Posted on Friday, August 21st, 2009 by Brendon Connelly
Let’s get past the 3D (you probably already know I’m a staunch supporter) and the CG (you’ve seen the trailer, I’m guessing and know how… um… odd it is) and actually think about some of the other elements of the Avatar Day footage for a moment. Just for a moment…
Perhaps the least unexpected element of the presentation is how well executed the action moments are. James Cameron is one of the masters of the running, jumping, chasing scene. Of the scenes previewed, a healthy half featured some kind of ‘action’ and all of these played like a dream. My particular high point was a confrontation between the Avatars of Jake Sulley and Dr. Grace Augustine, amongst others, and some of the indigenous wildlife of Pandora. The confrontation escalates smoothly and naturally, is staged with great flair but no needless flash and the typical Cameron grasp of kinetics, composition, camera movement and montage. When it ended, I felt genuinely cheated, wanted more badly, and felt that if this sequence was all I had seen, then I’d have been unreservedly sold on the picture.
But it wasn’t all I had seen. Before this point, we’d been played a series of more heavily live-action scenes. The first of these, with Jake arriving at a boot camp was fair enough but, out of context, lacking in punch. The second took place in the lab where he was being ‘connected’ to his Avatar.
For my money, this scene highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the material so far seen. Cameron is clearly having fun with scale, contrasting the huge Avatars with the humans and their technology. The scene excels at a “storyboard level, the design is great and the acting is particularly good here (I especially liked Sigourney Weaver’s insistence that Jake lay down) but… it’s the blend of CG Avatars and humans that is disconcerting. It’s almost like the Avatar is flickering in and out of reality depending on which cue is being registered at any time. Perhaps the texture works, but the lighting doesn’t, or at other times, perhaps, it is the other way round. It’s very odd because they definitely seem to be acting with reality, humanity and complexity… it’s only a few technical factors of blending that let them down.
On their own, however, the Avatars and Na’vi are as utterly compelling and seductive as any Pixar creations. I was almost left wishing the film was entirely CG because the end result is curiously like a hypothetical version of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf tuned up to the next level but inexplicably landed with live action footage of Tony Hopkins and John Malkovich, say, amid all of the mo-cap puppets.
After a string of transportation nightmares (memo to self: learn to drive) I arrived at the IMAX after the first play-through had begun. Fortunately, there was a second run queued up for right afterward and I wasn’t left hanging for long. I made a beeline for the back of the auditorium – really, the only place to sit in a genuine IMAX screen, but I’ll air my bugbears about that format another time – and ended up sitting alongside none other than Joel Silver and Guy Ritchie. Guy had baby David on his lap.
After the screening, I squeezed quotes out of Joel – “Genius!” – and Guy – “Yes, I liked it. It was good.” Joel definitely sounded more effusive than Guy, but then, he probably sounds more effusive than anybody on any subject, at any time.
A final note on the 3D. When I was drawn in and Cameron was guiding my eye, it worked perfectly. When I snapped back and scanned the frame at will, there were a lot of issues. Items in the extreme foreground or around the edges of the image suffered from ‘retinal rivalry’ issues, where they seemed to flicker, in a sense. This should have been expected because, in truth, this is happening to us all day, whenever we look at anything. What pleased me though, is how well Cameron’s command of composition and attention control generally prevented this from being anything like a problem.
The end of the presentation was a rapid-fire montage of moments showing all sorts of action and characters. Like this, these were easy to shrug off. That’s the real lesson of the Avatar Day presentation – what you can discard out of context draws you in and grabs a tight hold on you when it’s part of the story.
Surely that’s what we wanted?