Note: My full Avatar review can be found in a different entry, this is just a writeup from when I saw the 15-minute preview of the film in mid-2009. For the full review of the movie, please go here: Dave On Film Review: Avatar
Along with what was apparently a smaller number of film geeks than was expected, I dutifully showed up at the local RealIMAX "quasi-IMAX" screen (see my earlier article on RealIMAX versus IMAX) to see 16 minutes of James Cameron's much discussed, ultra-expensive Avatar footage unveiled, in all of its 3D glory.
I'm going to include a number of stills from the Avatar trailer to illustrate some of what I'll talk about in this review, but I'll start out by saying WOW, the footage was breathtaking in its crisp, alien realism and sporadically terrific with its 3D effectiveness.
What I was most interested in was the story because, after all, even amazing digital effects can't make a great movie: if there's not an engaging story to tie it around, no-one is going to care and it's going to be a boring demo reel, not a movie.
From the footage screened, however, it's clear that there's an interesting story - albeit one that's been told and retold dozens of times in modern cinema....
Avatar is about the challenge and dilemma facing a soldier who has "gone native". That is, their mission was to represent their own nation and culture while living within another culture and people. There are a number of brilliant films that have addressed this topic, importantly with the protagonist gaining a sympathy, liking, and eventually identification with the foreign culture, including some of my very favorites, notably Lawrence of Arabia, Dances with Wolves and A Passage to India, just to name three.
In Avatar, the setting is shockingly, dramatically different than anything we've seen on screen before, but the basic storyline is thus: a handicapped soldier, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), confined to a wheelchair and without any use of his legs, is stationed on the far-distant planet Pandora where "everything wants to eat you or kill you", from the vegetation to the wildlife to the natives.
The planet is so incredibly hostile, in fact, that human soldiers wouldn't last five minutes and instead they control completely immersive "avatars", 15-foot tall blue creatures adapted to the planet's atmosphere and environment. The first still in this article shows Sully awakening in his avatar body and delighting that his avatar legs work perfectly.
The rest of the film footage we were shown takes place on Pandora, with the military complex left far behind and Sully's actual human body nestled in a CAT-scan-like device deep within the medical facility.
There are no icebergs, but James Cameron, director of the blockbuster Titanic knows well that without a love interest, it's not going to be a very satisfying film experience, so Sully, in native Na'Vi form, meets and falls for a local alien female called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). She "adopts" him (in a manner that I'm guessing is quite unlike how most of the military avatars are attacked and, most likely, killed as soon as they show up on Pandora) and leads him through a variety of coming-of-age rituals in her culture that are part of the popular "going native" (or, perhaps, "hero's journey") mythic tale.
In one striking sequence, shown above (that's Sully's avatar in the center of the image), Sully must fight a pterodactyl-like creature and force it to succumb to his will and thereby become his mount, his means of air travel on the planet. Think "wrangling that crazy mustang" from a classic coming-of-age Western, but very alien, and you've got the gist of the scene. It's breathtaking and the realism of the creatures, the humanoids and even the landscape rendering is quite literally astonishing.
For reasons we don't learn in the footage that was included in the "Avatar Day" 16 minutes, the military decides to attack en masse and after learning to appreciate the beautiful, dangerous, very alien world of Pandora, we are then faced with typical military craft, gun fire, explosions, and more, all very similar to the cheesy Starship Troopers.
Here's a pic from that portion of the film:
Knowing the basics of the "going native" sort of storyline, I can guess that Sully defends his alien female Neytiri from his own troops, then faces the dilemma of his human body being ensconced in the military complex while his alien avatar exists non-autonomously on Pandora itself. Will he be able to separate the two and live exclusively in his alien body? One presumes that's the central question of the film.
I was really blown away by the 3D RealIMAX footage and found it a more intense experience than regular film, certainly the kind of experience that makes me eager to see this when it opens in December.
That isn't to say that there aren't still big questions being discussed in the sci-fi and film geek worlds, including whether Avatar will look über-realistic or will the visual effects break down in certain portions, but since I'm more interested in the story anyway, I'll wait impatiently to see the other footage and finally be able to learn how Cameron tackles a classic film story in a way that's uniquely his own.
I'm not alone in being darn curious about this film either: The Avatar trailer has already been viewed over four million times, far breaking the record of previous popular movie trailers on the Apple site.
Note: My full Avatar review can be found in a different entry, this is just a writeup from when I saw the 15-minute preview of the film in mid-2009. For that full review, please go here: Dave On Film Review: Avatar