If James Cameron’s Avatar is the most important movie of our time, shouldn’t it look a whole lot better than your typical cut scene from the latest edition of Final Fantasy? That was the first thought running through our heads as we watched the disappointing teaser trailer this morning. (We were forced to watch it over at the French version of MSN, since the “exclusive premiere” at Apple totally crashed their servers. Whoops!) What starts off promising enough—shots of star Sam Worthington in a wheelchair, a bunch of military guys mobilizing, actor Stephen Lang sporting a vicious three-clawed scar—devolves into a CGI carnival that looks less realistic than your average Pixar movie. Um, this is what we’ve been waiting for?
Special effects technology has certainly come a long way since Mr. Cameron wowed us all with Titanic, but that doesn’t actually mean directors know what they’re doing with all this whiz-bang. George Lucas proved that with the Star Wars prequels—we’d call them cartoonish, but that would be an insult to cartoons. Those effects-heavy films lacked weight and depth; putting aside the wooden scripts, you never felt like what you were watching was grounded in any reality. Avatar might have a script worthy of Quentin Tarantino, circa Pulp Fiction, but based on the visuals in the trailer, we don’t think that’s going to make much of a difference. If we couldn’t buy the Na’vi’ aliens (as they’re called) in two minutes, what makes anyone think we’ll buy them over the course of a two-and-a-half hour movie?
Not everyone shares this opinion, naturally. In Contention’s Kris Tapley, who saw the 25-minute Avatar screening at Comic-Con, says that the effects look much better in context and even goes as far as to say that Mr. Cameron is incapable of screwing up on a level of Mr. Lucas, simply because he’s the King of the World. That may very well be, and, truth be told, we’re hoping it’s true—lucky fans will get to see much of that sizzle reel tomorrow during the special IMAX screenings of Avatar, heretofore known as “Avatar Day”—but that doesn’t mean we’re excited for this thing. Think of it this way: Back in 1996, Mr. Cameron built giant sets and dunked Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in ice cold water for hours on end to film Titanic. We have a feeling that if he made that film today, it would be done with sheets of green screen—a cornucopia of computer-generated images—where even the water was a special effect. Avatar might be the future of film, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.