So the real trailer for James Cameron’s next movie, “Avatar,” is finally out, and I’ve been observing three general strains of reaction:
- This looks really awesome!
- Meh, that’s an awful lot of CGI and we’ve seen it before. What’s all the hype about?
My reaction is more the first than the second.
I think the hype—which should be noted is only present in some quarters, as I know more than a few people who haven’t heard much about this movie at all yet—is unfortunate, since it can blow expectations to an unrealizable point. It’s also inevitable, given that “Titanic” remains the highest grossing film of all time, and “Terminator,” “Terminator 2” and “Aliens” are among the best genre action films ever made.
But that is an awful lot of CGI and we have seen it before. Right? AFter all, we’ve seen fully CGI actors before, like Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.” Of course, that was just one CGI actor. Well, we’ve seen whole movies with CGI actors before, though, like in Beowulf.
Right then. Really, we haven’t quite seen this before.
CGI hit a point a few years ago where the challenge started to be less about being true to life and more about being true to film. Can you direct the “virtual” camera the same way you can direct a real one? Can the CGI actors be real enough to act? So far, the only CGI films that have really been pushing the true-to-film limits have been Pixar’s.
Cameron has been (at least implicitly) promising a paradigm shift with this film, so if expectations are unduly inflated he earns a good chunk of the blame. But the thing is, he may actually be right. The “paradigm” isn’t about technology, per se. It’s about making the technology seamless to the director, and about what possibilities for storytelling that may open up.
What he’s trying to do, in other words, is bring Pixar-esque magic to live action, to make CGI more than just special effects. Will “Avatar” manage that? After just two minutes of footage, I’m pretty sure it’s the best shot we’ve seen to date.
And it has Space Marines and 10′ tall blue cat people. C’mon.
(N.B.: There is also a third strain of reaction, mocking the movie for looking like “Ferngully” or having a “Dances with Wolves” kind of plot. The first comparison is bluntly pretty stupid; the second one isn’t, although what came to me was Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. Cameron’s never been a particularly original storyteller. But his execution is always top-notch and—I’m looking at you, Bay—he doesn’t believe action/adventure tales require you to turn your brain off.)