Cinematropolis Review:16 minutes of ‘Avatar’ in 3-D! Pretty Darn Impressive!

22 Aug


August 21st, 2009—

UPDATED: Read my full AVATAR review HERE.

 Well, now I’ve actually seen some of James Cameron’s Avatar the way it was intended to be seen—on the Imax and in 3-D. Let me just say that the venue really does make a difference. Like most of the rest of us, I watched the teaser trailer online yesterday and I was underwhelmed by what I was seeing. As a sci-fi geek and a genre hound, I was expecting something more breathtaking, more original, and, I dunno—more daring. On the computer screen, even in HD, the film looked like little more than a cartoon.  The story appeared a basic amalgam of every “outsider meets a new culture” film I’ve seen and the environments and wildlife were interesting but I wasn’t any more convinced by the animated landscapes than the cluttered cgi worlds of the Star Wars prequels. In fact, one of the only reasons my wife and I ended up going to the preview tonight was so I could write about it here. I was curiously ambivalent otherwise.

First, let me commend everyone who was involved with organizing these IMAX screenings; it was a wonderful idea and extremely well executed.  Except for a few brief hiccups with the website on the day they gave the tickets out, this is exactly the way you build interest for your movie. When we got to the AMC Loews in Whitemarsh there was an organized line with easy access to the glasses and two passes for a movie of our choice at the matinee price, good for only a showing that night after the preview. In addition, the coupon entitled us to free popcorn with the purchase of a soda. Not a bad deal at all, considering the initial preview was free too. Obviously a lot of extra care and planning had gone into making this a positive experience, regardless of the quality of the footage. So kudos to Fox, IMAX, AMC….whoever had a hand in making it run as smoothly as it did.


But what about the footage? 16 minutes of Avatar and what’s the consensus? Does it still look disappointing? Are we all in for an epic fail come December 18th? Y’know, I really don’t think so. In fact, you can consider me officially excited again for Cameron’s latest opus. I’m in, all the way. And the best part is, I think the general public will be too. Like the pre-release trashing Titanic took, Avatar will no doubt encounter some bitter bile from the fan-boy contingent that were looking for some kind of second coming. But when the film itself finally arrives on theater screens I think it’s going to be a huge hit. Not Titanic big. Not Star Wars big. But it’s going to do very, very well.

  So, what did I see?

After a giant, 3-D James Cameron (he’s looking a little older and a little more weary since 1997) came on and offered a brief intro to set-up the film’s sequences, the preview itself began with…

Clip 1: Stephen Lang’s voice saying “ You’re not in Kansas Anymore.”

This first scene shows Lang as a hardened military officer addressing a group of fresh-faced recruits about the dangers of wildlife on Pandora, the planet they are currently occupying. Looking terribly imposing with a set of long white scars (maybe the result of claws?) running down his face, Lang goes through a laundry list of the dangerous and then tells his unit “My job is to keep you alive…I’m going to fail some of you.”

From the back of the room we see a wheel-chair bound Sam Worthington, as the film’s hero Jake Sully, enter. In this sequence, I was getting the same kind of vibe that Aliens and The Abyss had during their early sections; the characters get the run-down on their mission, routines, and the day to day operations. It’s a good way to get a through a lot of exposition while making it interesting and keeping the story moving forward. There were virtually no fx sequences in this scene but the 3D was still prevalent, giving a real sense of depth and immersion to the image that I haven’t personally observed in other films in the medium.


Clip 2: Sully is in a hi-tech, blue-tinted lab where several scientists (including the actor who played the psychic in Drag Me to Hell) are explaining the procedure that will take Jake’s consciousness and download it into his avatar body, which is a composite creation made from Sully’s genes and the DNA of a Na’vi. The best part of this scene is the introduction of Sigourney Weaver, whose job in this scene is overseeing Worthington’s transition. I was happy to see that Weaver seems to be really into the part, and after Worthington goes into the chamber so does she, donning her own Na’vi avatar.

When we first see the Na’vi, lying there on the table and coming to with the human identities downloaded inside, they look pretty odd. When Worthington’s sits up and you see just how much taller it is than an average human, I thought the illusion was seamless. The creature doesn’t look 100% real, but it doesn’t look merely like an animated figure with Worthington’s voice. It looks like Worthington if he had a ton of make-up on and was wearing a suit that would successfully make him about 4 ft taller than he currently is. So yes, the Na’vi are convincing as characters and not just stiff, creepy motion capture aliens. In fact, I’m surprised how much emotion really gets relayed. Sully’s delight at wiggling his toes and being able to stand is first-rate, and Worthington is more lively than he was in any single sequence of Terminator Salvation.


