Avatar Day Impressions: Brace Yourselves, It's A Cartoon

Today was Avatar Day which, if you haven’t been following along, means moviegoers lining up to see fifteen minutes of James Cameron’s upcoming movie Avatar. For years now we’ve been deluged with wild claims about the spectacle that was about to unfold. Groundbreaking, game changing, we’ve been told. Brand new 3D technology like you’ve never seen before, they’ve claimed. Photorealistic computer animation, they’ve cried. Now that we’ve seen fifteen minutes it’s plainly obvious that none of that is exactly true.

For a detailed breakdown of the scenes shown, check out Katey’s report of the same footage which was shown at Comic Con. The question for me isn’t what I saw but whether or not it delivers. The answer to that question is, unfortunately, only sort of.

Avatar looks like the best cartoon you’ve ever seen. The fifteen minutes we saw included a few moments of live action footage, with actors like Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver up on screen interacting, but most of it is entirely CGI and it’s reasonable to assume that most of the film will be as well. Much of the fifteen minute preview is spent watching computer generated, blue-skinned aliens interacting with brightly-colored, computer-generated environments. It’s good animation, don’t get me wrong. It’s good in much the same way that Pixar’s animation is good, with impressively detailed environments and great motion-capture work on the way the aliens move and jump and run (Though Cameron's animation doesn't seem up to the task of rippling muscles as arms flex and legs bend... maybe naked aliens wasn't the way to go.). But it’s still animation. There’s never a moment where you’ll sit there and think, for even a second, that you’re watching something real.

For all his wizardry, that’s something James Cameron still can’t accomplish, that’s something that can only really be accomplished by using an actual set. Aliens feels more real than this does, or ever will. For that matter even Peter Jackson’s computer generated Gollum looks more real, if only because Jackson had the good sense to mix his computer animated creatures in with live action sets. Gollum looks like he exists because the world around him actually does. It’s a lot like the 2001 computer animated movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It too made similarly photorealistic claims which, while it looked good, it was unable to deliver on. Nothing in the fifteen minutes of Avatar shown today is real or feels real. Avatar is a cartoon. Maybe it’ll be a really good cartoon, a feat of brilliant visual animation, but still animation.

The same is true of the much vaunted, brand new 3D technology used on the film. Avatar Day’s fifteen was shown in IMAX 3D and, if I’d never seen anything in IMAX 3D before then what I saw today would almost certainly have blown my mind. It might be the greatest thing I’d ever seen. But I have seen movies in IMAX 3D and I know what it’s all about and this is, at best, only a hairs breadth better than the other things you’ve already seen projected in front of your 3D glasses. It’s worth noting that in the fifteen we were shown Cameron’s film never resorts to any of the usual 3D, leap out of the screen gimmicks. Instead 3D is really only used to provide depth to what’s going on. It’s like looking out a window instead of watching something flat projected in front of you. It’s well done, but it’s been done before.

Audience reaction to the event seem to reflect that. Afterward the mixed crowd I saw it with in Dallas’s Cinemark IMAX engaged in a smattering of applause as the footage ended, abruptly and the lights came on. Then we all sat there for a moment confused, unsure whether it was over or if they was more to come. Nothing happened and so the somewhat befuddled audience filed out without pomp and circumstance.

Avatar Day was delivered, on the whole, in a fairly turnstile fashion. People line up, go in and watch, muddle their way out and another group goes in. Aside from a special filmed introduction by James Cameron, Fox made little effort to really make the event special. The rather average nature of Avatar aside, the day itself came and went without much worth remembering. Hey Fox, how about a free t-shirt or a Titanic sing-a-long or something?

In the end I drove forty-five minutes to an IMAX theater to watch fifteen minutes of footage that’s not all that much more impressive than the trailer I’d seen the day before. The movie, I have every confidence, may be good. But it’s not the next Star Wars. Should there be an Avatar Day 2, I’m staying home. Yet when Avatar itself is finally in theaters I’ll be first line, holding a ticket, with my expectations appropriately lowered.

Just in case you missed it, here's the Avatar trailer which debuted online yesterday. It should give you a feel for some of what we saw today at Avatar Day:

For more on Avatar Day, check out Katey's coverage of audience reaction in Manhattan here.

Josh Tyler