Last night, at the Lincoln Center AMC I-Max theater, 20th Century Fox presented select scenes from James Cameron’s long-awaited SF epic, Avatar. This is Cameron’s first directorial venture since 1997’s Oscar darling Titanic, and Fox is milking that anticipation for all it is worth. For those of you who have read the hype, or seen the trailer, you know the basic premise—strange world, downloading human consciousness into alien-human hybrid bodies. But now the final film is nearly complete, and James Cameron’s labor has, to some extent at least, paid off.
The preview (made up mostly of scenes from the trailer) opens with James Cameron introducing the film. The 3-D here, like in the rest of the preview, is unobtrusive and enhances the experience.
Cut to actor Stephen Lang playing a grizzled army guy and head of alien planet security, delivering a lecture to a group of wide eyed recruits. They are in a mess hall on what appears to be a space station in orbit around an alien world. Lang is giving a speech about life on the alien world, and how dangerous it is. Aliens and monsters want to kill you.
In rolls crippled marine veteran Jake, played by Sam Worthington, perhaps best known for acting in war movies that don’t make any money (Hart’s War, The Great Raid, Terminator: Salvation).
Cut to medical facility, where Jake is pulling himself into what looks like a body-molded tanning bed. Sigourney Weaver plays his doctor, and they have witty banter about how tough Jake is. Doctor Ripley closes the top half of the bed over Jake and moves him into what looks vaguely like an MRI machine. There is a flash, and we see Jake’s POV, one of those classic multicolored time warp tunnels. Back in the lab, Sigourney Weaver and another doctor discuss Jake’s brain activity. Lots of little cute SF things here, with holographic paper, projected displays, touch screens, etc.
Cut to a hospital room where Jake and another guy are waking up, of course, now they are twelve feet tall and blue, with tails and vaguely feline features. As they sit up and test their hand-eye coordination, we get a sense of how big and dangerous these “avatar bodies” are. Jake can walk again, and he is so excited he tears out his IVs, smashes a machine, and scares the attending nurses. Jake runs out of the room and the other avatar gives chase.
Cut to an alien jungle. Blue Jake and the other avatar are walking with a third avatar voiced by Sigourney Weaver. They carry assault rifles. Jake is staring down a creature that looks like a cross between a hammerhead shark and a rhinoceros. More witty banter about how to deal with the creature. Jake roars at the creature. The creature cowers. Jake is proud of himself for scaring the hammerhead rhino, but of course, as he is boasting, we see a gigantic lizard dog with razor sharp teeth poke its head out from the trees behind Jake. Look behind you, Jake! Lizdog chases Jake through the jungle. Jake hides in a tree and lizdog snaps at him.
Cut to Night. Jake’s camp. Little baby lizdogs are all over him. He tries to fight them off, but he can’t. Then a young blue lady (Zoe Saldana) shows up and kills all the baby lizdogs. She’s pretty pissed off that she had to kill the lizdogs and she lets Jake know it. This scene demonstrates the special effects in Avatar. The light of the moon, phosphorescent flowers, and torches on CG bodies is impressive. The character hair looks like real hair, and the skin is slick and textured. Despite the attention given to the new motion capture technology, character movement and clothing still feel just a little bit unnatural.
In the final sequence of the preview, Jake wrangles a dragon on the side of a cliff. This is where I was sold on the movie. There are not many films where a guy hogties a dragon. Although, at one point, he sticks his ponytail in the dragon’s ear, and somehow this forms a telepathic link to the flying beast and sedates it. Weird.
The technical benefit of having CG humanoids as your main characters is that they integrate better with CG objects and backgrounds. The dragon wrangling is a great example of this phenomenon. The scene looks much more “real” than the scenes in the medical facility where the avatars are interacting with humans, even if the dragon scene is just a highly detailed cartoon.
Before the screen goes black, there is a fifteen-second sequence of quick flashes of scenes from the second half of the movie. There are drop ships, avatars, and battle armor (a la District-9) duking it out in a massive battle. What does this imply? Whatever James Cameron creates in the first half of the movie will deteriorate into a Warcraft vs Starcraft / Nature vs Technology / Ewoks vs Stormtroopers battle in the second half. Highlights from this sequence include two avatars leaning in for a kiss and a human marine getting half-eaten by a dragon, then being thrown into the trees in the background. The marine’s body bounces off the trees, bringing up memories of the infamous pinball propeller death from Titanic.
Avatar is most likely a very good movie, but it is just a movie. If Avatar expects to be a revolution in computer animation, and not just one more step in a long evolution of the same, the creators are going to be disappointed. What makes a magic trick good is not how it is executed, but what the audience sees. Movie effects are magic, but we have all seen magic like Avatar before, so if the revolution is not in the result, but the process, then no one is going to be impressed except other magicians. It isn’t going to change the world, alien or otherwise.