’. But as Hollywood gropes around for new ideas and gaming’s cultural relevance increases, Cameron allows us to dream that perhaps it’s incarnation of one of video games’ biggest properties need not be done on the cheap. And for that, perhaps Halo still owes Mr Cameron one after all.

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3 comments
Light
Light

Not sure I agree, but the two franchises are both great scifi.

deftangel
deftangel

@Jebel Krong: I will concede I didn't really feel like the film was too long first time round. I think that says a lot for the immersivness of 3D and how Cameron deploys it. Two and a half hours though, is an awful long time for a film. I'm sure it could be condensed a bit. I have no real beef with the story either. It's a time trusted tale. Having established the world, if Cameron makes another I'd like to see him be a bit more adventurous with the narrative.

Jebel Krong
Jebel Krong

don't agree with avatar being too long - i thought the way it gradually introduced more and more of the world in conjuntion with the plot was very clever, and i was not bored once (and unusually did not notice and discomfort in my knees the entire time from small IMAX seats...). the story was simple, yes, but when you are introducing a lot of new things, sometimes that works better - as it did here. i totally agree with your last point though - thankfully no-one else is likely to chuck $250 million to rip it off anytime soon.