THE STEREO -- most people refer to this as the 3D. I'm following Cameron's own nomenclature. We have stereophonic sound, because we have two ears. This is stereoscopic video, because we have two eyes. Therefore, "3D" in this note refers to the "graphics." The stereo visuals were real good. And outstanding. And mediocre. They varied quite a bit, which is at every step a conscious decision made by the director. Fast cuts and action sequences tended to be "flatter." Stills, slow pans, and relatively static scenes tended to have much more depth.
I think Cameron erred on the side of caution in a lot of sequences. Some scenes were just BREATHTAKINGLY deep, others seemed hardly to have any Z-depth at all. But I think the distinctions were made intelligently and smoothly. The first scene involves the main character waking up from suspended animation in a weightless chamber. Very slow-moving and to my eyes eerily realistic. The illusion of a *real person* floating there just a few feet in front of me caught me completely by surprise.
Stereo is very immersive. It provides a depth that draws the viewer in like flat/mono-depth could never do. Subconsciously, you feel a part of what's going on in front of you. Your mind is engaged much more. There's more electrical activity up there. It's like being very very stoned or having a very lucid and realistic dream.
Now, as good as Avatar was in stereo, the previews were BETTER. Shrek 4 and Alice in Wonderland both seemed to have much greater dynamic Z depth. Alice in particular was unbelievable! But Cameron would probably say that they lacked subtlety in their use of stereo depth. They beat you over the head with it. I'll take it though. Alice is going to be a monster of a movie.
Unfortunately the film is still in the same lackluster 24 frames per second that every film since the dawn of cinema has been shown in. This means it judders and strobes just like any movie, and although it has probably the most stable and smooth "camera" work of any film ever made, very fast action sequences were still a little hard to follow. Cameron really wanted to do Avatar at 48 frames per second, and the technology is easily there, but he's fighting even more inertia on frame rate than he is on mono vs. stereo visuals. It's a shame. 48 fps would have made the stereo crystal clear and much more lifelike. One thing is certain though: stereo television, which will be called "3D television," is going to be HUGE. I can't wait. Avatar will sell the technology. It's a letdown to watch pedestrian television again.
I have to see this film at a theater with a Christie Digital Projector. The downtown AMC theater I saw it in had uneven illumination, convergence/concavity problems, and wasn't as sharp as a RAVE theater. As far as I can tell, there are three stereo/3D formats -- RealD, Dolby3D, and XD 3D. XD is the best, but it is very rare -- only fifteen rooms in the world are set up for XD 3D at this point in time.
THE VISUALS -- not to be overshadowed by the output format, the actual design of Avatar is gorgeous and shockingly cohesive. Year 2154 technology looks plausible and fully realized. The biology and geology of the fictional satellite Pandora are beautiful, varied, and feasible. Much of the animal life reminded me a bit of Barlowe's Expedition, although Darwin IV's wildlife was definitely more varied and imaginative.
This movie probably broke all sorts of technological records as far as 3D modeling, rendering, and animation. I'm sure more polygons were handled, more motion capture points (including facially) were utilized, more rendering passes were completed than for any other project before it. The non-character modeling, animation, and lighting is now virtually indistinguishable from real life. And it's depicting an absolutely fabulous and wondrous dream world here. Watch for the scene where Jake is ready to take a steed. I don't know if there's ever been a more luscious and beautiful sequence in the history of film. The film transports you to this world. The "cgi" is effortless.
I loved the computer designs. I want holographic touch screens NOW. As mentioned above, the camera is excellent. It's the anti-Blair Witch Project and is one of the more subtle benefits of a fully 3D directing environment. The camera is always your friend in this film and it enhances the viewing pleasure greatly. They've solved all model interaction/clipping problems, things that have plagued 3D graphics for decades.
The constant explosion of color will give all your rods and cones an incredible workout. This can't be bad. There are virtually colors you've never seen before, or the illusion of them anyway. As you're sitting there watching you're thinking this can't be a $12 movie. The experience is just so THERE and so solid and affecting, it should cost $80. And I'd gladly pay. There is so much to see that one viewing is absurdly inadequate. I plan to see it at least twice more.
THE FILM -- so is it Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans, or Dances With Wolves? All of those and much more. Let me get this out of the way. There are three "cheesy" moments. First, a character uses the phrase "shock and awe." This was just too obvious and self-conscious. It pulled me out of the matrix briefly. Second, Jake goes and summons several different Indian tribes... err Na'vi tribes. The analogue to the above films was just a little too unsettling right at that moment. Third, when the "elephants" attack, it's just a little bit too timely, but what makes it worse is the inappropriately triumphant music that plays right at that moment.
Forget these moments and the movie is outstanding. I was afraid the story was going to have the same type of hokey earth-spirit mysticism as Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, but enough thought was put into it that it made sense. I couldn't help but be drawn in. I fell in love with the world, the tribe, the magic, and then I cared immensely when those fuckers wanted so callously to destroy it for the sake of profit.
Character development, pacing, impact, moral, message, clarity, sequencing, vision. This film does everything at least very well, and some of it extremely well. It almost transcends criticism. Frat boys wouldn't like it. Stupid people might not like it.
The gravity of the film is real. Aside from the "shock and awe" comment mentioned above, it does a great job of exposing what our own military has been doing, including the privatization of the military, without being too overt. This makes its message more powerful by a level of magnitude than any other film that takes a more direct and overt approach. How can anyone justify what WE do after truly absorbing this movie? I'm reminded of my favorite line from the German film The Lives of Others, in which one of the characters asks, 'how can anyone who has heard, TRULY heard Mozart be a bad person?'
The most unbelievable comment I've read so far is that it is too long. Or that it drags. NOTHING could be further from the truth, in my opinion. If you want constant action with no dynamic range, I'm sure there's another shitty Jason Statham flick on the horizon. Avatar moves, and it is epically moving. This is a fantastic film.
In the end, what really puts it into a league of its own is the way the stereo, the 3D graphics, and the plot/characters/setting all work together seamlessly to make it greater than the sum of these parts.