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James Cameron's Avatar

Dork Shelf saw the 15 minute preview of James Cameron’s Avatar yesterday.  Having seen it do we think the film is worthy of the hype?  Well, yes and no.

If you were like us and were left generally unimpressed by the teaser trailer for the film, then rest assured that the film looks far superior on the big screen.  The spectacular visuals, aided by Cameron’s deft use and understanding of the new 3D technology, make Avatar unlike anything you’ve ever seen.  Scenes on the planet were so immersive, so full of depth, that we literally felt like we were sitting jungle.  The end result is something that closely mimics the way our eyes work when looking at something in the real world.  It’s not like looking at a screen, but more like looking through a giant window with a constantly changing perspective.

The effect can be as as simple as having blades of grass in the foreground or having trees move through the frame.  There were no obvious moments with objects flying toward the screen, not one use of 3D in the presentation felt gratuitous; it all felt very organic.  Cameron is using the 3D not as a gimmick, but as a legitimate tool to aid his filmmaking.

And what of the computer generated effects?  To say they are stunning would be an understatement.  Cameron has pushed the effects envelope far into the uncanny valley.  The movie has more in common with a Pixar film than a traditional effects driven sci-fi movie.  The CG shots heavily outweigh the live action sequences, and anything that is live action has been modified with effects in post production.  The native inhabitants of Pandora (the giant blue humanoids from the trailer) are so photo-realistic, I had a hard time believing they weren’t just really amazing make-up and prosthetic effects.  The Pandorans are animated using the motion captured performances of the actors.  This lends even more believability to them, you forget that you’re watching a computer generated creature.  Similarly, the environments of Pandora, though wholly otherworldly, are equally realistic and believable.  Now we know why Avatar has taken so long to produce. The long production schedule is surely due to the insane rendering time needed to create this whole world from scratch.

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So that’s our reaction to how Cameron’s much vaunted 3D and CGI technology was used, but what about the narrative?

To be honest, the story doesn’t feel terribly original.  Think Dances with Wolves in space.  An advanced society interacting with a primitive one, mostly from the barrel of a gun.  It’s a man versus nature tale; technology versus ecology.  Also, some of the dialogue we saw was pretty clunky.  Maybe Cameron will surprise us, perhaps there’s more to the story.  Keep in mind that what we saw in the presentation was only from the first half of the film.  It was meant as a showcase for the visuals more than anything else; which it more than delivered on.

There is no denying that you will be totally impressed by Avatar‘s visuals.  As for the rest, we’ll have to wait until December 18th to find out if it really is just Dances with Wolves in space, or something else.  With a budget rumoured to be north of $250 million dollars, there is a lot riding on Avatar’s success.  Yes, Titanic was the highest grossing movie of all time, but it’s a very different movie from Avatar.  No mention of Cameron’s other films? You know, the films that are actually in the science fiction genre.  Why not promote the fact that this is from the same guy who made Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss? Just saying.



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