James Cameron’s AVATAR: 2009 San Diego Comic-Con Hall H Presentation

     July 23, 2009

Avatar Movie logo.jpg

This is it.  The “Twilight: New Moon” fans cleared out and I rushed to one of the front row seats which I was able to grab so I was basically four or five rows away from the screen.  The previous 3D footage I’d seen today was so incredible and now I was psyched to finally see what James Cameron had up his sleeve.

So does it live up to the impossible hype?  Will it redefine cinema as we know it?  Will it cure all the disease of the world and give us 1000 years of peace and prosperity?  And when will those of you who weren’t able to attend the presentation in Hall H be able to finally see the film for yourselves?  Hit the jump to find out.

Presenter John Landau introduces James Cameron who says this was a film made for the 14-year-old boy in the back of his mind. I indulge Landau and Cameron’s claim that we’re the first to see this.  Even though some scenes were shown to a small group a few weeks ago, they probably didn’t see it on a screen like this with a sound system that causes tremors in the Earth’s crust.

We’re told we’re going to see 25 (!) minutes of footage and I hope I can remember everything I see.  Afterwards, I wrote down everything I could remember and before I describe the five scenes we saw, I want to say this:

Nothing of what I saw redefined cinema or will change the way films are made forever.  That being said, it’s not even close to bad.  It feels like a grand adventure and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Also, these scenes are, I believe, in chronological order in the film but they don’t follow each other directly.

Avatar Movie image Navi.jpgScene 1: See Colonel Ulrich (Stephen Lang) telling a group of uniformed men about the Nabu (which I believe is the plural form of the word “Navi”, but don’t hold me to that).  He tells them that the Nabu use poison-tipped spears that will stop a man’s heart in a minute and that the Nabu have skeletons of carbon-fiber.  He says his job is to protect all of them but he will not succeed and that some of them will die.  Jake (Sam Worthington) comes into the room halfway through Ulrich’s speech and sits in the back.  He’s strapped into a wheelchair.  The scene then has Jake checking out the Avatars which have been grown from the DNA of the Nabu.  The Nabu have blue skin, elf ears, long tails, lithe frames, and are very tall (about 1.5 times the size of a an average human male).

Scene 2: Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) putting Jake into a machine (looks like a high-tech coffin going into an MRI machine) where his consciousness is connected to his Avatar.  Then, with his ability to walk restored within the Navi body coupled with the sheer strength of the species, he wreaks a little excited havoc and breaks free from the lab.  Also, from this point on, I’m going to refer to Jake as “Navi-Jake” so there’s not any confusion about him and his Avatar.

Scene 3: All the following scenes are on Pandora, the Nabu planet.  The first scene we have is Jake, Grace, and Norm Spellman (Joel Moore who appeared in the first scene showing Jake around the lab) are all in Avatars and exploring the terrain.  Jake is looking at large, odd spiraled plants.  Whenever he touches one, it quickly retreats into the ground.  As Jake is playing around with the plants, the group is facing down giant creatures.  Grace and the other Avatar are off to the side but Jake is facing down a giant creature which looks like a mix of a Hammerhead shark and oversized, brightly colored rhino.  He stands his ground and he thinks he’s scared it off but we then see an even nastier character behind him.  It’s big, has dark skin, big nasty teeth, and it’s agile but I can’t really compare it to anything off the top of my head. A thrilling chase ensues that’s absolutely breathless with a little bit of speed ramping and the audience ate it up.

Scene 4: Naididi (Zoe Saldan) is about to shoot an arrow at an unsuspecting Navi-Jake and then a small and beautiful creature (which we later learn is a seed from the Tree of Life) lands on her arrow tip and she lowers her weapon.  It’s an important character scene but the audience didn’t really know what to make of it and unlike all the other scenes, it was very short so it only received scattered applause.  I hope Cameron doesn’t take that as folks not liking it.

Scene 5: Jake, his clothes tattered and wielding a spear, is sitting around a campfire when a group of creatures surround him and appear ready to attack.  Then Naididi comes to save him and fights off the creatures.  There’s a lot more speed ramping this time (think “Brotherhood of the Wolf”) and she dispatches the creatures.  She then kills a wounded one out of mercy and says what I’m guessing is a blessing over its body (she is speaking in the Nabu .  She then walks away and Navi-Jake and he goes after her and asks why she saved him. She ignores him at first and she then yells at him for being a baby who is fascinated with the world, but, as she shouts at him, “Stupid!”  It appears the Nabu have their own language but possess a basic knowledge of English.  Anyway, as they talk on a long tree branch bridge, a group of Tree of Life seeds fall on him and he starts to swat them away but Naididi tells him to stop and he lets them gather on him before floating away.  Impressed by this event, Naididi tells Navi-Jake to follow her.

