Will James Cameron’s Avatar Escape the Uncanny Valley?

Posted on 15th October 2009 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out

Two recent trailers have got me thinking about human progress on the Uncanny Valley dilemma, the phenomenon where, as an artificial facsimile of a human being becomes more lifelike, its flaws become more apparent and we find it disturbing. The characters in the computer animated film Beowulf suffered from this phenomenon, as did Final Fantasy, The Spirits Within before it. Terminator: Salvation took advantage of the spooky effect, intentionally or not, with a computer animated Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo.

A Young, Computer-Animated Arnold Schwarzenegger
A Young, Computer-Animated Arnold Schwarzenegger

While my first view of it, via a cell phone video at the Comicon sneak peek, instilled excitement, the Tron Legacy Trailer in HD is sorely disappointing. The character’s body movements alone are off, but their faces, the brief glimpses we get of them, are even creepier. The film has another year of production left to it, so it might improve, but, for right now, it is firmly in the Uncanny Valley.

A Young, Computer-Animated Jeff Bridges
A Young, Computer-Animated Jeff Bridges

On its face, James Cameron’s Avatar Trailer doesn’t seem particularly awe-inspiring in comparison to other epic special effects films like Star Wars or LOTR, making us wonder why it took Cameron years to develop the technology to produce it. It’s visually-impressive, but what isn’t these days?

The trick is in the fact that Avatar, as far as I can tell, doesn’t betray where the reality ends and the CGI begins. Marines interact with computer animated mecha and get devoured by dragons in the trailer, but there’s no hint of which are the live action humans and which are the CGI. The irony of Avatar’s accomplishment will be the fact that, if it is the landmark special effects film James Cameron is striving for, then we shouldn’t notice a thing.

Also, if successful, then we can look forward to Cameron directing Battle Angel next (Greatest manga ever!). : )


  1. Very interesting post. To be honest, I’d never heard of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect, but now that you point it out and now that I’ve read your essay, I completely see what you mean.

    Now I’m going to find myself looking for flaws in Avatar lol! (Something, unlike the masses, I’ve been trying not to do…)

    Comment by Talking Monkey 1 — October 15, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

  2. Beowulf didn’t creep me out. I actually thought it was non-cgi live action for like 1-3 minutes. The longest I’d been tricked before was about 10 seconds in one of the Final Fantasy movies.

    I generally have more problems with movement not being accurate.

    But now I question that too, because I just watched Escape From L.A., it has terrible CGI, and i thought they used some of that for Plissken’s 5th basketball shot, but then I read that he actually made those shots in real life, so here I am questioning reality as not being real but being fooled by other cgi!

    Comment by ClintJCL — October 16, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  3. I must admit that the CG is getting better. Beowulf had better facial performances than Final Fantasy and Polar Express, and the few clips I’ve seen for Christmas Carol seem even closer to establishing “fake” characters that act “real.”

    If you’ve seen that scene of Scrooge blowing the snowflake off his nose, you will understand what I mean. This CG guy actually had a presence. I felt his eyes were REAL, and he was really looking at me, something (I’m afraid to say it) Avatar is lacking in some scenes. I’m glad you mentioned Battle Angel in this article! James Cameron is going to announce his next project pretty soon, and I hope Alita gets the greenlight, finally!

    Comment by Ken — October 16, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

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