I Saw the Avatar Footage. And Though I Pass Through the Uncanny Valley of Death, I Will Fear No Evil.

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James Cameron standing around on the Avatar set

James Cameron standing around on the Avatar set

So I just came back from a theater in midtown Manhattan where they screened about 25 minutes of footage from James Cameron’s much-gestated Avatar. And wow. There’s seriously a lot to think about there.

 

Quick premise recap. Paralyzed ex-marine’s consciousness is projected into 10-foot-tall blue alien humanoid body on planet Pandora. He is supposed to help evil corporation strip-mine said planet, possibly while beating on 10-foot-tall blue alien humanoids who live there. But they are spiritual and connected to nature, and also kinda hot. Life lessons ensue.

As far as I can tell there is no airbending in this movie.

I might as well declare defeat up front: by Crom, he’s done it. CGI-wise, Cameron has cracked the problems of weight and light. The Navi — that’s what the aliens are called — sorry, Na’vi — look real the way no CGI critter ever has before. Light plays off their skin right. It shines through the skin on their elf-ears right. Their hair whips around right. Their faces make real-person expressions. Most important, they don’t have that slightly weightless look that you’re used to. They look like they have actual muscles and guts and stuff inside them.

In other words, this part of the evolution of CGI is now largely over. Yea verily, we have walked through the uncanny valley and out into the undiscovered country on the other side.

Yeah, there are some question marks about Avatar. I wish the Na’vi weren’t such standard-issue National-Geographic exotics. They live in jungles, speak a guttural dialect, bond with nature, have tribal rituals and lore, carry spears, etc. For a bunch of aliens, they’re pretty damn familiar.

And I wish they’d given the script some more literary love. It has that functional, George Lucas feel to it. And you get a little impatient with Jake, the hero, who turns out to be this kind of angry jock who’s all into breaking rules and smashing stuff. (He’s played by Sam Worthington, the cyborg — spoiler alert! — from Terminator Salvation.) And there’s some real cut’n’paste environmentalism. Heartless corporation rapes verdant landscape for fun and profit. Wasn’t that the plot of the Fletch sequel?

But whatever, I’ve seen only an extremely fragmentary version of the story. Whereas I got a good look at the effects, and on that front it’s clear that they’ve done what they set out to do. I don’t know if Cameron is going to be the one to make a truly great movie with this tech, but somebody is.

Also let me tell you, those Na’vi don’t overdo it on the clothing. We can all look forward to a new era of hyper-realistic stripy blue alien side-boob.

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