Last week's Avatar Day business was... well, weird. By some estimates—namely and predictably, those of the PR peeps at Fox—it was a massive success:
The teaser trailer for James Cameron's Avatar became the biggest debut for Apple.com ever, shattering the previous record (1.7 million) by over 2 million streams.
Debuting on Thursday, the trailer notched over 4 million views on Apple in its first day online, according to a press release from Fox. By Friday, the footage of the sci-fi epic—replete with towering blue aliens, interspecies warfare and visual effects that Cameron and his team dreamed up almost 15 years ago—had been released widely on the web, surely logging millions of more views.
Friday became known as Avatar Day, as Fox screened 15 minutes of movie footage for free in IMAX 3D theaters around the country. According to the press release, reservations for the two showings were fully booked.
Fox might be claiming that all the showings were "fully booked," but actual attendance was another matter: Out of the two screenings of the Avatar footage at the Bridgeport IMAX on Friday, the first (at 6 pm) wasn't quite half full, and the second (at 6:45 pm) was just a little more than half full. The eagerly anticipated footage was playing to a lot of empty seats, basically, and it sounds like it was that way around the country. (The two other aspects of Avatar Day—the release of the videogame trailer and some photos from the forthcoming action figures—made hardly any splash at all.) That said, the people who did see the Avatar Day footage dug it—there were actual "oohs" and "ahhs" from the Bridgeport crowds, including a few from some jaded film critics.
This was a big shift from the trailer, which met with decidedly mixed reactions. Personally, I think it's a damn impressive preview—but then, I'm also watching it while knowing how that shit looks in 3D on a big screen. On a computer monitor or a TV, with no frame of reference for how the final film looks, the visuals have a tendency to look cartoonish and goofy. In a theater and in 3D, though... well, they still look a bit goofy, but gorgeously, tangibly so. The level of detail, visual density, and immersion is incredible, as is the fluid, utterly convincing motion of everything onscreen. One doesn't see this footage and think, "Holy fuck, that looks totally real"—'cause I mean, we are talking about giant smurfs here—but it does look and feel real enough, and often disconcertingly so. Before long, you've forgotten to think of Avatar's CG or animation at all—the story simply takes over, leaving special effects benchmarks and ye olde Uncanny Valley far behind. When it's seen how it's meant to be seen, basically, it's really fucking impressive and unique.
Which is, I guess, the crux of it: Obviously I can't speak for the film as a whole, but if the footage screened so far is any indication, Avatar is a film that has to be seen in a theater and that has to be seen in 3D. "I'm convinced that Avatar is an evil plot by James Cameron to force people to watch their movies in the theater if they want to enjoy the full experience," says Lauren Davis over at io9, and she's pretty much right. Avatar strikes me as the sort of film that will require people to think of it in the same way that people thought of cinema before TV, VHS, DVD, Bit Torrent, YouTube, or Blu-ray—as an experience that one has to go outside to do, as an experience that one has to invest both time and money into, and as an experience that one takes part in not at home or at their desk, but with a bunch of strangers in a dark room.
I'd love for movies to become singular experiences again—something that people simply can't wait until DVD for, or can't download to watch on their shitty computers. Here's hoping that, if nothing else, Avatar—which sometimes looks as epic and as cool and as original as Cameron's been promising for years it would, and which sometimes looks like a Lisa Frank binder brought to life—inspires people to think of movies in a different way than they've gotten used to.