Just came back from the 3D IMAX screening of 16 minutes from James Cameron’s Avatar. Though it’s technically impressive, the preview left me cold emotionally. Based on the reaction of others in the theater and things I overheard on the way out (saw Linda Hamilton and Sam Worthington in the lobby), I’m probably in the minority.
Full disclosure: I’m a die-hard Cameron fan and have seen almost all his movies despite the fact I don’t really like sci-fi. That’s because he’s good at putting humans we can root for at the center of all his mind-blowing effects. The T-1000’s liquid metal body in Terminator 2: Judgment Day was brilliant but I loved the movie because of Linda Hamilton’s fierce fight to protect her son. Didn’t we all wish we had a badass mother like that? Likewise Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens, and she wasn’t even Newt’s mom. And the sinking of the Titanic was jaw-dropping but the movie wouldn’t have become Box Office King of the World (still reigning) if we didn’t have Jack and Rose at the heart of the story (or should that be Heart of the Ocean?).
Which brings me to the central issue I had with the Avatar clips. Here’s the plot, excerpted from an official 20th Century Fox announcement:
The story’s protagonist, Jake Sully, is an ex-Marine who was wounded and paralyzed from the waist down in combat on Earth. In order to participate in the Avatar program, which will give him a healthy body, Jake agrees to travel to Pandora, a lush rainforest environment filled with incredible life forms – some beautiful, many terrifying.
Pandora is also the home to the Na’vi, a humanoid race that lives at what we consider to be a primate level, but they are actually much more evolved than humans. Ten feet tall and blue skinned, the Na’vi live harmoniously within their unspoiled world. But as humans encroach on Pandora in search of valuable minerals, the Na’vi’s very existence is threatened – and their warrior abilities unleashed.
Jake has unwittingly been recruited to become part of this encroachment. Since humans are unable to breathe the air on Pandora, they have created genetically-bred human-Na’vi hybrids known as Avatars. The Avatars are living, breathing bodies in the real world, controlled by a human driver through a technology that links the driver’s mind to the Avatar body. On Pandora, through his Avatar body, Jake can be whole once again. Moreover, he falls in love with a young Na’vi woman, Neytiri, whose beauty is matched by her ferocity in battle.
As Jake slides deeper into becoming one of her clan, he finds himself caught between the military-industrial forces of Earth, and the Na’vi – forcing him to choose sides in an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.
The clips start out great with Stephen Lang, as Col. Quaritch, giving a pretty powerful speech to his gang of soldiers, explaining how his job is to keep them alive but that he knows he will fail. He says Pandora is such a hostile environment that afterwards, one might consider a vacation in hell. Lang is charismatic and tough, with a scar on the side of his head like he’d been gouged by a giant animal but somehow survived.
Then Jake rolls down in his wheelchair and we cut to him being transformed into an Avatar, a big blue creature with a tail and yellow eyes. The rest of the clips show Jake on Pandora, fighting scary dinosaur-like creatures and meeting Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana). You can see some of this in the teaser trailer available here.
The visuals are stunning, especially in 3D. The wildlife on Pandora is beautiful and lush with lots of texture. But I felt like I was watching a video game, albeit one with a gigantic budget, because I just couldn’t get drawn into the story. I care about humans; I couldn’t quite relate to these strange blue creatures. Some of the Na’vi shown weren’t even that friendly, including Neytiri. I need a human guide in this alien world and a blue, virtual Jake wasn’t doing it for me.
Of course, I’m basing this on only 16 minutes of film. I’m still looking forward to seeing the movie and trust that Cameron knows how to make a good, if not great, one. I want to see more of Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Augustine (looks like she’s in charge of the Avatar transformations and an expert on Pandora’s indigenous creatures). And that battle between humans and Na’vi promises to be pretty amazing.
Did you see it? What did you think?