Avatar, The Monday After: Brilliant, or Bust?

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I took my second trip to Pandora Friday night – this time at a different IMAX 3D screen, with a couple hundred giddy first-timers. You can find a recap of my first impressions a week ago here. (You can also read the complete Avatar roundtable discussion here) As for round two, my thoughts:

The level of excitement at this midtown Manhattan movie theater was pretty remarkable. Lines were forming 45 minutes ahead of time, filled with giddy college students who were so excited about the spectacle that they started peaking into a nearby theater that was halfway through the screening. What jumped out at me, though, was not that they were excited about the story, but about how the 3-D looked. They were bursting with curiosity as to how a filmmaker of Cameron’s caliber had harnessed 3-D.

You could tell that people knew they were for an evening-long experience. They were in for the long haul. They hunkered down, started talking to their neighbors, ate food that they had brought in from nearby restaurants. We showed up at the theater at 6:15 p.m., and left around 10:15. It almost had the atmosphere of a Broadway venue on opening night.

For both Avatar screenings, I saw the movie at “IMAX 3-D Experience” venues – the same sorts of venues that have earned some criticism from bloggers in the past, for using screens that are only slightly bigger than your average theater. I can’t speak for what others are encountering across the country, but what I noticed at New York’s “IMAX Experience” screens was pretty impressive. The image was huge, the digital projection was crisp, and you can also tell that James Cameron brightened the colors of his story to combat the dimming effect of the  3-D glasses. All in all, in the case of Avatar, I thought the complete 3-D IMAX environment was relatively flawless. Unlike Harry Potter, or some of these other films that were made in 2-D and then modified for the 3-D IMAX screens, Avatar proves that a film made to be 3-D must be seen in a venue such as this. (More at Techland: The top 10 spaceships ever conceived)

That said, I was shocked at the number of people who have asked me about whether this should be seen in 3-D. I guess I really shouldn’t be all that surprised; there have been plenty of movies in the past where I would have said, “it really doesn’t matter.” But just as Planet Earth was the first TV event that just had to be seen in high-definition, I think Avatar is the first movie that simply must be seen in 3-D. It’s the experience of inhabiting this world, of riding atop these Banshees, that makes Avatar the experience it is. To see it on 2-D is to lose half the film’s impact. Furthermore: Seeing a preview of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 3-D only reasserted the fact that filmmakers are embracing 3-D as an artistic decision; this is the future of Hollywood.

Imagine my dismay then when I was reading about the limited 3-D venues out there for Avatar. Talking to my brother, he said there were only two or three 3-D screens in southeastern Wisconsin. Imagine all the people being forced into seeing this in 2-D…they are only seeing half the movie! Even Fox has admitted that there are not as many 3-D venues open today as they would have hoped for. In the New York Times, they pin the blame on the credit crunch and industry “squabbling.” I find this utterly fascinating: The artistic will is now present, for major directors to start working in 3-D, but the infrastructure is simply not there.

On to the story. After a second viewing, I now feel as if the set-up to the plot – so perhaps the first 30 minutes or so – are a little cheesy. The dialogue’s choppy and some of the themes are derivative, but that’s off-set by Cameron’s slow and gradual revealing of Pandora itself. Also, the racial issues of the white visitors and the blue natives struck me as a little more troublesome this time around.

But on the plus side: The special effects impressed me even more. Particularly Jake’s first ride atop a Banshee – everything from the camera angles to the Banshee skin to the sense of depth, being a thousand feet up and riding atop a dinosaur…this all still gave me chills.

And Zoe Saldana – I’m not quite sure how she doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. Her performance as Neytiri in many ways holds the film together through these early scenes with Jake getting introduced to the Na’vi tribe. I think this will be the first computer-generated performance to garner an Oscar nod.

The movie didn’t perform huge at the box office: $73 million, which is great for a 3-hour movie. But definitely hurt by the long running time, weaker than normal midnight showings on Thursday night (I think it’s because of the limited 3-D venues), and the massive East Coast storm that kept people hunkered down across the country Saturday night. But I’m betting the drop-off from this week to next is smaller than usual. People are going to go back again; I’m going for a third time over the holidays. Word of mouth is going to spread, about the amazing 3-D effects. More people will finally be able to get into 3-D venues. And Fox is quick to point out that the global totals last weekend were $232 million. They claim this is the biggest opening ever for an “original content” movie (not a franchise, or sequel, etc.)

So how about you? Were you one of the few who braved the storm to see Avatar this weekend? What did you think? Did the 3-D seem revolutionary to you? Was Pandora everything you were hoping for? (Check out our top 10 films of the decade)