Friday, July 24, 2009

My Brain Isn't Ready for Avatar.

The buzz surrounding James Cameron's forthcoming Avatar, his first real "movie" in over twelve years, is about to make my head explode. And if the hype doesn't do it, the movie very well may. I've been anxious for a sneak peek of Avatar for almost a year now and, finally, Cameron is starting to show off his latest creation to the press. There's still no trailer, still no mass-leaked footage, and still only a handful of production stills, but today at Comic-Con 2009, the geek event which has almost nothing to do with comic books anymore, Cameron showed off 24 minutes of 3-D footage. He did the same thing about two weeks ago for various foreign distributors. Uniformly, the preview is being hailed as "jaw-dropping", "a game-changer", and as something which "will change the way we watch movies." Other people have claimed "there's just never been a film that looks like this."

There's a part of me which now really wants to hate Avatar. The more hyped people get, the more I gravitate towards the role of the anti-hype---the guy who has to remind people just how awful Titanic really was...just how racist and uneven True Lies was...and just how damn irritating Cameron was when he accepted the Oscar for Titanic. Except...Cameron is a guy who is able to make game-changing movies. Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2, three movies he made consecutively between 1986 and 1991, are not just three of my all-time favorite movies, they're also movies which represented giant leaps forward in special effects. Who can forget when the alien pseudopod in The Abyss emerges from the water? Or when Robert Patrick's Terminator in T2 transforms his limbs into shiny metallic knives? These special effects were beyond cutting edge at the time---they were next generation effects, templates for what's still being widely used today. But more than that, Cameron incorporated those effects into compelling narratives. His movies weren't just showpieces for the wizards at ILM. The effects backed the movie, not the other way around.

Now, as if the buzz wasn't enough, there's legitimate discussion that the movie may actually blow your mind. Literally. There's been a lot of chatter in recent months about how this 3-D experience will finally allow viewers to cross the uncanny valley, "the point at which a viewer’s responsiveness to a simulated human takes a sudden drop into revulsion as the image comes close to reality but strikes the watcher as being zombie-like, or not quite right." This barrier, if crossed, has some respected scientists suggesting it will tap into areas of our brain that 2-D movies have been unable to reach. "Dreaming with your eyes wide open," is one way it's been described...a feeling that "stays with you for days after you experienced it." This sounds simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. Joshua Quittner, a technology writer for Time magazine, saw a 15-minute screening of the film several months ago and had this to say about it:

“It was like doing some kind of drug,” he said, describing a scene in which the movie’s hero, played by Sam Worthington, ran around “with this kind of hot alien chick,” was attacked by jaguar-like creatures and was sprinkled with sprites that floated down, like snowflakes.
“You feel like the little feathery things are landing on your arm,” said Mr. Quittner, who remained eager for another dose.

Feeling the hype yet? I keep waiting for someone to step in and say, "it's good, but it's not THAT good." It aint happened yet. In fact, Cameron is so confident in Avatar, he announced today that free 15-minute previews will be shown at IMAX theatres on August 21st, a fairly unprecedented move to say the least. I'm really not sure which is going to kill me: the hype, or the movie? All I know is this sounds like a drug I'm willing to try. I just hope it doesn't leave me passed out in a pool of my own vomit like most other drugs tend to do to me.


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