Worldwide Avatar Day

Worldwide Avatar Day

Written by Jay West

What follows is not a scene by scene analysis… nor do I delve into too much detail or minutia about the 15 minutes worth of scenes shown of James Cameron’s AVATAR on the one-day-only preview billed as “AVATAR Day” and shown in 3-D in select IMAX theaters on Friday, August 21st (so as to keep this as “spoiler free” as possible), rather, this reflects my general reaction in seeing the footage shown.

I’d like to preface this first by saying that when I saw the online teaser trailer the day before this, I really enjoyed seeing the highly stylized merging of sci-fi and fantasy designs and elements that were played in the trailer — and I was actually a bit in awe. My initial thoughts were that Cameron had delivered a very unique and exhilarating fantasy world filled with some spectacular imagery.

Yet, when I watched the IMAX 3D preview, oddly enough — I had a bit of a different reaction. Though given the ideal viewing experience of having the eight stories tall, immense canvas of the IMAX screen surrounded by 12000 watts of pure digital surround sound — I found myself strangely “removed” in watching the scenes chosen for this exclusive preview. Indeed, it was a bit of an “uncanny valley” type of experience — truly, I would not classify this as a live-action film whatsoever — but rather, it is definitely more so an animated feature. Given the abundance of CGI animation — it seems odd that Cameron then just didn’t go ahead and make this a fully animated feature — as Robert Zemeckis has been doing with movies such as THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004), BEOWULF (2007), and the upcoming A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

It was indeed clear that it’s a visually immersive and majestic world that one enters into for the story of AVATAR — the 3-D is multi-layered, and the scenery is vibrant and ornate; yet it all looked and felt very familiar (and artificial) at the same time — there’s a scene with the rounding up and debriefing of soldiers which occurs much in the same way that it did in Cameron’s 1986 ALIENS (and “power-loader suits” are seen later that are also very similar to those seen in Cameron’s ALIENS)… and then there’s an expedition in a jungle whereas the group encounters ferocious, dinosaur-like creatures such as in the original (1933) and contemporary (2005) versions of KING KONG (not to mention the original THE LOST WORLD (1925) and the JURASSIC PARK sequel (1997) that shares the same name), then there’s the quintessential breaking-in and taming of one’s steed sequence — done here with flying a winged alien creature the likes of which has been seen in the animated movies HEAVY METAL (1981) and FIRE AND ICE (1983) — and there’s even a FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST like moment (as in the 1992 animated feature) where the blue-skinned alien female Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) shows the Jake Sully character (Sam Worthington) the ways of nature on her planet — which also echoes memories of Pocahontas showing John Smith the ways of “her land” in Disney’s 1995 animated feature POCAHONTAS.

All of this ultimately is presented with imagery that recalls the CGI creatures and worlds created by ILM for George Lucas’ STAR WARS movies: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) and REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) — in particular, the creatures from the CLONES arena battle could just as easily be inserted into AVATAR’s world of Pandora, and vice versa — and Pandora’s lush, forest filled world could easily be swapped with the alien world of “Utapau” and the Wookies’ home planet of “Kashyyyk” as seen in SITH.

Granted, these scenes represent just the tip of the “iceberg” (no pun intended), so it’s a bit too early to have a final opinion until one has seen the entire film… and even Cameron himself appears at the beginning of the footage stating that he is only showing scenes in the preview that occur in the first part of the movie so as not to divulge too much — yet nevertheless, from these carefully selected 15 minutes worth of scenes — I wanted more…. and I wanted that WOW factor that would signify the incredible “watershed” of things to come… something fresh and remarkable to validate the incredible claims spun in the trumpeting-like PR announcements of this movie’s “photorealistic” characters and environments that represented the next level of CGI — where we would see incredible worlds, characters, and situations never before seen.

Instead, unfortunately, I felt I’d been privy to a tremendous hype campaign, rather than an engaging and unique cinematic experience.

Ultimately, this movie is being done a huge disservice by being billed as, and sold as, having “reinvented the wheel” in CGI — that’s setting an incredibly high and unachievable bar for it — and the results simply do not reinforce those claims — in fact, the scenes show commonplace (yet excellent) CGI that audiences have been used to seeing over the past many years.

One thing I’ve always admired about Cameron’s sci-fi and special effects work — such as in his first and second TERMINATOR films and ALIENS film — was his never-ending ability to create scenes and moments of wonder from “matchsticks” and “cloth” so to speak. Cameron’s technical prowess, gut instincts, and creative abilities have allowed him to turn the most raw of elements into technical marvels in the past — tricking the eye with the simplest of materials at his disposal and fashioning them into iconic, cinematic moments and marvels — yet still giving them “heart and soul” in the process. That type of auter-like cinematic craftsmanship felt sorely absent here.

I’m still certainly looking forward to seeing AVATAR — but now that I have seen this 15 minutes of what to expect — my expectations have definitely been lowered (but again, only because of the way that this movie has been hyped and “sold” to us for so long). Ultimately, I’m looking forward to seeing a highly stylized, sci-fi animated adventure movie during the holidays — with the promise that Cameron has saved “the best for last” in revealing the full excitement and wonder of his opus when AVATAR hits theaters on December 18th.

– Jay West