The Avatar Experience – thoughts on Avatar Day!

It’s a ballsy move to market your film as a ‘revolution in filmmaking’, but James Cameron is a ballsy guy. His upcoming sci-fi film Avatar is his first in twelve years. His last picture was Titanic. Previously he has brought us The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss. This is not a dude that does things in half measures.

20th Century Fox took the bold move of christening August 21st ‘Avatar Day’. Never mind that Filipino’s associate the day with the death of a beloved democratic senator. Ninoy Aquino Day will have to switch to August 22nd because Cameron plays second fiddle to no man.

The media elite, preview-loving cinephiles and unsuspecting competition winners entered darkened cinemas around the world to experience the full-frontal assault of the legendary director’s long awaited picture. Fifteen glorious minutes of scenes from the film’s first half, all in three spectacular dimensions. Much of the footage defied description and the actual viewing experience could never be captured with measly words.

But did the footage hint towards a feature film that could potentially change the filmmaking landscape as we know it? Or, even more grandly, the actual experience of going to the cinema to watch a film?

First, a quick recap of the footage. I won’t describe the actual scenes in detail, as I’m sure the clip will become available online in the coming weeks. There were six short sequences in all, followed by a brief teaser. The first three clips took place in the real, non-CG world. Paraplegic war veteran Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) enlists in an experimental expedition to the mysterious planet Pandora. Due to the harsh environment of the planet, he is given his very own avatar that combines his human DNA with that of the 10ft, bright blue alien species known as the Na’vi that inhabit the planet. The first half of the footage briefly introduced Jake and showed his transformation into a Na’vi. There was an impressive level of detail in the Na’vi Jake – it actually feels like a giant, blue Sam Worthington (a thrilling idea for some ladies out there).

The next three sequences take place in the entirely CG world of Pandora, in which Jake is chased by a giant dinosaur/snapdragon through the jungle terrain. He is rescued from some smaller critters by a strong-willed and emotional female Na’vi, portrayed by Zoe Saldana. Seeing Saldana was the highlight of the footage for me; there was something intensely exciting about watching a legitimately engaging performance coming from something that looked so inhuman. Also, despite being giant, dreadlocked and violent, she came across as pretty hot. Well played Mr. Cameron.

Now, onto those giant lumbering questions that I posed earlier in the article.

Does the footage hint towards a feature film that could potentially change the filmmaking landscape as we know it?

Possibly. We have seen motion-capture technology evolve significantly over the past decade. Robert Zemeckis has devoted his career to bringing us mo-capped performances with results varying from the very positive (naked Angelina in Beowulf) to the very, very negative (Tom Hanks as a child, hobo and freaky Santa in The Polar Express). Peter Jackson delivered the first truly impressive motion-captured performance in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, with Andy Serkis’ haunting portrayal of Gollum. (NB: Ahmed Best’s performance as Jar Jar Binks will not be mentioned in this article, except for this brief sentence pointing out that he will not be mentioned.)

With Avatar, Cameron has truly jumped ahead of his contemporaries by bringing us fantastical creatures with undeniably human traits. Although I have always decried the concept of computer imagery replacing actors, I encourage motion-capture. For the first time, it feels as if the technology is being used to enhance performances, rather than distract from them. Whether or not we will see motion-captured rolled out into more films in the near future is unknown. What we do know from this footage is that Cameron has refined one of the newest instruments of the cinematic toolbox. It’s up to filmmakers like Zemeckis and Jackson to now up the ante.

Now to tackle the second, loftier question:

Will Avatar actually change the cinema-going experience?

To that, I give a flat out ‘no’. There are certain qualities in films that will never and can never be replaced. The most immovable quality is Character. You can throw all the money at the screen that you like – if I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the movie. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen featured some of the most extravagant special effects in cinematic history. However, the characters were one-note short of being one-note. You can give me a film made on a $1000 budget with engaging characters any day over GI Joe.

I am not trying to denounce the evolution of special effects. The point I am trying to make is that no matter how the filmmaking process changes and no matter how many dimensions they project it to the audience, audience engagement will always fall back on interesting characters and a solid story. To quote (fairly inappropriately) Park Chan-wook’s revenge drama Oldboy, “whether it be a grain of sand or a rock, in water they both sink alike”. Cameron hasn’t changed the game enough to think he is exempt from the rules.

Now that is not to say that Avatar will not feature interesting characters. On the contrary; the timelessness of Cameron’s films have been a combination of groundbreaking special effects and appealing characters. Let’s not forget, this is the man who gave us Sarah and John Connor, two of the most iconic sci-fi heroes in history. He turned Ellen Ripley into an asskicking heroine and gave us Jack and Rose, the most popular movie lovers of our generation. Although it wasn’t possible to truly gauge the characters of Avatar based on the fifteen minutes of footage, I have no reason to believe that Cameron will not deliver based on his prior filmography.

There are two things you can do: 1) believe the hype and expect this film to literally change you on a chemical level. Or 2) understand that this is just a film and maybe quell your expectations just a teensy bit. Not because Cameron hasn’t delivered an impressive looking project, but because it could eventually be swallowed in the overwhelming anticipation of filmgoers. Based on the fifteen minutes of footage, I saw a potential future classic – a fantastical adventure that could sweep audiences off of their feet; a rollercoaster ride that could strangulate your senses. But if Mr. James Cameron wants to hold onto that King of the World title, he needs to show us that he hasn’t forgotten to install a heart into his slick little ride. None of us can make a true judgment until we see the final product on December 17th. But until then, I will fondly remember August 21st 2009 as the day I saw fifteen minutes from James Cameron’s Avatar – and every minute rocked.

Watch the teaser trailer here.

Discuss: Avatar – what are your hopes, dreams and fears for Cameron’s giant project?

One Response to “The Avatar Experience – thoughts on Avatar Day!”

  1. Actually Avatar looks very interesting and different… but its releasing time is too late..

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