So You've Seen 25 Minutes of Avatar: Will Your Life Ever Be the Same?
Well, yes -- yes it will. Sorry, folks, but while the most fully realized and wholly immersive CGI achievement in cinematic history probably won't cure peptic ulcers or reverse male-pattern-baldness, it will definitely make you go "whoa" more times than Keanu Reeves on his first visit to the Long Beach Aquarium.
Avatar is based on an 80-page "scriptment" James Cameron wrote in 1995 for the project he had intended to tackle right after Titanic; he shelved it, however, deciding the technology required to produce the lush, treacherous environments he'd envisioned in his mind was not yet in existence. Pulling it out again four years ago, he remarked upon how its themes pitting the technologies of war vs. fragile ecology were more apt now than when he had even written it.
So. What does the final product look like?
[WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND]
The footage -- 25 minutes in all, making it the most generous gift of all the presentations today, in terms of sheer quantity -- begins in the "real world," in a futuristic military facility in which grizzled hard-ass Col. Quaritch (veteran character actor Stephen Lang) barks to his recruits a speech about how the planet they're about to encounter is the most hostile territory imaginable, from which they'll probably not emerge alive. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) appears, in a wheelchair, and observes out loud, "Nothing like an old-school safety brief to put your minds at ease."
(It's probably worth pointing out at this point that Avatar appears to be the kind of movie where wheelchair-bound soldiers say things like "Nothing like an old-school safety brief to put your minds at ease" out loud, to no one in particular.)
In the next scene, Sully and his comic-relief sidekick Norm Spellman (Bones' Joel Moore) glimpse their "avatars" for the first time: the Na'vi are the tall (10-footish) blue inhabitants of Pandora, a planet uninhabitable by humans. Humans have devised a way to incubate Na'vi in labs and fuse their DNA with the host bodies (this is rattled off too quickly to fully absorb). Humans can then land on the planet and occupy Pandora, where the primitive-warrior natives are restless. All of this seems sort of ancillary to where we're going here, which is to a freaking cool planet overrun by giant blue things and the ferocious creatures they'll have to fight. But there you have it.
So -- these avatars napping under glass are the first glimpse we have of the film's technology. They are huge, and detailed, and very blue, with faces that resemble the humans who'll inhabit them. It's a sort of shocking moment, because you're like, "OK -- is this the coolest thing I've ever seen? Am I looking at a new paradigm for filmic storytelling?" It's almost too much pressure on the viewer. At first I was like, they look like really excellent CGI, but still look like CGI. Then I felt guilty for thinking that. Then I just stopped having this annoying inner dialogue about whether or not Avatar is Jesus Movie and tried to enjoy the footage.
In the next scene, Sigourney Weaver appears, playing botanist extraordinaire Dr. Grace Augustine. She rattles off some more foreboding dialogue to Sully about this being "the most hostile environment since KFCs nationwide after Oprah announced the free chicken-giveaway," then sandwiches him in a CT scan device and slides him away. Scientists monitor his brain activity on cool glass tablets that can transfer scans with just a wave of the palm. (Hey! I just spotted the fortune teller from Drag Me To Hell among the scientists. Just IMDb'd him: Dileep Rao. Guy's having a great year!)
Anyway there's this wormhole shot, and you hear voices saying Sully's been "inverted" -- i.e. he's inside his avatar. We're then in the hospital room, and the big blue Sully is moving and reacting and you really start to get a feel for what Cameron has done here. He truly has appeared to have crossed "the uncanny valley" -- that space between real and synthetic that keeps CGI character development from ever fully seeming lifelike. The eye-movement, the facial emotion, the weight of the limbs as they flail about for the first time -- it all just feels Next Level.™
All the nurses and health professionals start flipping out and shout "Sedate him! Sedate him!" as Blue Sully delights in being able to not just walk again, but snap his big blue tail and just be generally fierce all over command center. This whole "Na'vi run amuck" part felt a little like a Disney Imagineering amusement-park-ride-opening-sequence to me, a la Star Tours.
Next scene, we are on Pandora. This is the part that no amount of writing can really do justice. It's just an incredibly lush and realized landscape, and the 3-D effect is just crystalline and hyper-real and just envelopes you in verisimilitude. The details -- oh Baby Jesus my Lord in Heaven the details. Actually, Heaven probably doesn't even have this much detail. The artistry and sheer man hours that must have gone into creating this are just simply mind-boggling.
Sully approaches massive fuchsia blooms that snap and recoil into the ground at his slightest touch. He's soon encountered by something I'll call a Crested Hammerhead Rhinocerhippopotamusaur. Dr. Augustin's avatar coaches him to stand his ground at the rampaging beast, which he does. Then it runs away, which he thinks is because of his ferociousness, but is actually because there's something I'll call a Tyr-ant-osaurus Blech drooling right behind him. (The whole huge-beast-being-scared-away-by-even-huger-beast routine is "such a cliche," said a trio of jaded fanboys after the panel, and I have to agree somewhat -- it also happened in Peter Jackson's King Kong, which is the closest comparable movie to Avatar I can come up with.)
Soon thereafter, Sully meets Neytiri, Zoe Saldana's character, who is a native Na-vi, and a fearsome, beaded-haired she-warrior. This is clearly the movie's central love story, and while she mistrusts him and finds him to be "childish and impulsive!" she admits to loving his "fearless way." Again -- this is the level of interaction going on between the characters. Sort of Xena Warrior Princess-level dialogue. As such, I was into it. They are soon bevisited by floating jellyfish-type creatures called "Seeds of the Secret Tree" that land on Sully and glow. Very very extremely gorgeous.
In the single most amazing sequence, Sully is dared by a tribe of Na'vi -- Neytiri by his side -- to climb out onto the ledge of a high cliff, waves lapping below, and "tame" one of a flock of gigantic flying beasts I'll call Pterogiantlizardeaglesaurs. Needless to say, he does, and the execution of this sequence alone is nothing short of a technical, logistical, and visual masterpiece. It's fucking art, dude. Like, whoa. Michelangelo would poop his pants if he could get his hands on one these Avatar-making machines.
At the panel immediately following, Weaver emerged to huge applause, and said: "I want to start by thanking you for loving movies the way you do, and for believing in them the way you do, and for caring about every single luscious detail because believe me -- this is the movie you've been waiting for."
Was it worth it? Hell yeah it was! And you'll be able to see it pretty soon. Cameron announced August 21 is Avatar Day, wherein 15 minutes of footage will play on IMAX screening across the planet, for free. Get in line now.