Avatar: First impressions of a new form of cinema
By Michael Conroy
21 August 2009
James Cameron has been working on his magnum opus since 1994, and it's starting to feel like the PR
machine has been whirring along for nearly that long, too. The movie studios have got quite good at this internet marketing thing, and the hype machine seems to have hit overdrive since Twitter now spreads word-of-mouth at the speed of light. The more hype, though, the further the fall from grace. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Terminator Salvation were cut down to size once cinemagoers had actually paid their £10, and even the mighty Watchmen - well, we'll see how that looks in a year's time, once the fan-boy afterglow has worn off.
The level of anticipation generated by Avatar far exceeds any of these films, partly due to its extended gestation period. So it was with a healthy portion of scepticism that I put on the 3D glasses to experience the 15-minute preview that's the focus of what's been dubbed "Avatar Day".
The screening opens with a stirring address from Earth's military commander, setting the stage for what I'm sure we're meant to interpret as an "epic" battle between mankind and the Na'vi, an advanced humanoid alien race. The camera pans to a young man wheeling himself into the room, determined, driven, but unlike the other soldiers in the room, wheelchair bound. Thus we are introduced to Jake Sully, a former marine left paralysed from the waist down in combat. His role is to scout the Na'vi planet in preparation for the coming war, using a technology which allows his mind to inhabit and control a Na'vi body - his avatar.
There's not much more to say about the plot, as the preview was merely a series of two or three-minute scenes, strung together with thin strands of storyline.
But you do get an amazing sense of the film's style.
The clips flitted from a battle command room, to a frantic forest chase scene, to lush magical glades and soaring, floating mountains between which dragons soared majestically in their hundreds. It's impossible to describe in words the sheer beauty of Cameron's realisation of his hybrid world of science fiction and fantasy, but as you observe the sheer scale, magnificence and care that has gone into the creatures and settings, you realise you're experiencing a perfect moment of fantasy indulgence. You realise that yes, this is what science fiction and fantasy should look like. You may have had the same feeling when you first saw a lightsabre drawn, or those wondrous first moments of magic in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Cameron's boyhood fascination with fiction really shows, but to me the world feels like some sort of beautiful merging of The Legend of Zelda, Halo and Bioshock. I was utterly awestruck by the majesty of the world presented, for the first time since Peter Jacksons' interpretation of The Lord Of The Rings.
The sense of style is enhanced by the technology which buoys this film. The highest praise for Cameron's melding of cinema with stereoscopic 3D (the type with the dorky glasses) is that you could tell that for him, 3D is a means of expression, not an effects tool. He minimises the use of the "extreme close up" 3D effects, the objects seemingly so close to you that you could touch them, which is a blessing. It allows him to take proper advantage of the real benefit of 3D, which is to give the entire film an amazing sense of depth. After the first minute, your eyes adjust and other than the occasional money-shot, you find yourself relaxing into the immersive experience, free to enjoy the wonder of the film, not the effects themselves.
Much has been made of the alleged 60/40 split of CGI and live action, respectively. Just as much has been written about the fact that part of the reason for Avatar's delay was Cameron waiting for the state of the art to catch up with his vision for the film. So did he achieve his aim of photorealistic CGI? I think the question misses the point. Regardless of how highly detailed the CGI may be, you're still aware of its presence because, well, you didn't ride a dragon to work this morning. Of course it's CGI. But more important than the level of realism is the skill with which Cameron has integrated live action and rendered imagery. There's no jarring juxtaposition of live action and CGI, or even of flat versus 3D. Cameron is the first director to mix all these elements seamlessly.
Another technology invented for the benefit of Avatar, and the one that I believe will enhance the film the most, is the unique method of motion capture. A skull cap worn by the actors during filming captured up to 95 per cent of their facial expressions, which were then transferred to their CGI representations, and the narrative truly reaps the rewards. Cameron's creations don't have that slightly drunk, overacted quality that other CGI leads seem to have. In Avatar, the characters' faces engage you with subtlety, immediacy and immense range which creates a level of empathy hitherto unachieved by rendered characters. While not on the same level as live action, these virtual lead actors are able to convey emotion with the style and dexterity of the best 2D animated films. In Avatar, CGI finally climbs out of Uncanny Valley, and the view is amazing.
I realise these impressions seem breathless and overexcited, especially considering this was just a 15-minute preview screening. But this is the first time the technology of a film, and the promise for the future of cinema it heralds, has truly excited me. Even if Cameron's story lets us down in December, I'm confident that every one of us will exit the cinema saying to one another, without hyperbole, that the effects were mind-blowing.