This is a quick reaction piece due to the fact that I have got a zillion things to do right now, but I saw 24 minutes of Avatar today (in 3D) and I have to talk about it.

It’s damn good looking. Design-wise the world of Pandora is excellent, rich, complex and detailed. It’s a vividly imagined place; one that’s not as alien as advertised (it will look familiar to scifi readers with a good collection of old pulp magazines, for one) but impressive nonetheless. And I think that goes for everything I saw of Avatar: not quite as advertised, but impressive.

Some bullet point thoughts:

- This is an evolutionary jump, not a revolutionary leap. Avatar left my eyes unfucked. I didn’t experience movies in a whole new way, and nothing I saw on screen left me feeling more than impressed. What the movie represents is someone putting real money into the current CGI and mocap tech and shoving it an extra step forward.

- The facial work is excellent. It makes Dr. Manhattan look dated; while I thought Billy Crudup’s face came through well in Watchmen the faces of the Navi really contain the actors, and the range of expression is impressive. Whether this is algorithyms or animators I don’t know.

- The Navi are designed in a way that I think minimizes the uncanny valley aspect – their eyes are big and wide apart, for one – but their design is also very cartoony. It distanced me. Which leads me to this:

- Avatar looks like a very advanced CGI toon. When CGI Navi are interacting with CGI monsters in CGI landscapes, it all looks very CGI. This is, frankly, not photoreal.

- Pandora at night looks sort of like a black light poster. Even the Navi have black light freckles! Which isn’t to minimize how great it looks, but it’s not the mind-blowing thing we were told to expect.

- The story that I could gather looked very bleh. Sam Worthington is a crippled space marine who gets a Navi avatar body so he can run around the planet Pandora with the military. He’s psyched to be whole again, and then when he’s out in the wild he gets separated from his unit by a monster attack. A Navi warrior (girl) is about to kill him when she gets a mystical sign to leave him be. He is surrounded by monsters and about to get killed when she rescues him and gets another mystical sign that he’s special. They obviously fall in love. He joins the tribe of Navi and tames some kind of dragon to be his steed. It’s Dances With Wolves In Space.

In the end I think this would have been better without all of the ‘THIS WILL CHANGE THE WORLD OF CINEMA’ stuff that comes right from Cameron’s mouth (I heard him say essentially that at the IMAX presentation yesterday). This is an impressive step forward, but I don’t think it’s Jurassic Park when it comes to breathtaking new visual stuff.

You’ll have a chance to decide for yourself. Every IMAX will show 15 minutes of Avatar on August 21st. Mark your calendars.