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McAdams On: “Avatar”

LOS ANGELES: One of the most notable things about James Cameron’s use of 3D technology in his new epic movie “Avatar” is his restraint. Nothing in this movie jumps off the screen, the way 3D is so often described. “Avatar” instead draws in the audience. First, into the austere fuselage of a cargo aircraft, where a hapless former Marine with no family sits ruefully in his wheelchair.

The opening of “Avatar” fell in sharp contrast with the 3D trailers that preceded the midnight opener at The Bridge cinema in L.A.’s Howard Hughes Center. “Piranha3D” was a wall of toothy creatures headed straight for the audience. People laughed at it. Not in a good way. If the trailer of “Dispicable Me” is any indication, the animated feature is a waste of 3D. Both were indicative of why some analysts have deemed 3D to be a gimmick. Rich Greenfield of Pali Capital said as much in November. This morning, Greenfield predicted “Avatar” would have the biggest December opening weekend in history.

The film is likely to mark the true turning point in consumer adoption of 3DTV. The glasses are not a bother with “Avatar.” It doesn’t induce nausea, possibly thanks in part to the Fusion Camera System and Cameron’s employment of it to see how the motion-captured actors looked within the digitally rendered set as the scenes were being filmed. In only a couple of instances does “Avatar” jar the optic nerves. One is the sudden and swift movement of troops off of a transport that appears to have been shot by a handheld. The other involved split-second camera sweeps in the CG environment that recall pixilation in fast-motion HD, only with the brain itself unable to process the visual information rapidly enough.

Sports was supposed to be the driver of 3DTV, just as it was for high definition, but “Avatar” may hold the key to why 3D basketball and football game coverage hasn’t really set the world on fire. The action, camera angle and capture cannot be meticulously controlled. Cameron’s taken great pains to make sure 3D enhances rather than distracts.

Only one time does Cameron point anything at his audience, doing a 180-degree frontal shot of the main character with an arrow drawn in a bow.

“Avatar” works not only from a 3D perspective. The story stands on its own. “Avatar” is James Cameron’s vision of how things might have gone in the New World if bison were 15 times larger with hammer-heads and armored skin. It’s also a contemplation of why Second Life is so madly popular, what with more obese Americans than ever before. “Avatar’s” disabled main character becomes physically capable of leaping between moving aircraft and the fluorescent pterodactyl he roped and reined in mid-air. Then there’s the light-emitting flora, the six-legged horses with anteater heads, floating mountains, quad-rotor helos, transformer soldier suits and a mining operation reminiscent of “Forbidden Planet’s” Great Machine. This is “Titanic” for sci-fi geeks.

There still will be quibbles. “Avatar” is preachy on corporate greed and the environment. There’s evil Anglo Saxons crushing an indigenous pagan population, which in turn can only be saved by a conveniently enlightened Anglo Saxon. There’s a ridiculously silly spiral light-chute effect to illustrate how characters perceive the inhabitation of their avatars, like something out of “That ’70s Show.”

It will be fashionable in some circles to savage this film, but that will not prevent it from making $2 billion for the $300 million it cost to make. “Titanic” likewise left a few people rolling their eyes, but that $200 million James Cameron epic brought in $1.8 billion.

“Avatar” comes just three weeks before the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which is shaping up to be the 3D CES of 2010. Panasonic, Sony and LG all intend to roll out 3DTV sets next year. Sony is making 3D a companywide initiative, and Rupert Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox made “Avatar,” will roll out 3DTV distribution on his U.K. satellite systems next year.

Whatever TV stations and the broadcast industry in general can do to get on this bandwagon, they should do it now, and do it right. If 3D hasn’t lit the world on fire for all the years it’s been around, it probably hasn’t been done properly.

Now, it has, and Fox has dibs on it.