Final Scene: Navi-Jake is now in the garb of the Nabu and a group of other Nabu are taunting him as he is about to undertake an initiation.  There are a group of winged beasts he has to choose from.  He’s told that the one that he’ll get the one that tries to fight him.  “Outstanding…” Navi-Jake mutters.  After he challenges a bunch of creatures that fly off, he finally gets one and wrangles it to the point where he’s able to insert some kind of organism into its ear in order to control it.  It kind of seems like a dick move until you remember that one of the themes of the film is clearly about control and where that control meets dominance as it’s clear that Ulrich wants to dominate the Nabu while Augustine wants to find a way to peacefully coincide with them.  Navi-Jake tells the creature to fly and the flight is pretty rocky at first until he yells “Fly straight!” and the creature spreads its wings and soars.  Then Navi-Jake tells the creature to bank right and the scene ends and the audience cheers wildly.

The members of the cast come onto the stage one at a time to give a brief summary of their characters.  First it’s Sigourney Weaver, then Stephen Lang, and finally Zoe Saldana.  Unfortunately, Sam Worthington is currently working on another film right now but he recorded a brief message where he thanked the audience for coming out and the pleasure of working on “Avatar”.

Weaver tells us that the reason they’re using Avatars is so they can gain the trust of the Nabu (although it seems like an inherently deceptive approach).  Meanwhile, Ulrich is anti-Nabu and wants to see the wiped-out.  Naididi is (obviously) the lead female while Jake (again, obviously) is the lead male.

Cameron tells us that the language was developed over two years and then taught to the actors who also worked on removing human physical quirks from their performances so to make the Nabu even more foreign.

They only take a few questions but I’ll mention this one:

The audience applauds an audience member who thanks Cameron for not making a sequel or an adaptation and the audience applauds. He then asks if Michael Biehn will be making a cameo in the film.  Sadly, no.

Finally, before they leave, they have one major announcement: They will take over 3D IMAX theatres worldwide on August 21st and show off 15 minutes of AVATAR for FREE.

Now I want to ask you if you, dear reader, have figured out the plot of the film from the scenes I described.  Still wondering?  It’s the myth of Pocahontas.  And yes, I know she really existed but the reality of it is highly apocryphal.  The Nabu resemble Native Americans from their weapons, their dress, their language, and their basic English pronunciation.  Jake is John Smith and Naididi is Pocahontas.  But this clearly isn’t the Disney-“Paint with all the colors of the wind.  It’s a creature all its own and the work that has gone into designing this planet is absolutely astounding.  Yes, you’ve seen CGI before but when people say “You’ve never seen anything like this before,” that’s what they’re talking about.

Now I will say that in some of the scenes, the CGI on the Nabu looks unfinished but it’s mostly a matter of textures.  There’s no worry about The Uncanny Valley because they’re not humans.  But Sam Worthington: he’s a star.  “Terminator Salvation” may have been the first indication, but (and this is a credit to the animators as well), whenever his Avatar cracks a smile, he really exists.  Sam Worthington is really there and he’s as charming, charismatic, and confident as you’d expect from a leading man in a big budget adventure film.

“Avatar” won’t change the world but it creates a world all its own.  There are moments when other films peek through like the first scene which is reminiscent of “Aliens” or, more overt, the chase scene where Jake’s running from the big nasty creature that definitely called to mind “Jurassic Park” but for a new generation.  “Avatar” may not be able to live up to the enormous hype but it was certainly one of the more unforgettable panels I’ve seen (both this year and last year) and it turned 6,000 people into believers.

“Avatar” hits conventional, 3D, and 3D IMAX theatres on December 18th.

NOTE: I will upload pictures later but they’re only of the members of the cast walking on stage.  No official photos were released.

*And let me say that I owe them an apology; I don’t care for the property and I do think it has some negative messages to young women but as Steve told me last night after I shouted an insult to those standing in line for the presentation, their passion is tremendous and should be applauded; I’m sorry, “Twilight” fans.  Also, you packed the room with tons of cute girls so good work.

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