There was no way Avatar could live up to the "it will rewire your brain" hype. But after today’s press screening, it can be said: Damn, it looks incredible. No doubt, James Cameron just blasted away our special-effects fatigue. We’d all become skeptical, if only because most of the recent special-effects flicks have been unspectacular spectacles: Wolverine was a rubbery failure; Star Trek was terrifically stylish but not technically innovative; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Terminator Salvation were technically sharp but boring; 2012 was dull in every way. And don't get us started on Iron Man's short, chintzy, and cheap final battle. But Cameron's inarguably thrilling, headlong attack of effects got us excited about CGI again.
Basically, effects-driven films deliver three or four showcase set pieces — and sometimes one will blow you away, like the highway-chase scene in The Matrix Reloaded. But Avatar is a nonstop, headlong, 160-minute, jaw-dropping showcase of innovative design (those floating mountains!) and technology (those motion-capture faces!). It's not like Cameron reinvented the medium, but he's turned all the knobs up to eleven. It all comes hurtling at you: chase scenes and battles; flying dragons and marauding monsters; jungles filled with alien plants every bit as wild as the spaceships hovering above. Walking out of the theater this afternoon, Vulture contributor Bilge Ebiri had the best line we've heard yet: "It was made for, what, $300 million? It looked like $2 billion." Now we'll see if the spectacle is enough to make back all that money. But one thing is certain: The real — and maybe only — loser here is Robert Zemeckis. His motion capture in A Christmas Carol looked only marginally less wax-mausoleum-awful when it first hit theaters than it did in The Polar Express. But now that Avatar is out, it's nothing but a rubbery antique.
In related news, the Academy just released the long list of fourteen contenders eligible to lose to Avatar for this year's Best Visual Effects Oscar.