'Avatar' raises the bar in so many ways

Commentary: Movie is an upbeat ending to a downbeat year

The word is enveloped. That's what the movie did to me, however long it was into it, when those little jellyfish-like creatures came floating down. I was in the seventh row at Grauman's and automatically turned my head to brush one of them off my shoulder. I'm sure "Avatar" will do similarly for millions and millions of others -- this is, if it need be said at all, the weekend of its opening -- and not just for 14-year-old males.

Fox can almost certainly breathe an initial sigh of relief as Jim Cameron's movie essentially recalibrates filmmaking, without, I'm going to hazard, breaking the bank. So obviously has the creative bar been raised that I heard one young writer-director at the premiere say to his friends, "What do we do now?"

The 3D thing has been taken to a new level and will surely quicken the embrace of the technology. But more important, Cameron's mastery of it was almost completely at the service of the storytelling -- call it emotion-capture: I was taken out of myself (which I suspect is the whole point of having an avatar) and entered that collective experience of seeing a movie in a darkened room and of reconnecting to that collective unconscious we all share. Think Wordsworth or Rousseau, but without any overt reference or any pretentiousness, the pic taps into the longing for innocence in all of us and riffs on that enduring noble savage ideal.

Although ignored or relegated to the sidelines in so many contemporary movies, women are front and center in this saga, from the cigarette-smoking scientist Sigourney Weaver, to the fierce but fragile Neferti, to the plucky pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez.

And yes, there is a love story: To my mind, just a twitch of a Na'vi ear was as evocative as a sex act in countless other pics.

Downsides? A tad too long? Perhaps. Its political messages too simplistic? In some quarters (like say News Corp.'s own Fox News?)they could be interpreted as anti-American, certainly anti-corporate establishment. On the other hand, foreign viewers will likely relish seeing the manaical colonel get his come-uppance from a bow and arrow. Objections enough to shun the movie? Please.

As is obvious, I'm no film reviewer, but what else I took away from the evening was just how beautifully timed this movie is. To embellish on another metaphor from the film, it's been, like the hero in the movie, a crippled, stymied year in so many ways -- the sluggish economy, the layoffs, the stridency of our politics and, more pertinently to us here in Hollywood, presumably broken business models.

Somehow through it all, though, brashly commercial and bravely artistic movies have come out of the gate, with "Avatar" capping one of the best and most varied of recent film cycles -- from "Precious" and "Up in the Air" to "The Hurt Locker" and "Sherlock Holmes." Our own boxoffice specialist here at the paper tells me 2009 will close out at a record tally, nudging the $10 billion mark for the first time. Internationally, too, American movies are doing gangbusters, from the "Ice Age" sequel and "Up" to "2012" and the latest "Transformers" flick.

The day-and-date openings around the globe for "Avatar" will seal the deal. And no doubt the second weekend will be the telling one for "Avatar" as the percentage drop-off will be dissected to the nth degree by News Corp. bean counters and financial analysts to project the long-term value of the movie. DVD sales and their impact on the studio's bottom line are the tricky part.

Already one hard-nosed Wall Streeter has had a change of heart: Pali Research analyst Richard Greenfield shifted his rating on News Corp. from sell to neutral based primarily on his own enjoyment and assessment of the movie. I can't remember the last time a single movie moved the needle at one of the Hollywood heavyweights in any way.

In an analyst's note Thursday, he said: "We can gripe about the unnecessary length of the film and a typical Hollywood ending, but the honest truth is that nobody in the world has ever seen a movie like 'Avatar.' Fox's potential to generate a profit on 'Avatar' remains unclear given its cost and whether a film so closely associated with 3D filmmaking will translate into (2D-only) DVD/Blu-ray sales during 2010. That being said, we do not walk away believing Fox is in danger of losing a massive amount of money on the film."

In short, Greenfield concludes, "the movie will not be a disaster profit-wise, with the Fox film slate set to notably outperform expectations this year."

Driving in to work Thursday, I heard the results on the radio of some poll suggesting that more than 50% of Americans believe that China will soon surpass the U.S. as the most powerful country in the world and the biggest exporter of goods. OK. I know they're fixing their roads and bridges much more quickly than we are, and they don't seem to have a national obesity problem like we do, so in certain respects their strides are notable and impressive. But creatively?

Aside from the handful of art films that trickle out and make it to international film festivals, and Zhang Yimou's admittedly spectacular choreography for the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, practically nothing from China (or anywhere else?) movie-wise resonates beyond borders the way Hollywood fare does. I'm betting "Avatar" will widen that gap in the short term and then hopefully inspire others, from wherever, to build on the achievement.

The film's producer Jon Landau talked a little Thursday about what he thinks a key effect of the movie will be, pointing to something that surprised me. So much has been written about how expensive the movie is, but he put the accent on how much cost-savings in technology were attained even in just the four-year span in which the picture was shot. If $1 million was spent per terabyte when "Titanic" was made, that price has been now brought down enormously, he explained.

His point? This should, he told me, crack open the door for filmmakers to be able to apply amazing technology to unlock stories in their heads that otherwise couldn't be realized.

Like Cameron, they'll also have to imbibe some of that thing called Eywa.