My criteria for seeing Avatar were that it had to be on the largest screen possible and in 3D to get the fullest experience. And so I ended up at the BFI IMAX at midnight (on a side note, I really miss midnight screenings) with its bigger-than-a-house screen. My review is up, but in short this is something you really must experience. Unusually I say this without any real intellectual connection to the film or its characters, but rather from a purely emotional/entertainment perspective. The audacity of the project is incredible, as is the fact James Cameron was able to conceptualise it 15 years ago and finally realise and see it through to completion. It turns out “exploring another world” hyperbole was in fact entirely accurate.
Some critics are querying whether this is a game changer in terms of how we give awards for performances since Zoe Saldana’s character is only ever seen in CGI, but it is undeniably her performance that comes through. Should the award go to her, the effects people or both? Of course this debate really dates back to Andy Serkis’ Gollum which was very much his performance, since even the facial animation was based upon his acting. However the facial mapping in Avatar‘s new breed of performance capture is incredible.
This is also the new benchmark for 3D films, to the point where I hope other films won’t bother unless they’re going to do it properly. Up to this point, Coraline has been my touchstone for 3D since as a stop-motion film it was “real” 3D filmed with stereoscopic cameras. The subtler into-the-screen 3D is definitely the right way to do it (and the reason I was unimpressed by the 3D Alice in Wonderland trailer as, despite impressive detail, far too much was unnecessarily flying out of the screen), but these two films highlight two fundamentally different approaches. With Coraline you are offered a 3D window to observe, so the trick to avoiding a headache is to learn to look around as in the real world, focusing on individual parts rather than attempting to take in the entire screen at once as with traditional films. Avatar merges this with traditional narrow depth-of-field shots, meaning the viewer is not always free to look around as they wish. Instead the trick is to relax and allow your eyes to be guided to whatever is in focus. It is perhaps disconcerting, but it does provide a more cinematic effect.