I was among the 3D-specs-wearing dweebs who visited an IMAX-equipped cineplex last Friday evening for a 15-minute preview of Avatar, James Cameron’s first feature since Titanic 12 years ago. Offering a free, extended look at a movie that won’t come out until mid-December is unusual, but then again, it’s also unusual for a studio to gamble $200 million-plus on a film not based on a comic book, toy, or historical event. Also, Fox can’t love that M. Night Shyamalan has his own film coming out next summer based on an animated TV show called Avatar: The Last Airbender. More than one media-savvy person I know has confused Cameron’s film with Shyamalan’s.
Anyway, the Avatar teaser trailer kinda underwhelmed. So how did its expanded cousin play in 3D, or as Cameron prefers it, in stereo?
I believe the stereoscopic imaging technique that Cameron has apparently spent much of the 21st century helping to develop is the same one used in the concert film U23D. As with that film, the 15 minutes of scenes from Avatar all had a satisfying and visceral illusion of depth. Cameron appeared on screen to introduce the preview, saying that everything we’d see comes from the film’s first half, so no spoilers.
The bottom line is there’s still no way they’re not getting my 15 bucks, so I’m sure nobody cares that I harbor guarded enthusiasm rather than rabid enthusiasm. But what I’ve seen of the story concerns me. Sure, trailers often obscure a film’s nature, but this really does look like The Last of the Mohicans, except the Mohicans are eight-foot-tall, Smurf-skinned, Golem-like CGI creations, and the British are now armed with mildly futuristic-looking helicopters and bipedal hydraulic power-suits like the ones from the concluding chapter of The Matrix trilogy. We’re in the 22nd century (says Cameron in the introduction), but as in his far more modestly-budgeted Aliens from 1986, the hardware all looks like stuff that could exist now. Seeing Cameron back in the world of Aliens is quite exciting to me as an arrested 10-year-old. That movie’s Vietnam-in-space trope is even more apparent here, as Avatar is set on a jungle planet.
The first scene we got featured a crazy-looking Stephen Lang (whom I remember fondly from various Michael Mann projects of the 80s, particularly Crime Story) as a Marine officer briefing his newly-arrived troops about how the intelligent, humanoid (and, we soon learn, English-speaking) N’avi, and every other living thing on Planet Pandora, wants to kill them. We skip ahead to Sam Worthington’s consciousness being installed in one of those eight-foot alien bodies. No way around it: Hearing his voice (and later, Sigourney Weaver’s, though happily we see her in her own body, too) come out of these blue Thundercat-looking things will have you thinking of Shrek. I got used to it just in time for the preview to end. I’ll refrain from making the blue-balls joke, but you may supply it here if you wish.
All of the story beats we saw felt pretty cliched: We see alien-Sam rescued from attacking jungle beasts by a female of the species. He thanks her for killing his attackers, and she scolds him for his insensitivity, telling him that if not for his stupidity, the creatures she killed would still be alive. Later, we see alien-Sam try to tame a giant pterodactyl as transportation. In a kind of jungle-rodeo sequence, the thing nearly kills him before he manages to hop on its back and hold on, finally making it submit by tying two of its ear-hairs, or maybe nerve-endings, together . . . or something.
I would bet whatever I’ve spent on the various home-video editions of Terminator 2: Judgment Day since 1991 that alien-Sam is going to fall in love with the female N’avi (not a big leap, as they kiss in the trailer) and realize He’s Fighting for the Wrong Side.
So I hope Cameron has just chosen to withhold his story’s twists for now. No matter what happens, he’s going to get beat up by a certain percentage of the critics. He’s just too fat a target, and too many critics who know better nevertheless insist that he and Michael Bay are in the same business.
It may be worth nothing, however, that the non-geek pal I brought to the preview with me hadn’t heard or read a word about the movie. I asked him after the preview if he thought he might pay to see Avatar in December, and he said he definitely would.