Thoughts On The ‘AVATAR Day’ Footage

Avatar1“You’re not in Kansas anymore!”

So intones Stephen Lang’s Col. Quaritch in the opening moments of the sixteen minute preview of director James Cameron’s upcoming science-fiction epic Avatar which screened yesterday evening at IMAX theater locations around the country.

Yes, the line’s use could have been cliché-ic and hyperbolic. Except for the fact that Cameron’s film may just be able to live up to the hype and expectation that has slowly been building up around the project for the last couple of years. Hype and expectation that in no little part has been fueled by Cameron himself, with talk of immersive 3D presentation and photo realistic, computer generated characters and creatures.

(Surprisingly, reports from around the country state that not all showings of the preview were sold out. I say surprising, because when the free tickets for the event were made available last Monday online, the website offering them almost immediately crashed and experienced delays for several hours afterwards.)

Last night was Cameron’s “proof of concept” demonstration, and he brought the goods. The first of the five scenes previewed, all from the first half of the film, introduces viewers to the film’s basic conceit. A couple of centuries in the future on the planet Pandora, humanity has established a research outpost. However, since the planet’s atmosphere is not oxygen-rich like here on Earth, an ingenious way of exploring the planet has been devised. Copies of Pandora’s indigenous intelligent population, the Na’vi, are created and controlled via a sort of telepathic remote control. Everything that the Na’vi body experiences is experienced by its controller back at the base. It is as if the controller is their Na’vi avatar. Quaritch warns the group of Marines about to begin their assignment on the world that “Every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes…”

The second scene shows us the process in which is used to transfer control to a na’vi avatar. The film’s hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former marine now confined to a wheelchair. He looks at the avatar program as a way to, in at least some way, regain his mobility. Once the transference process is complete, Jake in his Na’vi body, quickly jumps up and ignoring doctor’s and technician’s orders, begins moving about a laboratory.

It is here where Cameron begins to show off the leaps in computer-generated imagery that he claims to have made for the film. We see Jake’s Na’vi avatar close up in several shots. We see his feet and hands close-up enough to see pores, hair, wrinkles and finger prints. The depth of detail is amazing and breathtaking.

Avatar2The following three scenes showcase Jake in his Na’vi avatar moving through the jungles of Pandora. In one sequence, he and some others encounter some weird six-legged beasts that look like a cross between an elephant, a rhinoceros and a hammer-head shark. The scene culminates in a pell-mell dash through the forest as Jake is chased by another, even more ferocious creature.

The fourth scene features Jake meeting one of the indigenous Na’vi, Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldana) in a clearing at night. They don’t see quite eye-to-eye at first, but they must come to an understanding as the final scene shows Ney’tiri and a few other Na’vi showing Jake, now in native garb, a ritual which bonds him to a flying, dragon-like creature.

Each of these segments have an increasingly higher technical difficulty but each sequence shows no sign of slippage in the quality of work being presented. A little voice kept reminding me that eight foot tall, blue, cat-like humanoids and strange six-legged elephant-rhino-hammerhead shark creatures do not exist in real life, but yet, there they were in front of me on, and popping out of, the screen. The environs of Pandora are an impressive bit of world building and one suspects that Cameron probably has reams of notes on a hard drive somewhere that delve into far greater detail than will ever be seen or even hinted at in the final product how the ecology of the planet works. It is a hostile world and danger looks behind or underneath every tree, fern and bush. For all intents and purposes, Pandora is a real world that Cameron has somehow managed to transport us to while keeping us in the safety of our comfy cinema seats.

But will this film be as game changing as some insist it will be?

Possibly, but we can’t really make that judgment until well after Avatar‘s December 18th premier. Several factors yet to be played out, including how the final product works as a film and how other filmmakers follow in Cameron’s footsteps in regards to using the new technology and techniques he has developed for the film, will inform that verdict more than any excitement-fueled decree made today will. The 3D process used in the 1950s showed much promise, but virtually no filmmakers beyond Alfred Hitchcock (with Dial M For Murder) and George Sidney (with the musical Kiss Me Kate) really tried to push it much further than its exploitation roots. From the footage shown, Cameron seems to be using it in a similar way, as a way to draw the viewer into the world he has created rather than have the film thrust things out at the viewer.

As a way of generating excitement and showing what he has up his sleeve, Cameron has definitely succeeded in what is probably the most interesting bit of marketing of a motion picture in a long time.

In the meantime- here is the standard trailer for Avatar that was released Thursday. It does contain some footage not seen in yesterday’s preview.

Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 7192 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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