Clip 3: Just like that we are on Pandora, and this is where I think I finally began to grasp exactly what kind of movie Cameron is aiming for, and what’s working for the movie. Here Sully and Weaver and another character, all wearing Na’Vi avatars, are facing a herd of rhinoceros, dinosaur-like creatures. Sully has ended up in their path, and he stands his ground as one of the animals charges him. Weaver is shouting at him “Don’t run!” The rhino turns away spooked, and runs back through the jungle and Sully goes all cocky. The dialogue here, as in other places in the trailer, is sort of weak. It isn’t bad or cringe-worthy but it feels like filler.  Of course, when Jake turns around he realizes that it was the giant, tiger-like alien (think a more exotic version of the animal in Brotherhood of the Wolf) standing behind him that the rhino-saurs were fleeing. He asks Weaver what you do with this kind, and she exclaims “Run! Definitely Run!”

The scene that follows is extraordinary in 3-D. Instead of being an unrecognizable blur of motion, you can follow the animal as it chases Jake in and out of the bizarre jungle growth of Pandora. The detail, the layering of the foreground and background elements, as well as the fluid and realistic movements of the creature and Jake’s Avatar allow us to stop considering technical concerns and just enjoy it as an action piece. Unlike a lot of recent sci-fi/fantasy films (i.e. Indy IV, Revenge of the Sith, Transformers, etc.) this isn’t just heaps of cgi thrown together to suggest action. I felt like this was a logical extension and progression of the kind of pulp science fiction adventure that Cameron and his ilk used to bring us in the 80s. For a comparable sequence, think the speeder bike chase from Return of the Jedi.  The people at the preview really seemed to get into this. It feels exotic and alien, and yet it works as a very basic chase sequence. I wanted more of this material in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy; watching his characters interact with the alien nature of the various planets they visited. Nothing in those three films was ever as natural as this.


Clip 4: Jake is being chased through the night jungle of Pandora by a pack of leopard-like creatures that are snarling and spitting and leaping at the torch he holds in his hands. A female Na’vi, named Neytiri, clad in scant, primitive clothing reminiscent of a human Earth tribe, races in and uses her bow and arrow to defend Worthington. When she has to kill several of the animals, she expresses anger and frustration with the clumsy human/avatar who brought about the necessity to kill them with his careless tromping. The world around the two characters is a sort of fluorescent, glowing rain-forest. I think it might be the most transporting scene in the previewed footage. You get to see some of the first, personal interaction between the animated characters and it works. Again, the dialogue feels a bit like fantasy paperback banter, but Worthington and Zaldana are giving the performances we are looking at. There’s none of the awkward, inhuman movements of a movie like Polar Express or Beowulf. They had the substance and presence of human actors, but everything, down to the colorful, vibrating background felt hyper-real.

I understand the need for the simple, archetypal story now. The heart of the sequences I saw really allow a more general and wide audience to appreciate and relate to Jake’s quest. This isn’t specialized geek cinema, it’s mainstream popcorn entertainment. I don’t mean that as insulting; I think it’s a good thing.  A basic love story, several adventure elements, and a narrative that gives the viewer some familiarity was what endeared your average moviegoer to Cameron’s other work, for better or worse.


Clip Five: The last and most impressive clip really hammered home for me that this is ‘Dances With Wolves’ in space. Jake, in what feels like a Na’Vi hazing/initiation ritual, is taken to the top of one of those floating mountains and instructed to choose one of the pterodactyl, dragon creatures who are nesting in the cliffs. Nyeteri tells him he has to find the one he was meant for. When Sully inquires how he will know which one that is, she remarks “It will try to kill you.”  Though I wasn’t sure initially what he was trying to do, it appears that the braided dreadlocks of the Na’Vi have neural cords in them that can be attached to a long, antenna like protrusion on the back of the pterosaur. If Jake can take those neural cords and intertwine them with the antenna, then the animal will imprint on him, and recognize him as its rider. I suppose it’s like hot-wiring a car.

Loved this scene. We see the tribe watching him, and remarking stuff in their native tongue like “This moron is gonna get himself killed.” Meanwhile, Sully is trying to wrangle the creature, and when he finally succeeds, we see him grab onto it and then soar over the looming cliffs and sail down the long waterfalls and through the sky of Pandora. This works because we are starting to get caught up in the adventure of the main character. It isn’t just special effects here; just as this Na’Vi body is Jake’s avatar, he is ours for the Pandora journey. I really appreciated it that there was a logical and easy to understand purpose to the scene; when Jake and the creature interface it really works as science fiction. Granted, it’s more along the lines of Anne McCaffery than Isaac Asimov, but it works all the same.


