Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Zoe Saldana
(Fox; US theatrical: 18 Dec 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 18 Dec 2009 (General release); 2009)
It didn’t necessarily inspire confidence. A mere day before yours truly had to battle the geek hordes to take his reserved seat at the Avatar Day preview screening of 15 minutes of James Cameron’s four years in the making epic, the teaser trailer arrived online, and as the great Canadian pop band Sloan might say, I was underwhelmed. Granted, it’s been so long since Aliens (23 years), The Abyss (20 years), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (18 years), the criminally underrated True Lies (15 years) that we’ve forgotten how good he is at the kind of muscular sci-fi actioner he more or less helped hone in the 1980s. But when your meticulous, well-publicized “ground-breaking” efforts remind the viewer of an eco-friendly videogame meshed with that horrific CG slop job Delgo (great minds think alike, Movieline), you’re not necessarily inspiring pre-hype confidence.
Cameron’s been through this before, of course. When his Oscar winning behemoth Titanic was in its years-long production process, rumors and reports indicated a massive flop-in-the-making. They had the famed writer/director losing his luster, the studio losing its shirt, and viewers losing their patience with the elephantine love story. Turns out, reports of Titanic‘s death were greatly exaggerated. Several Oscars and a couple billion dollars (that BILLIONS with a “B”) in box office and it remains the number one film of all time. So it makes sense that Cameron would parlay that critical and commercial cache into fulfilling a personal cinematic fantasy. He has dreamed about Avatar since the first Terminator, hoping that technology would catch up with his vision. Now that it has, we’re back to the old innuendo and conjecture game.
Comic-Con didn’t help matters much. It never does. In the adrenaline-pumped, sweat-soaked spectacle of the annual funny book turned film merchandising marketplace, everything seems bigger and better than life. The Avatar panel was the convention’s “hot” ticket, and immediate reports had the presentation wowing the pre-primed fanboy faithful. With each attempted description, with all the advanced word about its life and/or medium altering genius, the tidal wave of good vibrations began. Sadly, said enthusiasm seems to have ebbed a bit, especially in light of the recently unveiled teaser. Still, when the Avatar site went live, offering tickets to the 21 August showcase, it crashed almost immediately. Two days later, fans were still doing anything—including BUYING the free tickets from scalpers on places like Twitter and Craigslist—to get in.
Naturally then, the special preview would be the make or break point for such a final determination—at least for now. After all, Avatar is purposefully designed to be seen in IMAX, in 3D, in what it perhaps the most state of the art manner possible for a current film. No matter how clear your monitor or how choice your HD or ‘Net connection, the web can’t recreate what Cameron has in mind. This became abundantly clear as the actual Avatar Day event unfurled. The entire experience began with a friendly reminder from the theater staff that recording or otherwise pilfering said material was verboten. We were then treated to a couple of trailers—one for Disney’s 3D Alice in Wonderland and the actual Avatar teaser itself. Almost instantly you realized why Cameron and Fox took this gamble. In standard 2D, both ads seemed rather tame. In the IMAX multidimensional process, they were stunning.
So were the 13 or so minutes of footage Cameron personally presented. He handled the introduction himself, mentioning that what we were about to see was taken from the first half of the film and that no real spoilers would be offered. He gave a basic set-up about the story, but that was it. No real depth or detail. Within seconds, we are transported to a interstellar military outpost where Stephen Lang’s Col. Quaritch is reading his new recruits the riot act. Seems Pandora is considered the most hostile planet in the known universe. It’s the 22nd century and the military are present there for what are as yet unknown reasons. Lang states his job is to keep his men as safe and secure—and alive—as possible. He also makes it clear that he will indeed fail at that mandate—at least for many of them.
Fade to Black. Cut to next sequence. No set up. No linkage. There won’t be throughout the entire time. On tap now is the moment when our hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), goes through the avatar transformation process. He is a paraplegic and we assume is using the technology as part of the Earth’s plans for Pandora. Sigourney Weaver is on hand as Dr. Grace Augustine, someone who is clearly going to help Jake through his transition. We see lots of high tech science stuff, a few moments of minor concern, and they—VIOLA! —our human is now one of the Na’vi, a 10 foot tall blue alien race with elongated limbs, flat faces, and a tail. He resembles his extraterrestrial avatar, and having the use of his legs again, he immediately escapes the lab. Fade. Instantly back in, this time on the planet’s surfaces. Jake, Dr. Augustine, and another are all in Na’vi avatar mode. They are confronted by two different and rather deadly types of wildlife. They fight, then flee. It’s all action - and it’s all good.
Next, Jake runs into a character called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). She rescues him from a night attack by some small dog-like creatures. Using her expert archery skills and her knowledge of Na’vi ways, she scolds the newcomer, questioning his brains and his courage. When Jake asks why she just didn’t kill him, she argues that she sees something inside him. Something worth saving. The use of a black light kind of fluorescence is very effective both visually and emotionally in this sequence. It’s gorgeous to look at. Finally, Jake is with other members of the Na’vi tribe, trying to ‘bond’ with the huge winged creatures that apparently provide transportation on this unusual planet. Again, Cameron pulls out all the tricks in his heart-pounding, edge of your seat thrills primer to make things literally sore. We are swept up and spellbound. We definitely want more. And then, that’s it. No epilogue. No finish. Cue the lights—thanks and have a nice day.
And it has to be said again—damn if it doesn’t work. Cameron can be excused for being an arrogant jerk sometimes, especially since usually puts his money where his constantly running yap is. That’s what he’s done here. Avatar looks unreal, a stellar combination of CG, live action, motion capture, and pure artistic imagination. The technology Cameron is using puts other examples of the rendering technique to shame. The characterization is real, the face and mouth movements 100% flawless. There is emotion in the Na’vi, real readable expressions. The 3D also gives a kind of depth that speaks to the scope of what Cameron is attempting, and while the creatures can be clunky in a kind of Star Wars prequel-esque manner, everything else (the environment, the design) is excellent. If this is what took four years to realize, it was clearly worth every second.
This is what the teaser couldn’t impart. This is the kind of spectacle that viewing a 90-second scattering of events couldn’t capture. Cameron made a brilliant move getting the studio to sponsor this day. As more and more images of Avatar arrive, as we get closer and closer to 18 December, what will linger in the minds of those who saw this 3D preview is how polished and perfected the look is. How tactile and real it will feel. How potentially powerful the storyline will be—and best of all, how successful Cameron has been in battling the hype. Of course, Avatar could still be a bomb, a clear case of ambition and anticipation failing to find a proper entertainment balance and/or outlet. But as of now, the Avatarded can safely feel like the Avatards. It will only take four more months to truly discover the final consensus.