James Cameron offers what may be the most exotic planet full of aliens ever put on film in his sci-fi epic "Avatar."
Yet if and when humans do meet creatures from other worlds, they'll be unimaginably more far-out than anything Hollywood can dream up, Cameron said.
"It'll be much beyond what we can imagine," said Cameron, whose "Avatar" opened big this weekend with $232 million worldwide. "There are creatures right on Earth that are absolutely amazing, and all the aliens are already here, if you look at a small-enough scale or you look under the ocean."
"Avatar" tells the story of a human, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who takes on the form of the Na'vi, 10-foot-tall blue creatures that are the dominant species on the distant moon Pandora. Jake goes native, becoming a warrior in a Na'vi clan and falling for Na'vi huntress Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
With pointed ears, huge eyes and tails, the Na'vi are anything but human. Yet like most extraterrestrials created by Hollywood, they still have a general humanoid form — two eyes, ears, arms and legs, a nose and mouth, smiles, grimaces and facial expressions we all can recognize.
"We looked at designs for the Na'vi that initially were much more alien," Cameron said. "When we would draw Neytiri and she had fins on her back and gills and all kinds of weird protuberances and so on in odd places, the question was, well, would you want to do her? No? OK, let's back off from that. ... We just didn't want to take it so far that she had kind of a fish mouth or anything."
Along with blue skin and tails, the alienness of the Na'vi was conveyed largely through differences in scale. They tower over humans but have delicate proportions, thin frames and limbs, but eyes about twice as wide as ours.
Still, the Na'vi look human enough that audiences can relate to them the way they relate to other characters on screen. Cameron has an explanation for why the Pandora natives bear similarities to humans, which he plans to share down the road.
"We were doing a science fantasy, not true science fiction. We're not really predicting that there will be humanoids" on other planets, Cameron said. "When I write the novel of `Avatar,' which I'm going to do as soon as the dust clears on the film release, I'm going to deal with the issue of why they look so much like us. Because there needs to be an overarching explanation of that, which I have."
"Avatar" presents a wild ecosystem in which the Na'vi commune with other animals and even plant life by tendrils that form a mental link. Pandora features giant plants that suck themselves into the ground when threatened, six-legged beasts of burden called direhorses, flying reptilian banshees and tiny jellyfish-like spores that float about the jungle landscape.
A seasoned diver with a passion for the life aquatic, Cameron explored the rich diversity of deep-ocean species in his documentary "Aliens of the Deep."
Cameron and his design team borrowed ideas from some of the most striking species on our world to augment the fantastic look of the lifeforms on Pandora — bioluminescent dot patterns on the skin of the Na'vi or elaborate designs inspired by tropical fish and frogs on the hides of the banshees.
"I wanted there to be a real exoticism. It was what I had sort of hoped they would do in `Jurassic Park,' not make dinosaurs just kind of like we imagine dinosaurs, but make dinosaurs the way they might have been, which is like purple and gold. Because there are some lizards and amphibians and fish on this planet, granted on a smaller scale, that are absolutely stunning in their color patterns.
"So maybe it's just an overall kind of reverence and sense of wonder for nature and its inventiveness, and that really imbued every decision we made in terms of the creature design."
What's alien also comes down to who's doing the talking. In Cameron's "Aliens," the story was told from the perspective of Sigourney Weaver as she joins human Marines in a death match with savage alien predators.
Weaver battled hostile otherworldly monsters in four "Alien" movies, but this time, the tables are turned. Cameron reunites with Weaver on "Avatar," casting her as a scientist whose fellow humans wage war on the Na'vi to obtain an energy-rich mineral found on Pandora.
The term alien is used only a few times in "Avatar," in each case among Jake and the Na'vi referring to the humans, including Weaver's character.
"To me," Cameron said, "the irony is that she's in another kind of high-tech, futuristic, humans-vs.-aliens story, and she's the alien this time."
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