Freeze Frame: Avatar’s Deep Horizons

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This is part of an ongoing weekly series called “Freeze Frame,” where we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features.)

Appreciating Avatar’s Deep Horizons

Avatar continues to dominate at the box office, having not only smashed the records for all-time IMAX attendance but also surpassing the box office totals for James Cameron’s last world record holder, Titanic.

I’ve seen the thing three times myself, and each time, there are two moments that jump out at me. Two images that this morning leave me tempted to go back for one more tour through Pandora, in the glory of IMAX.

It might surprise you to learn that I almost never find myself thinking much of the battle sequences. Sure, I love the banshees flying headfirst into battle, sticking their heads into choppers, grabbing the mercenaries in their teeth and flinging these alien oppressors to their death. That’s pretty damn cool.

But the one shot from Pandora that jumps out at me most is a fleeting, tranquil moment – a shot that only lasts two seconds at most, only hinting at the endless wonders here that slowly entice one former marine to fight back against his own species to protect it.

Now I know that the Avatar backlash is alive and well, that the word on the street is that the story is simplistic and borderline silly. But if I’m being honest here, I still think the story works. The characters are clearly defined. The emotions are genuine. Jake does not embrace the Na’vi culture easily. His integration is a slow, 3-month-long process. And I think Cameron, in cutting back and forth between a lush and exotic Pandoran utopia, and Jake’s crippled, drab human existence, presents a compelling case that this guy would have indeed gone rogue.

My favorite sequence of the film is Jake’s first nighttime frolick through this extra-terrestrial paradise with Neytiri, awash in the bioluminescent glow of a foreign world with endless wonders. Many of Cameron’s images here are of plants or insects, glowing in the evening. But in one fleeting shot, we see the silhouettes of Jake and Neytiri as they swim through some sort of fluorescent pond (see above). The camera looks up from the water’s depths, capturing the pulsing greens and purples, and the image suggests just how far this dazzling horizon spreads. Not just achingly beautiful and visually sublime, it starts to broaden our comprehension: We’re probably not even seeing the best parts of Pandora here. Each discovery is more mind-boggling than the last. And Jake, like us, is seeing things beyond his wildest imagination.

The more he sees, the more he begins to weigh Pandora against the wonders of Earth. (More at Techland: See Our Complete Avatar Coverage)

My second favorite shot of the film is notable less for its aesthetic charms, or its function in the storyline, than its brazen declaration of what Cameron has conceived with his 3-D technology.

Five or six shots into the film, as Jake awakens from his slumber, Cameron teases the audience with a standard 3-D gimmick: A drop of water floating in the air, hovering in front of the screen. But then the focus reverses, and the camera zooms in from the water droplet to Jake’s eyes, revealing in that one camera trick just how much depth Cameron has to work with in this format. From droplet to face, our eyes start to acclimate to Cameron’s deep, dense vision.

The action then cuts to a sort of cargo bay, as Jake and the others slide out of their sleeping chambers. And it is this shot, more than any other in the entire film, that reveals the extent to which 3-D can be used to achieve a sense of depth and dimension never before realized on a movie screen. There are a lot of great 3-D moments in this film, but this cargo bay, for me, is the game-changer. It is so startling, as your eyes adjust to process the full length of the spaceship, that we are thrust into this space, floating alongside Jake Sully.

In the weeks since my first viewing, these are two Avatar moments that I think about, that I talk about; How about you?