Avatar Preview Impressions 24 August 2009Posted by jordanfarley in Film News.
Tags: James Cameron, Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana
Friday 21 August, 24 hours after the trailer for James Cameron’s long awaited return to sci-fi feature film-making debuted to a mixed response online, viewers around the globe were treated to approximately 16 minutes of footage in glorious 3D from the mysterious Avatar. But after years of lofty promises and barely a glimpse of what the film might look like, did last week’s information overload propel expectations into another galaxy, or sink them in the swampy marsh of Pandora?
Well, it’s hard to say. While the trailer certainly didn’t seem to be evidence of the game-changing motion picture we were all expecting; as an original SF story, set on an entirely alien world which isn’t a sequel, remake or adaptation Avatar is, at the very least, a refreshing change of pace in modern Hollywood. It’s even arguable that Cameron has already instigated his Avatar revolution without even finishing the film as the ubiquitous 3D bandwagon picks up passengers as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and horror hack David R. Ellis whose 3D Final Destination flick hits screens this Friday.
But what about those 16 minutes? For the most part the footage consisted of extended scenes merely glimpsed at in the trailer but there were a few welcome additions. After a brief introduction from a shaggy looking Cameron our first glimpse is of Stephen Lang’s Col. Quaritch as he delivers a speech (no doubt delivered dozens of times before) to a batch of fresh-faced recruits to be sent down to Pandora. It’s standard boot camp stuff but Col. Quaritch is no Apone. What impresses most about the scene is that Cameron is clearly not treating 3D like a gimmick, hurling objects out of the screen like almost every 3D animated/horror film thus far. The 3D is used to give a palpable sense of depth and for my money is much more immersive in scenes like this than high octane action sequences where the problem of motion blur acts to instantly distance you from proceedings (more on this later).
The next sequence gives us our first look at Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and Drag Me to Hell’s Dileep Rao as Dr. Max Patel putting Sam Worthington’s disabled war veteran Jake Sully into the Apple version of a PET scanner, which will link his mind with his Na’vi Avatar. Weaver looks to be on fine form as the tough talking doctor, bitter at the fact Jake has been chosen to join her on a mission to Pandora despite having no experience of its hostile environment. The scene also makes it clear Avatar’s got a sense of humour, it’s not just going to be environmental messages, strange worlds and aerial dogfights.
The next scene was an extended look at the moment from the trailer where Jake in his avatar’s body wakes up in a lab for the first time. You’ll be happy to know that a combination of the 3D and being able to watch this short scene in full will remove almost all worries you may have from the brief glimpse in the trailer. Movement looks much more natural and the effects work much more convincing than the trailer seemed to imply. Abandon the hope that the Na’vi are going to look photoreal and it’s unlikely you are going to be disappointed by what Digital Domain have achieved with this alien race come December.
The remainder of the footage took place on Pandora. If you hadn’t noticed from the trailer because the Na’vi avatars are genetically engineered with the DNA of their human hosts they take on certain characteristics, in particular facial features. The next scene gave us a brief glimpse of Weaver’s Na’vi avatar for the first time, which looked uncannily like a young, smooth skinned version of herself. In the scene Jake’s avatar has to stand his ground in the face of one of Pandora’s many hostile creatures, an exotic hammerhead rhinoceros with colourful peacock-esque feathers protruding from its skull – it’s a promising hint of what to expect from the world Cameron and his team have been building for the last four years.
The scene concludes with Jake’s avatar being chased by the Thanator glimpsed in the trailer, but unfortunately the scene in full isn’t much of an improvement on the questionable effects work seen there and the rapid, destructive pursuit suffers from wicked motion blur, making a large portion of proceedings near incomprehensible. It’s a common problem with rapid camera movements in 3D films and one that Cameron doesn’t seem to have solved. On the plus side the effects work on Jake’s avatar in this scene is stunning with naturalistic movement and convincing skin textures creating an entirely believable CG creation.
The two remaining scenes both featured Zoe Saldana’s indigenous tribal Na’vi Neytiri, first fighting off a pack of wolf-like creatures who attack Jake and then berating him for making her do so. Saldana’s Neytiri looks suitably elegant and otherworldly but the broken English and hostile relationship which will inevitably turn into affection is something we’ve seen far too many times before.
Thankfully Cameron saved the best for last in a scene where Jake’s avatar, now seemingly an accepted member of the indigenous Na’vi tribe, must bond with a banshee (the flying creatures seen in the trailer) organically, but not after a tense fight on a perilous cliff edge. Again the effects work impresses and the 3D does a great job of making that inevitable ‘hanging off the edge’ moment look even more terrifying. As the banshee takes off there are a few motion blur problems, but it’s not as big an issue as in the earlier scene and once the camera settles further back the remaining moments are electric.
Together with the trailer this 16 minute peek at Cameron’s baby has reassured me somewhat that come December we won’t just be watching Fern Gully meets the Star Wars prequels. There are a few things to worry about, in particular motion blur from the 3D technology and the CG slipping into ‘uncanny valley’ more often than not, but overall there is much more to be excited about than dismayed, and of course even after these 16 minutes it’s impossible to tell if Cameron’s script will deliver on the potential. Come December 18 we’ll all know if Cameron is still the ‘King of the World’.