Avatar: The Sweet Gentle Skullfrak

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Many of us have experienced the violent double-dicked skullfrak that Michael Bay calls Transformers…and some of us have even suffered the terrible Spielbergian ass raping called Indiana Jones 4. Well James Cameron has just made sweet beautiful love to my eye sockets.

For 16 glorious minutes on Friday evening James Cameron lovingly cradled the back of my head while delivering his deep confident thrusts to my eye sockets. He showed the mastery of control necessary to achieve a consistently ecstatically satisfying experience. Indeed, James is the master of eye-frakery…and I am his bitch.

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No, this wasn’t a brief however intensely sexually charged encounter in a filthy Denny’s bathroom stall. I’m talking about “Avatar Day” – the opportunity to see 16 minutes of footage from James Cameron’s new cinema masterpiece Avatar in all of its 3D splendor.

So let’s get the most glaring item out of the way, the 3D. I saw the picture in IMAX 3D, which is arguably the best of the current-generation 3D projection systems. I probably don’t need to tell you there’s no blue-red-lensed glasses required for this system — or any of the new systems for that matter — you just wear a slightly tinted pair of sunglasses. In 3D this movie is a wholly immersive experience, arresting my attention in a way that no film ever has. It is truly spectacular eye candy and it probably doesn’t hurt to be seeing these razor-sharp lifelike images on a 60’ screen either. As a package it was at times almost overwhelming.

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Pretty impressive way to see a potentially impressive picture, eh? But here’s the rub, it don’t matter none; Cameron has done something interesting here that stands entirely on its own, almost wholly irrespective of presentation. However let me warn you of one thing, if you experience this film in anything less than hi-definition it will tend to look flat and cartoonish – the online trailer tends to betray the life-like beauty of the film when viewed in lower resolutions. You just won’t get it until you see it in its hi-def glory.

So let’s disregard the 3D hype of the movie, you can go elsewhere and read of its accolades. Instead I will focus on what I view as quantum leaps in photo-realistic computer graphics, performance capture, animation and “virtual direction”.

The first thing to be noticed of the footage is the seamless way in which CG and practical effects are blended. There’s no discerning the difference — the typical complaints about the obvious transition between practical and CG are left moot — there is none any longer. CGI nitpickers, such as me, can now safely check their disbelief at the door, those days are through. Admittedly in the past there were a few movies that pulled off some very impressive photo-real CGI, however these images are lifelike in an almost disturbing manner, excelling in their consistency and bold usage (there’s no cheating here, even the steadi-cam shots have great CGI in them).

Eye-candy is nice but the real revolution in what’s been done with Avatar’s CGI is the humanoid animation. It’s hard to articulate the wonderful subtleties that each CG character brings to the screen.

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There’s no evidence of that key-framed lifeless robotic feel plaguing many of the attempts at humanoid animation. All of the CG creatures possess this truly natural organic feel to their movements. You will notice this most in the facial expressions, the subtleties of which bring the dreaded CG “dead eyes” back to dramatic life, delivering the sensation of a conscious presence in what is only a fiction of mathematical vectors and light-diffusion calculations. Of course this sort of thing is almost impossible to fake, there are some very live performances bringing these humanoid creatures to life. The real genius of Cameron is the production methods developed to make these nuanced CG performances possible, with the smallest details of the actors’ performances captured and translated perfectly to their virtual presentation. The effort is not lost on me, there’s richness to this animation work I’ve never encountered before.

Only second to the insanely detailed animation is the wonderful direction and cinematography of the total-CGI sequences. There’s the strong impression that a real director and cinematographer are behind the “virtual” lens. There’s none of that stifling counter-intuitive aesthetic limitation that often haunts these virtual worlds, everything is in motion, the camera darting in ways that are wholly evocative of the best live-action movie sequences to date. Cameron seems to frame this CG world without any limiting translations, full of thoughtful deliberate camera angles while retaining the spontaneous happy accidents of on-set experimentation. Of course this is no accident; he’s developed technology allowing him to peer directly into the virtual world he’s created with the very same camera lens used to capture the actors’ live performances. From the results it’s highly evident this approach provides him means to harness his vast experience framing live action scenes, translating both his talent and intuition for finding the perfect shot.

Again, lots of wonderful eye candy, but alas there is much more to a movie than the eyes can see and this is the thing troubling me the most: the story. I’m really surprised to be criticizing what I feel has always been Cameron’s strongest suit, his ability to tell sweeping epics within any genre he chooses. Outside of its projection into the future this story seems composed of some very cliché elements, being highly evocative of Dances with Wolves meets Starship Troopers. Unless there is a vast conspiracy to deceive my perception of the story, I’m loathe to admit that it’s beginning feel like a preachy Hollywood-liberal one-dimensional-republican-bad-guys-try-to-rape-fuzzy-woodland-creatures movie. This seems abhorrently derivative for a story-smith of Cameron’s caliber and I desperately hope he has not otherwise soiled a brilliant technical effort with a story that could be imagined by a seven year-old whose brain has been damaged by far too many viewings of Disney’s Pocahontas.

Please, do us all a favor and go see this movie when it comes out. It is bold, it is innovative and it’s not a sequel. And in spite of what failings it could have as a story the movie cannot be faulted for being a half-hearted attempt at distracting you in order to sneak $12 from your wallet. Instead I saw glimpses of a movie overflowing with an obsessive labor of love to bring a singular vision to life. Cameron is very brave; we should all reward his fearless desire to show us new things…unless you’re just dying to see Transformers 3, 4 and 5. If this is the case I would politely request that you please stay at home and play with plastic grocery bags at every opportunity.

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