Saturday, August 22, 2009

Thoughts on 'Avatar Day'

For the record, the 6:00pm showing at the AMC Promenade 16 went as smooth as could be. I entered at 5:45pm, got an arm-band that I didn't even have to put on (the sticky part pulls at my arm hair), got a 'buy a drink and get a free popcorn' coupon, and waltzed into the theater. A Fox rep entered at 6:00pm on the dot, said a few words, then immediately started the seventeen-minute presentation. If only press screenings were this punctual and convenient.  And to top it off, the AMC gave out 'buy a soda and get a free popcorn' coupons, offered patrons the opportunity to see an evening movie at matinee prices, and Fox allowed viewers to get limited time access to the December 18th 12:01am showings.  All in all, a very well-structured and classy job by the theaters and Fox.

First of all, James Cameron has got to stop raising the expectation level. It's the job of rival studios and brainless, colluding gossip columnists to inflate expectations to the point where nothing can meet them, not the director's. Every time he talks about Avatar as a 'game changer' or 'the next advancement in moviegoing', he damages the eventual word of mouth of his picture. Special effects and 3D-advances aside, Avatar is a big-budget science-fiction/action-adventure/romance from the guy who made The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, and Titanic. That's quite a marketing hook by itself and that's ALL Cameron and Fox should be bragging about.

Ok, having said all that, how was the footage? From a technical stand-point, it was occasionally breathtaking. But here's the thing... at the end of the day, no matter good the special effects work is, when you set an entire movie in a fantasy world with fantasy world, your eyes will occasionally tell you that what you're seeing isn't real because it cannot be real. My favorite special effect in Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was actually the capes worn by Grievous's guards in the opening battle scene. I could have sworn those capes were real cloth blended with CGI robots. Because I believed something as simple as the cape, the entire action set piece had a whole new level of believability.

Thus, the imagery that theoretically could be real (the opening scenes involved man and machines) looked absolutely photo-real. As for the obviously animated stuff (the various landscapes and fantastical creatures), it wasn't entirely convincing but it did look beautiful. And visual poetry is going to have to be enough for the hardened moviegoer. But even the footage that was obviously 'fake' still had a solid physical weight and realistic feeling of placement, time, and space that stood alongside the best work in the Star Wars prequels and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

What about the 3D? Well, here's the real problem for Cameron and company. The very thing that makes it special is its immersive nature. Thus, when it's really cooking, you're not sitting there in awe because you're not supposed to be acknowledging how impressive the 3D actually is. At it's best (and the 3D in the second scene, the 'creation sequence', is the most impressive), you really don't notice how incredible the work is until you stop and realize how not in-your-face blatant it is. This isn't intended to be dreamlike 3D that you notice at every moment (think Polar Express or Coraline), but rather the sort that works because you don't notice it. Animated films such as Monster House, Meet the Robinsons, and Up have pulled this off already, but this is a new standard for live-action 3D.

But the biggest problem that the film faces has nothing to do with its generally remarkable special effects work or its often breathtaking and immersive 3D imagery. No the biggest problem that the film faces is that it feels like a hodgepodge remix of several other films. I've previously made comments regarding the overall narrative strongly resembling that of Battle For Terra (another animated film that had solid 'don't notice it' 3D work), but the footage seemed to crib just as much from Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves. A friend of mine noted after seeing the trailer, 'It's like Apocalypto in space!" For a movie that's supposed to be a revolutionary game changer, the biggest obstacle is that the overall story is striking many as warmed-over rehash.

For more movie reviews, trailer reviews, news commentary, and essays, go to Mendelson's Memos.

Scott Mendelson

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