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Initial Thoughts on James Cameron's “Avatar Day”

Avatar Teaser Poster
by Mel Valentin

At San Diego Comic-Con last month, filmmaker James Cameron ("Titanic," "True Lies," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "The Abyss," "Aliens," "The Terminator") unveiled twenty-five minutes of footage from his first feature-length, narrative film in twelve years, "Avatar," sci-fi/actioner set in the 22nd century on an alien world. A live-action/CG hybrid with a rumored $250 million budget (exclusive of prints and advertising) and four years in production (longer if you consider Cameron wrote a script/treatment more than a decade ago), "Avatar" will arrive in multiplexes on December 18th burdened by high expectations.

To defuse or redirect those expectations, Cameron and 20th-Century Fox decided to preview sixteen minutes of footage on August 21st on 101 IMAX screens in the United States and 238 screens abroad. Access was free, but tickets had to be obtained through the official Avatar site (the site promptly crashed). To meet the anticipated demand, 20th-Century Fox added additional screenings of the special preview screening at presumably great expense. Whatever the cost, the decision to preview the footage in IMAX 3D as intended, seems, at least with one or two days of reflection, an inspired one, especially given the mixed to negative online buzz that accompanied the release of the trailer online Thursday morning. Criticism focused on the videogame-quality computer animation and a storyline that seems to rely heavily on Pocahontas/The New World, Dances With Wolves, and Last of the Mohicans.

As the theater went dark, James Cameron briefly came on screen to introduce the footage (most of which SDCC attendees have already seen). In the first of four extended sequences, a face-scarred Marine Corp colonel (Stephen Lang) welcomes a new squad of Marines, including a wheelchair-bound Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Avatar’s viewpoint character, to Pandora, an alien world teeming with enormous predators. What this first scene doesn’t reveal is why the marines are on Pandora, especially given the low-survival rate. If other sources are accurate, the marines are on Pandora to safeguard a mining colony (in other words, commercial interests).

In the second scene, Jake wheels himself to a high-tech flatbed where, after brief exposition by a scientist working on Pandora, Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), his consciousness is transferred to the “avatar” of the title, a ten-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-eyed alien native to Pandora, the Na’vi. Excited to walk again, Jake wreaks minor havoc in the lab, before making a dash to the outside world. It’s our first glimpse of the Na’vi integrated into a live-action environment. It’s impressive, but not as impressive as we were led to believe. At least where the Na’vi are combined with human characters, the blend or mix isn’t completely convincing (yet).

In the next scene, Jake, Augustine, and a third character are on Pandora (or rather their avatars are), presumably doing field research. An angry, rhinoceros-like animal displays its colorful, peacock-like head appendages and charges toward Jake who stands his ground. When the animal stops and retreats, Jake thinks he’s in the clear. Instead, a massive, puma-like predator leaps over Jake’s head and rushes toward the herd, but stops and turns when it notices Jake. Jake flees into the jungle where presumably, he’s separated from his two companions. What follows is an impressively choreographed chase sequence. Jake’s avatar moves smoothly than anything we’ve seen before, at least where motion-captured/CG characters are concerned.

The footage jumps ahead to a nighttime scene where Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na’vi warrior woman helps Jake fends off a pack of dog-like animals. Jake survives, but swiftly receives a lesson in Na’vi culture. Neytiri compares him to a child for his nosy behavior. We also get clued into the Na’vi’s cultural values: they value all life and only kill when absolutely necessary (i.e., for food or for self-defense). From Neytiri’s appearance, it seems the Na’vi take their inspiration from Native American, Maori, and Jamaican cultures. We get the first hint of the conflict between Jake and Neytiri and, of course, the inevitable romance that will challenge Jake’s preconceptions and allegiances.

The final sequence jumps ahead once again. Jake has been partially assimilated into Neytiri’s tribe. He’s no longer wearing human clothing; he’s wearing the standard loincloth Na’vi males seem to prefer. Crossing a dangerous-looking waterfall, Jake, Neytiri, and several other Na’vi warriors edge into the breeding grounds for dragon-like creatures the Na’vi use as aerial transportation. Jake must subdue one of the dragon-like creatures (the one, per Neytiri, that will try to kill him). To make the bond permanent, Jake and the creature have to fly together, which they promptly do, giving Cameron and his animators the opportunity to take audiences on a vertiginous ride through a small sub-section of Pandora.

Sixteen minutes of footage, including a flurry of shots taken primarily from the trailer released a day earlier, can, at best, only give us a glimpse of what to expect when Avatar hits multiplexes in four months. A notorious perfectionist who, according to most accounts, postponed working on Avatar until technology had caught up to his vision of Pandora, Cameron was obviously satisfied with the quality of most of the footage that premiered at San Diego Comic Con last month to show it to non-geek audiences less amenable or more ambivalent to effects-heavy storytelling. On an IMAX screen and in 3D, however, Cameron’s confidence wasn’t misplaced.

The flat, almost cartoon-like Na’vi that appeared in the teaser trailer only a day earlier looked more polished, more substantial on an IMAX screen in 3D. Moving in either a human environment or on Pandora, the Na’vi have weight and volume. Cameron seems to have to solved a problem other filmmakers, including Robert Zemeckis (the upcoming adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Beowulf, The Polar Express), haven’t solved satisfactorily. Thanks to new facial expression software that relies on motion capture, the Na’vi are incredibly expressive.

Where, at least, the footage stumbled was in the clichéd, banal dialogue and the odd fit between the human characters voices with their non-human avatars. That might simply a result of seeing the human characters first and the avatars second, a lip- or facial syncing problem, or even something more subtle like throat or chest movements when characters speak. If it’s a technical problem, there’s still time for Cameron and his army of animators to fix it. Fixes to the dialogue, however, may signal a deeper problem with Avatar (i.e. the derivative nature of the storyline). There again, however, speculation will only lead to a dead end (at least until Avatar gets released).

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originally posted: 08/24/09 16:06:12
last updated: 08/24/09 18:28:41
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