My wife and I are presently watching the Extended Version of the The Return of the King. We're a bit behind on this, I know, but although we watched the previous two extended films when they debuted, we got married, bought a house, had a child and launched a publishing imprint all in the last few years, so we're a bit behind. But while watching it, I was, of course, again struck by how incredible the world building is. Say what you will about Tolkien - and you can, my wife is really struck on what an elitist society it is, Mr. Frodo - but there is little in literature or cinema to approach this scale of obsessional detail.
Now, just last week I was grooving on the new Essential Guides to the Star Wars universe, which just really make me heartsick. I was a huge fan of the The Next Generation Technical Manual, which was the first tech manual for an SF show that wasn't just some shit thrown together to sell to the idiot core, but was a really fantastically detailed bit of speculation in its own right, and the Star Wars guides are like that seven times over. The heartsickness comes in because while I am an ubergeek for the world building, I always feel that Star Wars is a bit of a rotten apple, with a beautiful skin of books, comics, games, reference manuals etc.. wrapped around an inferior core cinema property. In other words, I wish all that effort went into a better (or better executed) central storyline.
So, watching the final Lord of the Rings, I was wondering/lamenting how long it would be until someone sought to bring a work of SF or F to the screen again with that level of realism, verisimilitude and detail. A long time I thought, given that there are few properties that command that many decades of affection and few studios willing to make such a decade long commitment to a project.
Turns out I was wrong, as this article on SciFi Wire about James Cameron's Avatar attests. Now, while the project isn't based on an existing property, the director commands the clout in this case and the studio will risk the commitment. Now, this sounds exciting, doesn't it? As Cameron says:
"For me, as a lifelong fan of science fiction and action, Avatar is a dream project. We're creating an entire world, a complete ecosystem of phantasmagorical plants and creatures, and a native people with a rich culture and language. The story is both epic and emotional. The two things that make this film even possible are pioneering advances in CG effects and performance capture, as well as my 22-year relationship with Fox, since only with great trust can you operate so close to the cutting edge. I plan to honor that relationship by bringing them a winner. And I have the team to do it, the best team of artists and technicians I've ever been privileged to work with. This one's going to be a grand adventure."
Now, say what you will about Cameron, but he does know real SF (at least enough to appropriate it), his films are smart, his characters well drawn, and he even matches Peter Jackson for obsessive world building, renting a Russian nuclear sub to make sure he had the china dining ware on the Titanic right. And the very next project from the director of the highest grossing film of all time should certainly command a lot of attention. Which means that this film could be very good for SF, both for cinematic SF - Cameron often pioneers new effects and this may open the door to a post-Star Wars era of truly epic SF filmmaking now that Lucas' franchise is done - and for the literary variety as well, as tales of outer space and fully-realized alien cultures are thrust into the brightest of limelights. I've been preaching a pendulum swinging return of SF for a while, as well as a new focus on single planet exploration (drilling down from the vastness of space opera), so I'm pretty heartened to see this. Elephants and bathtubs and all that.