The screen fills with a close-up of a military-issued boot marching along. Its owner, a grizzled and scarred commander, bellows, “You ain't in Kansas anymore.”
So begins the preview footage of Avatar, the long-awaited and much ballyhooed sci-fi epic from James Cameron.
It's the filmmaker's first full-length feature project since Titanic made him the self-proclaimed “King of the World.” Needless to say, Cameron knows the expectations are astronomical. He all but says he’s up for the challenge in the first moments of this preview package. Starting off with the Dorothy quote, Cameron is essentially saying, “This is my Wizard of Oz.” Just as that film changed cinema history forever, he alludes, so too will Avatar.
If nothing else, he's reinventing the Hollywood buzz machine. In an unusual move, on Aug. 21 Cameron screened about 16 minutes of the film for free to people in select cities who signed up on the film’s Web site. All told, there were reportedly 102 screens domestically and 342 internationally that hosted the free previews. Locally, AMC Newport presented two screenings in its new IMAX theater. The 6 p.m. screening appeared half full, but what it lacked in size it made up for in excitement or at least palpable curious energy.
According to reports and the narrative revealed by the select IMAX 3D footage, Avatar follows the extraordinary journey of a paralyzed soldier (played by Terminator: Salvation’s Sam Worthington) who travels to the distant and dangerous planet of Pandora. There, he subjects himself to a scientific process, creating a virtual avatar of himself. This big, strong, able-bodied creature breaks loose and explores the bizarre and beautiful world.
Knowing, as we do, that Cameron worked on this film for the better part of four years, creating and refining the new filming technology and effects, one would think the first glimpses would blow viewers away. Honestly, it does not. Not that it doesn’t look good — it’s just that it doesn’t look GROUNDBREAKING. It was probably unfair to think it would.
The avatar creatures look like ugly offspring of Jar Jar Binks and Shrek. The 3D looks similar to 2007’s Beowulf, which is a high compliment considering how visually stunning that film was. But, again, I’m not sure Cameron advances the art any further here.
As for the storyline, well, it feels recycled, too. An outsider who is trained to fight an alien race finds instead that that race is misunderstood. He develops feelings of kinship and eventually love. He lays down his guns and, instead of fighting the aliens, fights against his own race on the aliens’ behalf. Um, does anyone remember The Mission? Dances With Wolves? Anyone?
Maybe the film needs to be viewed in whole, in context, for the world of Pandora to really jump off the screen the way Cameron hopes it will. Only time will tell. Opening day is scheduled for Dec. 18, and tickets are on sale now. We’ll know for sure if Cameron is still king of the world then.