Avatar Rising

Last night, I attended a special preview screening of Avatar, one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the year. Presented a few hours before the movie opened to the general public, the screening was hosted by 20th Century Fox, which gave 50 tickets in the front-most section of the theater to Panasonic for its contribution of equipment during production. Fortunately, I was near the front of that line, so I was able to sit in the last row of that section—still a bit too close, but very immersive. I'm going to give you my impressions while minimizing any spoilers, though I found no surprises in this movie other than the incredible 3D imagery, which is certainly no secret.

As you would expect from all the hype, the visuals are breathtaking. The alien world created by director James Cameron is stunningly beautiful, as are the 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned, indigenous sentient inhabitants called the Na'vi. (It seems odd that a fully humanoid species would evolve in the same environment as the other large animals, most of which are vicious monsters with six legs and four eyes—gratuitous differences from Earth species with no apparent logic behind them.)

The integration of motion capture, CGI (computer-generated imagery), and live action is quite seamless. Home Theater Design editor Kim Wilson told me she heard that the actors' motion was captured while they were actually playing the Na'vi scenes rather than going through various generic movements, which is said to increase the realism of these shots. However it was done, the Na'vi looked entirely natural in their movements, and all of the CGI is virtually photorealistic.

The use of 3D is certainly beyond anything that has gone before, though there is the occasional gun barrel in your face and other obvious gimmick shots. And the presentation I saw used passive glasses—which, I suspect, is what most if not all 3D theaters will use—with lots of motion blur and a sense of disconnection between the near foreground and the rest of the image. Still, the 3D effect was generally better integrated than most I've seen—in fact, I almost forgot I was watching a 3D movie at some points.

Unfortunately, Cameron seems to have expended virtually all of his considerable resources on the imagery and almost none on the story or characters. The tale is a tired one—an evil human corporation wants to extract a rare mineral from a primitive tribe's land, destroying its home in the process. Sound familiar? The anti-imperialist and pro-environmental messages are blatantly obvious with no shading or complexity whatsoever.

The same goes for the characters. The corporation is supported by a strong military presence, and the commander is the stereotypical hard-nosed, crew-cut marine with no sympathy for the natives, which are characterized as evil savages so the rank-and-file soldiers will kill them without remorse. Even the main character—a paraplegic marine who starts out as a gung-ho infiltrator and ends up defending the Na'vi after living among them through his bio-engineered avatar—is pretty one-dimensional. A few other characters make a similar shift in perspective, but there's absolutely nothing new here.

Clearly, Avatar is a technological tour-de-force that pushes the boundaries of what a filmmaker can do, and I was hoping that Cameron would apply all that computer wizardry to an engaging, thoughtful story with complex characters. Sadly, he did not. In the end, it's nothing more than a whiz-bang shoot-'em-up with a volume level to match, so bring your ear plugs!

I'm sure the movie will appeal to the mass market and make oodles of money—more than enough to cover its rumored $500 million cost, which Cameron denies without saying how much it really was, though he does claim it's among the top five most-expensive movies. But as much as I enjoyed the gorgeous imagery, I was ultimately disappointed, feeling no emotional connection with any of the characters, even in the enormity of the tragedy that befalls the Na'vi, which seems to be the only way Cameron tried to evoke an emotional response from the audience.

When someone combines the technical achievement of Avatar with the storytelling of Pixar, that will be something really special. Until then, go see Avatar for its sheer beauty, but don't expect much else—and be sure to visit the restroom before settling in for more than two and a half hours of over-the-top bombasity.