The rest of the scenes were just like an extended version of the trailer online. It’s funny, because even in the 3D this haphazard collection of pieces didn’t do anymore for me than they did the first time I saw them. I think it’s because Avatar has been primarily designed as a roller-coaster ride, an experience, and we never fully understand or get to interface with it until we are there watching the scenes unfold in full. It’s good work and I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of it. When the footage ended, I really wanted to see the rest of the movie. I was caught up in it, and not just as eye candy. It isn’t terribly thoughtful or compelling ideologically, but it has the feel of really good pulp.

I’m not gonna be surprised one bit if the average moviegoer enjoys this much more than the sci-fi geek. I wasn’t sure how the masses were going to react to this or have a reason to care about it. But the emphasis looks like it will be on character relationships and the journey of the main character, and I think it’s gonna be quite the ride.

Ok, I’m off to the ocean…..See you all in a week…..

6 Responses to “Cinematropolis Review:16 minutes of ‘Avatar’ in 3-D! Pretty Darn Impressive!”

  1. hagiblog August 24, 2009 at 6:16 pm #

    Somehow what you’ve been talking about doesn’t really get me more excited about the flick. I’m not sure this was at all what I was expecting from this one but it’s gonna be one of those flicks that everyone will talk about, which will only cause me to end up seeing it anyway.

  2. Xiphos August 26, 2009 at 3:21 am #

    So this new fangled 3-D thingy is good then? that back to the future tech of the 1950’s of 3-D is going to change the world and violate my ocular orifices, that 3-D? Ummmmmm OK.

  3. Cello August 28, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

    i was super excited by the 3 minute movie trailer, I can only imagine what a 16 minute preview will do. SUPER HYPED! IMAX AND 3-D??! Hurry up December!!

  4. Bartleby August 28, 2009 at 10:57 pm #

    Hey guys…back from vacation.

    Xi, No, it really isn’t going to violate anything. Unfortunately, those building the hype (and none are probably more guilty than Cameron himself) have envisioned Avatar as some lofty cinematic evolution that it isn’t. As a fan of Cameron’s, I’m not sure why anyone would expect an amazing, sci-fi masterpiece from him. IMO, his best movie is The Abyss, but a) it’s more of an action film and the science fiction elements feel as though they have been culled from 1950s and 60s alien visitor films and books. Aliens which is a great movie, also isn’t anything ground-breaking for the sci-fi genre. In fact, it owes so much of itself to Ridley Scott’s original that it’s hard to give it credit for more than just amping up the premise and getting a terrific performance out of Weaver. Even The Terminator was more of an grand-scale B picture than anything truly unique.
    Secondly, 3-D hasn’t really proved that it’s the future wave of anything. It’s prevalent right now and its certainly more than a gimmick. I think it’s a valid and legitimate tool of the film medium, but it isn’t going to be replacing anything. The current work with 3-D is more interesting than anything done with the concept since its inception. However, I think it’s a bit silly to suggest this is the way we are going to want to see all of the films we watch, even all of the popcorn ones.
    Even as one who was at first bewildered that what we are getting is far off from what I expected, I have to say that extended preview has me excited. Not ‘OMG, I would sell my wife to see this movie!” excited, but ‘will definitely see this on opening day in 3d’excited. If you dug the trailer then you will love the footage. It’s only a matter of time before it gets a wider venue or released online.
    Yea, I’m not sure if you like Cameron and his other work or not. I can say, it’s definitely in keeping with what the man has done before. I think for some reason we were all imbuing (and this might not be true of you, but it was for me) qualities on to Avatar that were not present in the man’s other work. I’m impressed with whats there and am satisfied that it will deliver, but I don’t think its going to really extend beyond the kind of thing, narratively speaking, that Cameron has given us in the past.

  5. Xiphos August 29, 2009 at 4:16 pm #

    Jonah how was the holiday?

    I can’t really disagree with what you wrote in fact it sort of mirrors what I think. With that in mind I’ve chosen to avoid nearly all info on Avatar and I’m going to go into it as unspoiled as possible. I read your piece becasue I respect your judgement and I figure you would have the courtesy to post a spoiler warning if needed.


  1. After 12 years, James Cameron Brings Us…Dances With Smurfs? Avatar Teaser and Pics! « Cinematropolis - September 13, 2009

    […] UPDATED: My review of the first 16 minutes of 3-D Avatar HERE. […]

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