Are You Ready For The Avatar Backlash?

James Cameron's Avatar is as unknown to most Americans as the distant planet Pandora, but among the people who've obsessed about this space epic for a decade, there's talk of a backlash. And Avatar fans now have a nickname: Avatards.

We've had a few conversations in the past few days with Comic Con-goers who professed to be a tad disappointed with the footage that was screened on Thursday — but only because expectations were jacked up so high. Blame Cameron, who's been saying for a year that his footage would revolutionize 3-D filmmaking, to the point where movies would be divided into Before Avatar and After Avatar. Or blame the Time Magazine reporter who saw similar footage in March, and wrote:

I couldn't tell what was real and what was animated—even knowing that the 9-ft.-tall blue, dappled dude couldn't possibly be real. The scenes were so startling and absorbing that the following morning, I had the peculiar sensation of wanting to return there, as if Pandora were real.

Cameron wasn't surprised. One theory, he says, is that 3-D viewing "is so close to a real experience that it actually triggers memory creation in a way that 2-D viewing doesn't." His own theory is that stereoscopic viewing uses more neurons. That's possible. After watching all that 3-D, I was a bit wiped out. I was also totally entertained.

The consensus among the people who saw Thursday night's footage was that it was glorious and eye-popping — but they had no trouble telling the CG animation from reality, especially in the scene where live actors are interacting with the CG animated avatars. And the 3-D didn't seem to add all that much to the viewing experience. The footage was great, but not quite photorealistic. At the same time, as my colleague Lauren puts it to me, "There was no uncanny valley."

The criticisms boiled down to saying that the Avatar footage was better than the CG people had seen in the past — but not the massive world-shattering change we'd been promised.

Even the people we talked to who professed to be let down slightly by the Avatar footage prefaced their remarks with "I'm sure it'll be a great movie, but —" or "I still think it'll be a huge hit, but —" So as backlashes go, this one is relatively mild — and probably healthy, since the movie should be building buzz this fall, and it's best to get any hype correction out of the way this summer.

But still, there was a noticeable move to get people to downgrade their Avatar expectations after the footage was shown. Over at Aintitcool, Quint wrote:

What I saw were glimpses at a fantastic bit of storytelling, a rich fantasy tale, by a master of the artform, but the CGI creatures and characters are just that. They're amazingly executed, no doubt, but it's not like when you saw your first CG dinosaur and you said, "This is a game changer" to yourself.

CHUD was even harsher:

It's not that Avatar wasn't a hit, it just wasn't the grand slam everyone expected. I've talked to a number of people - fans and people in the industry - who were a little underwhelmed by the 24 minutes of footage. No one disliked it, but the weight of expectations kept the film from really taking off. And that, frankly, is no excuse. You either walk out of San Diego with major buzz or you don't. Avatar may be walking out of San Diego with fourth place.

The word "hype" has been bandied about on some blogs and message boards. For example, Latino Review wrote yesterday:

Despite the Avatar hype, most people I've talked to think Iron Man 2 is going to steal the show.

My favorite online Avatar discussion, though, comes from the comment thread at Awards Daily, where everyone pretty much agrees the movie's been overhyped somewhat (not visually, since we've seen so little imagery up till now, but in some of Cameron's hyperbole.) And they coin the term "Avatards" to describe the movie's staunch supporters — with some people happy identifying themselves by that title.

Writes one person named Bambi:

I'm an Avatard, but lets lower expectations here because overhype is always undoing. So far, I haven`t seen a single design that is never-seen-before, story sounds rehashed and it seems that advanced 3D is the only thing that makes it a spectacle above anything else this year... I rememeber how excited Internet geeks were over The Watchmen trailer attached to TDK while it was obvious from crowd`s indifferent reaction that they didn`t know what to make of it. We know how that one turned out. And don`t get me started on "bar is raised so high that there is no bar" Joel Silver`s hype for Matrix:Reloaded and Revolutions (plus Time rave of its footage) and "directors will give up when they see King Kong" Philippa Boyens hype for King Kong (plus obligatory Time rave).

As I said, as backlashes go, it's a fairly minor one. But what I really want to know is, where's my "I'm An Avatard" T-shirt? Or maybe a T-shirt that says, "Obligatory Time Rave."