Will Avatar keep its technological promises? We've seen a huge backlash against the film's CGI, and our sibling site suspects it will suck. But when it opens, Avatar will prove a remarkable advance in motion capture and computer animation.
Granted, I make this assertion not as one of those folks who saw the movie in the last day, just as someone who has seen the early footage from Comic Con and Avatar Day and the other clips released so far.
An interesting thing about seeing the footage at Comic Con: hours before the audience's first trip to Pandora, we got to see another 3D motion capture preview, scenes from Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol. You can almost see the gears turning in Zemeckis' head when he introduces a new movie, the tweaks he made to try to improve his particular brand of mo-cap aided animation. Casting Jim Carrey, a man famous for being able to act beneath five pounds of makeup, in multiple roles was an inspired attempt to remedy the notorious flatness of his animated characters. But it proved impossible to forget that these characters were simply sophisticated digital puppets, with Ebenezer Scrooge nearly as ethereal as the ghosts he's scheduled to encounter.
While watching the Avatar footage, by contrast, it was so easy I was watching an animated movie. Certainly it's jarring to see a giant blue person standing next to humans when Sully is first connected to his Avatar body. But when the Na'vi step into their animated native habitat, it's easy to suspend that disbelief that so stubbornly hangs over Zemeckis' animation. Pandora and the Na'vi may be shy of photorealistic (although there are some incredible moments, especially during the Thanator chase and when Jake engages with his Banshee for the first time), but they do feel alive, the way their facial muscles move, the sometimes distracting way their ears twitch to convey emotion, the play of light in their eyes. At times, it almost looks like we're seeing actors in blue makeup rather than the motion capture mask. Cameron has very nearly crossed the uncanny valley and that's an achievement in itself.
But it's Pandora itself that's truly thrilling, thanks to a combination of multilayered 3D technology and Cameron's obsessive nature. Cameron has talked a great deal about how he and his army of concept artists and biologists designed every plant and creature on Pandora. It's an impressive feat (and I can't wait to see that bioluminescence again), but it's only a small component of what makes the planet seem real. Early viewers are describing Avatar as akin to a nature documentary on an alien world, and it goes far beyond glowing flora. When a Banshee lands on a tree or a Thanator runs through the forest, leaves fall. If a creature pounces on a stalk or branch, it splinters. These aren't small details Cameron and his team have inserted for the sake of realism; they're present throughout the early clips. More than that, in 3D, these components exist on different planes, each obeying the laws of physics independent of the others. When Sully first encounters Neytiri, the air is simply stuffed with bugs, embers, and bits of dust, and their depth is such that you imagine you could stick your hand in it and swirl it around. I've been fairly 3D-agnostic until this point; I enjoy the novelty of movies where the 3D reaches out and grabs you, but I've never found it adds much to the experience. Avatar's 3D, which pulls you in instead of reaching out, does create a special experience, that sense that you are actually present, looking inside an entirely invented world.
However, the technology, as amazing as it is, leaves us with a lot of questions. Is there a point to all this spectacle? Is this good filmmaking? Avatar is antithetical to the Hitchcockian mode of filmmaking, where the director carefully controls the audience's gaze. In Avatar, Cameron gleefully surrenders that kind of control, inviting us instead to look all over the screen and try to drink in as much as humanly possible as we go along. In fact, I imagine that a good deal of Avatar's repeat business will come from a sense that viewers missed a lot the first time around. I haven't seen the film in its entirety yet, but I can't help but wonder if all that spectacle distracts from other aspects of the movie. And, if it works well with Cameron's particular brand of filmmaking, will it work equally well with others'?
As for its purpose, Cameron has set it to worldbuilding — and the idea that you can create a global, digital set that you can return to any time. And you can extrapolate big things from that — incredibly detailed video games, franchises set and filmed on many worlds by many filmmakers. But it's important to remember that Cameron and his team built this technology as they went along. Early reviews indicate that Avatar stands up as a movie on its own, but it's also a proof of concept. I can't imagine that Cameron has found the exhaustive — or even the best — uses for his remarkable motion capture and animation technologies. I would love to see what happens when this technology lands in the hands of someone whose craft is animation. Avatar itself might not change all movies forever, but I'll wager that the technology that birthed it will give rise to something wonderful — and stranger than we could have imagined before.