Put simply, Avatar is the most visually fantastic film I've ever seen. It will be hailed as the groundbreaking 3D release of its time while setting a new standard by which all blockbusters are measured. Yes, it's that good.
I'm not going to talk about plot (or that I thought to myself, Dances with Wolves in space more than once). I'm not going to talk about dialog or pacing (or that the limited narration was totally unnecessary). There are other reviews, more reviewy type reviews, that have all that covered. I'm not going to spoil anything, either. Heck, I'm not even going to talk about Avatar...not just yet.
I want to talk about Jurassic Park.
Jurassic Park was the first movie I remember being excited to an unhealthily obsessive level. My dad, a huge Michael Crichton fan, did his best to tempt my young self into reading the full-out book. So he told me a sort of good parts version, filling my head with tales of dinosaur resurrection from amber dug up deep in the Earth, all while I would do my best to get more and more out of him without actually having to crack open a book.
So when I heard Jurassic Park was becoming a movie, not only did that dash any chance of me reading the story, but I literally could not fathom a world in which I'd be patient enough to wait to see it (not that I had any other option). I mean, dinosaurs, theme parks, and terror? Jurassic Park was biologically engineered for young boys.
All of this is nice background, but my point is simpler. When I saw those dinosaurs on screen, knowing that, in many cases, they'd been modeled purely by computers—computers!—I felt like anything was possible. Yes, it's a cliche feeling. That's actually why I'm sharing it. Because ultimately, we all have that movie—be it Star Wars or Terminator or whatever—that movie we actually felt a bit humbled, even challenged, watching because it was was an amuse-bouche of the future, even if a bit cheesy at heart.
Avatar is that movie for the new generation.
I don't expect you to believe me if you haven't seen the film yet. I, myself, was a huge skeptic until a few hours ago. Blue people? Papyrus font?? What the fuck happened to dinosaurs and light sabers and killer robots from the future? Did we use all the cool stuff up?
But about 30 minutes in to the film, you realize that the marketing has undersold the movie. In an era when every great moment of a film makes its way to a trailer, Avatar surprised me with an endless amount of unparalleled optical overload. Every single shot is just so full of detail that you literally open your eyes wider to take as much in as you can before each cut.
Gizmodo readers will love the tech, especially as that about 50% of the film's budget apparently went to rendering badass 3D curved displays and absurdly awesome cockpits. But sequences from Pandora's woods at night...let's just say they're the first luminescent visual effects I've seen that made 1982's Tron look like a 27-year-old movie.
Also, while shots of the Na'vi (the blue dudes) clearly deviate from a 50/50 balance between real footage and CGI depending on the scene, their body animation, even for motion capture, is unparalleled. While their faces and eyes especially can appear a tad cartoony at times, the overall effect is not done justice by YouTube trailers or that shot pasted above. Call the effect hyperreal or even unreal, but it's certainly doesn't look "fake." I don't know that I've ever witnessed complete humanoid models move so realistically, especially given their exposure (in both screen time and skin).
Of course, Avatar's 3D is the basis of my obnoxious zeal for the aesthetics. I viewed the film in a full-sized IMAX theater. And while I knew that a fair share of missiles would fly off the screen (and ZOMG the mechs look amazing), I couldn't have expected the sheer tangibility that 3D—what I once supposed a gimmick—added to the experience. I mean, I saw textures in this film that I've never seen in a movie before, like wet, rubbery skin on the wildcats of Pandora that made people around me gasp more than once. There's a more understated moment, too, when Sam Worthington shaves and you realize, wow, stubble is pretty remarkable in 3D. The jagged hairs bring a level of humanity to his character, adding something unexpectedly corporeal to what's really a 30-foot-tall head in closeup.
So yes, 3D is more than a gimmick. The glasses are still a pain, but 3D is here to stay.
Avatar doesn't handle this new technology perfectly, however, and I hope that other filmmakers learn from its mistakes. Especially early in the film during shots in close quarters, the direction allowed many objects to break frame (think of a person walking from one end of the screen to the other). For my untrained eyes, seeing a figure go from 2D to 3D to 2D was not only distracting, it was tiring. And the same can be said for a constantly shifting depth of field—based upon where the camera is focusing, you'll need to figure out whether to look deep into the screen or right in front of you.
An out of focus shoulder breaking the corner of the frame is pretty much the worst implementation of 3D I could imagine. Luckily, the forest sequences that make up the majority of the film seemed to have been planned with a wider depth of field—more of the shot is in focus.
After 2 1/2 hours in the theater, I am exhausted far more than the same amount of time playing an FPS would make me, but Avatar was so remarkable that it was well-worth the work of watching it.
I still can't imagine popping on a pair of glasses to watch the evening news after a long day of work, and I sympathized for the guy sitting beside me as he started rubbing his eyes about halfway through. As someone with a slight uncorrected astigmatism, my left eye was ready to fall out of its socket by the final climactic sequence.
But as viewers, we'll adapt to the new tech. And as technicians, Hollywood will learn the rules of 3D as it writes them.
So for now, I'm not quite ready to see every piece of the world's media in 3D. But Avatar? Yeah, I'll be seeing it again...and maybe again...just in hopes of absorbing a bit more of the visual splendor.