Monday, 17 August 2009

Avatar Impressions: seven minutes of heaven

So, the climactic highlight of day two of Empire magazine’s Movie-con was seven all too brief minutes of James Cameron’s Avatar, a piece of film history in the making I have dreamed of seeing for years. This was a portion, or little under half, of what was shown at Comic-con. Bit of a bummer, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers, and considering “Avatar day” and the reveal of the full bevy of footage, is some mere four days away, beggars can’t be impatient little whiners either.

So what the hell did we see, and does it as promised, beckon a new dawn of cinema into our lives? Needless to say, spoilers (of sorts - for purists anyway) follow. The clips were introduced by Cameron himself (oncsreen), but we couldn't hear what he was saying for the blood pounding in our ears..

The first clip shown is a military briefing. Pure Cameron, he’s made a movie with marines – first good sign. These weren't the ruffnecks of Aliens though, all told they looked like quite a clean cut, nerdy bunch, nary a tatoo or disdainful sneer in sight - a crack team of librarians. The 3D is fairly immersive, bearing in mind this wasn’t even on an IMAX screen, good depth to everything and all is nice and sharp with no blurry overlap like I’ve seen in other 3D films. Is this just because I’m sitting directly in the centre of the row, or to do with the strangely heavy, 3D glasses I’m wearing? Who knows. These suckers were not the usual run of the mill glasses that get dished out at RealD movies though, boasting an IR sensor on the front that I've since learned allowed each lens to react to the light from the screen, darkening or brightening, ensuring the correct image is shown to the correct eye. The company that makes them are here if you're interested - Cameron approved 3D Tech.

But I digress, so we’re in the military briefing as Sam Worthington rolls in to the back of the crowd in his wheelchair. The scarred chief of security Stephen Lang is barking at the new recruits, a nasty looking four finger/claw rake across his head – definitely a beastie injury – explaining how outside, on Pandora, everything they encounter will try to kill them. “You may want to consider a trip to hell for some R&R after a tour on Pandora.” Oh dear. He explains his job is to keep them alive, but he quickly manages their expectations with the comforting rider that he won’t be successful with everybody. Oh very dear.

Cut to the action. We’re in a jungle. A lush, luminous alien jungle, and a massive rhino creature with a hammerhead shark appendage is roaring and smashing the vegetation up. Worthington’s avatar is the focus of it’s attention – a blue skinned, feline faced creature. This is what it’s all been about, in the moments when we see the avatar closely, I really wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It’s clearly CG, but with an incredible detail and texture to it. The skin on it’s face somehow looked more skin like than the regular CG effort. It’s face contorts and twists with fear and doubt as the Rhino thing continues it’s rampage. Others are nearby, Sigourney Weaver’s avatar is offering advice, explaining that he mustn’t shoot the angry creature, or run away. "what should I do, dance with it?". More of them are watching in terror, each unique, one with strangely expressive eyes set far apart on its face. The rhino thing gets really feisty, so Worthington does too, charging right back at the massive beast, waving his blue arms. It works, the creature is freaked, it stops its charge and displays itself like a peacock with frilly neck flaps and a big roar. Looks very cool. Worthington is encouraged, but we see behind him another threat has emerged, a shiny black, panther like creature, with a predator-like, flapping toothy face, and probably bad breath. The rhino clocks it, and turns tail. Worthington thinks it’s reacting to him – “That’s right, bitch!” he hollers imaginatively. Of course, the panther makes itself known, leaping over Worthington to see off the rhino, who has run back to it’s pack – yes there are several of them off through the undergrowth, before turning it’s attention back to Worthington. It’s sleek and muscular, black and smooth, like a cougar from some heavy metal nightmare. He asks of Sigourney, should he run from this one? The answer is equivocal; yes, run! He runs.

Cue a breathless and thrilling chase through the undergrowth which blurs by, all the while the sinewy black panther-thing snapping at his heels. It is fast and powerful, and very convincing in it’s movements, as is Worthington’s avatar, who leaps and pegs it through the forest, stumbling blindly to get away. He takes refuge under the roots of a large tree, the creature smashes and snaps at them, splinters and debris flying everywhere. Worthington finally tries to shoot the thing, his gun emitting meaty old school gunfire with nice tracer fire. No pew pew lasers here. It’s all to no avail though, as the creature fluidly whips it’s head into the burrow, snatches the gun right out of his hands. Oh bums. He makes a break for it, but the thing is on him in an instant, as he falls to the ground towards the lens, the thing is leaping in a glorious slow mo onto him, slathering jaws open wide – and the footage ends. We all start shouting. That was never seven minutes! Apparently it was.

So they show it again! - much to my delight, but sadly no additional footage was forthcoming, damn them. The whole thing was very impressive, but too damn short to really get a bead on. The CG was without a doubt, extraordinary – detailed and with realism not seen before, and we emerged unsure as to how much of the rain forest was also CG – probably all of it on reflection. I emerged itching to see the Avatar itself again in closeup, as the few brief still shots of their unusual faces had been the highlight – the emotion mo-cap was amazing in the brief snatches we saw of it, with extremely realistic expressions that differed totally from something like say, Beowulf, in that it didn’t really look animated. Hard to pinpoint how that was happening to be honest, could it be Cameron really has broken some kind of uncanny valley barrier by blending the mocap with 3D? The clip also raised a few plot questions. Like, my understanding was that the avatar's were necessary because humans couldn't set foot on Pandora, on account of it being so hostile. But why then are some of the wet eared recruits in the briefing going to die? Surely if your avatar gets eaten, you just pop out of your control pod, and fire up a new one? Or is it a Matrix dealie situation, where the body cannot live without the mind? Or do only a select few get to use the avatars, while everyone else has to take their chances in the jungle? Curiouser and curiouser..

Anyway, Avatar day is fast approaching, so we’ll soon get to see the full 14 minutes of footage, on the IMAX screen, just as God, sorry, Cameron intended. Stay tuned for a blow by blow write up on that badboy too, or better yet, get yourself to a screening for a glimpse of the future of cinema so we can compare notes.

1 comment:

Hunter said...

Nice review, and I enjoyed your writing.

You're officially in the double digits!