Avatar, First Look: Why This Geek Hopes Pandora is the Future of Movies

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The first press screenings of Avatar were held late Thursday night, so naturally the reviews are flooding online today. We’re dying to hear what TIME’s film critic, Richard Corliss, thought of the whole thing – his review will be posted here in a day or two – and we’re going to be publishing a lengthier roundtable discussion later this afternoon, about what worked and what didn’t.

But aside from all the specifics, I had a few (spoiler-free) initial thoughts about something larger that I believe Avatar represents.

(More on Techland: Techland Chats About Reactions to Avatar)

As a hard-core film geek, I’ve seen plenty of sci-fi posers. Films that lose their soul to special effects or mythology run amok. I’m talking about you, Phantom Menace, or you, Transformers 2. You look so good, you feel so flashy, but there’s just nothing beneath the surface. No sense of wonder, no hint of discovery.

Avatar is selling itself as the future of cinema, and in one key way – after it rakes in hundreds of millions at the box office – I think it will prove to be just that. This is a movie that puts the focus not on wowing us with the same old effects sequences or star power, but with a whole new array of sensory experiences. We used to talk about computer effects being used in the service of a story; I think we will now start talking about computers being used towards creating the Immersive Moment. There were a few times in Avatar when I was on Pandora, in that jungle, at harmony with these new species that don’t actually exist. Kinda creepy, actually, if you think about it.  (More from Techland: Exclusive interview with actor Joel Moore, about Pandora, the Na’vi and getting drunk with James Cameron).

Now I realize that in watching all the film’s ads, and those initial confusing trailers, our collective skepticism has been dialed up to 11. We’ve grown wary about these funky blue aliens, about the value of this “revolutionary” 3-D look, about the convoluted back story required to get us to that blue moon in the Alpha Centauri system. The skepticism is healthy, but as far as I can tell, Cameron has made good on all his bets. We have a movie here built around 9-foot-tall fantasy creatures, but they nevertheless look completely believable and expressive. They exist in a fabricated universe that has all the weight, depth, complexity and diversity that is lacking from just about every other CG universe I’ve encountered.

But when Peter, Lev and I all sat down Thursday night with our 3-D glasses, annoyed at the thought of the 160-minute running time, I wasn’t expecting the immersive entertainment that rolled out. This isn’t a battle film at all. All those explosions you see in the ads? Those don’t come for a good two hours. Up until then, it’s a Dances With Wolves-like immersion in a culture, landscape and universe that is utterly, wonderfully foreign. But now imagine hearing the story of Dances With Wolves not as some distant chapter of history but if you were living in an East Coast city during the Civil War, unaware of what the frontier even looked like. Avatar builds the rules from the ground up, and part of the fun is learning the way the whole thing works.

(More from Techland: The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Decade)

There are moments here that rival the newness of the original Star Wars. We start learning about an ecosystem that functions in ways that no Earthly ecosystem could. We come to identify with an entirely new race, the Na’vi, that maneuver, think and love in ways that we don’t initially understand. And Cameron, unlike the last George Lucas movies, doesn’t sit there and spell it all out in some awful exposition; he uses his 3-D, and his main character, to throw audiences into the thick of things.  All the while he presents the reality of the human world as a gray, sterile alternative, the ugly place that the our hero must return to when his blue body goes to sleep. My favorite moment of the entire film isn’t an action sequence;  it’s a nighttime swim in a fluorescent lagoon. The shot lasts maybe two seconds. But the reason I’ll be seeing Avatar again – and quite possibly again after that – is not to see anything resembling an attack of the clones, but to get lost in the pulse and pageantry of this intergalactic paradise.

But I digress: Most sci-fi blockbusters nowadays are about humans and the “spectacular others” dueling it out in Earthly settings. Humans battling transforming robots. Humans attacking aliens in District 9. Humans aboard the Starship Enterprise. And the sci-fi elements almost always build to an immense action sequence.

But Avatar might be the first film in which the “others” feel more spectacular than the “real” humans. And the CG sequences are not the asides, but the thrust.

Rather than a continued focus on bigger and badder explosions in Hollywood, here’s my hope: That Avatar represents a step forward towards cinema’s merging with video games, breathing life into new worlds that we can then experience on their own terms. Is Avatar a great film? I have no idea. But I believe that Avatar will stand as the proof that cinema can strive for something more nuanced and magical with its state-of-the-art technology.

Sure, you can blow up stuff real good, but now you can also invent something utterly new and unique, with a degree of realism that was once unthinkable.

The Avatar ads say “Movies will never be the same.” Well, maybe. What is certain, at the very least, is that a whole lot of movies are going to start feeling like inadequate experiences after this. Cameron, yet again, has set a new high-bar, for not only what can be done on the movie screen but also why it should be done. He’s proven that movies can aspire to be so much more.

See Techland’s complete Avatar coverage.