Avatar = "Apocalypto" + George Lucas

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 22 2009 11:08 PM

Avatar = "Apocalypto" + George Lucas

More than 100,000 people were expected at IMAX movie theaters Friday night for " Avatar  Day," a 16-minute sneak preview of James Cameron's science-fiction epic. In what the New York Times called an " audacious marketing ploy ," 20 th Century Fox made an extended trailer for the film which is due to be released in December into a major theatrical event with ticketed showings on more than 100 screens. Yet despite all the hype (and all the hype about the hype), the screening I attended in midtown Manhattan was only one-third full.

It's too bad; I would have liked to see how the footage played to a crowd. The smattering of viewers at the AMC Empire theater watched in near-silence as the CGI-heavy, three-dimensional action sequences played on an enormous screen. No doubt some were put off by the movie's cornball heroes. As I watched a tribe of blue-skinned cat people wearing loincloths and glitter makeup wrestle their way through an enchanted forest of savage beasts and glowing jellyfish, I couldn't help but wonder whether this is what Apocalypto might have looked like had it been directed by George Lucas.

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Much of the ballyhoo for Avatar has focused on Cameron's supposedly groundbreaking technical innovations , which may account for the film's estimated $240 million budget. (In March, a writer for Time  wondered whether the revolutionary special effects might "be the thing that forces the theaters to convert to digital .") Here's what I can tell you based on the trailer: The 3-D effects do look pretty darn good they're easy on the eyes and do a wonderful job of immersing the viewer in the film's alien-jungle psychedelia. My only complaint is that some of the off-planet scenes suffer from a rather pronounced dollhouse effect, with the real-life sets and human actors appearing weirdly small.

I'm less sanguine about the computer graphics. The scenes shown Friday were almost exclusively CGI: animated feline humanoids doing animated flips as they hurled animated spears at animated dinosaurs. I'm sure the algorithms used to construct these battles were as sophisticated as any in the history of filmmaking but everything still looked a little off to me. The movements were too smooth and slippery, like Yoda's cartoonish acrobatics from Star Wars . For all Cameron's technical wizardry, the digital characters in Avatar remain lodged somewhere on the far slope of the uncanny valley .

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate