Published at: July 24, 2009, 1:56 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with my thoughts on the big one of this year’s Comic-Con.
James Cameron showed over 20 minutes of select scenes from AVATAR in 3-D to a massive crowd in Hall H. I’m going to try to recap as much as I can on the fly.
The footage opened up with a shot of black military boots walking upon a polished surface. A gruff drill sergeant type (Stephen Lang) is barking at new recruits. We see glimpses of the back of this guy’s shaved head and there are scars that run horizontally across the back of his skull (we don’t see his face). He’s speaking to maybe 15-20 young people, some not looking like they belong there… nerdy types, not all soldiers.
The colonel says that this new planet is not a plaything, that every single indigenous creature wants to kill you. "It is my job to keep you alive. I will not succeed."
When the colonel turns around the scars continue from the back of his head to his face, like it was made from the claws of an animal raked across his entire face.
Sam Worthington rolls up in a wheelchair during this speech and there’s something between the two (maybe some history?), but nothing is said.
Let me take a second to talk about the 3-D in the live action spots here as this scene was the only to not have (obvious) CGI characters. I’ve long been on the record as saying 3-D is fun, but I don’t believe for a second it’s the future of cinema. I think it’s possible a form of 3-D could be in the cards in the future norm, but the problem I have with most 3-D is it dims the picture so badly that you only get half the effect.
Cameron lit his scenes very brightly so things really pop and you can tell a master’s eye went into the framing of every shot, giving real perceptible depth to something as mundane as a military type walking between rows of recruits.
There is a trade-off, though. That means we lose a bit of atmosphere (not a ton... it is a lab afterall) in these military base scenes, but I didn’t mind so much as the blocky structures and architecture already screamed James Cameron to me.
But the 3-D is eye-popping, some of the best use I’ve seen recently… maybe since Captain Eo in my youth. Cameron’s not just content to give you a Viewmaster depth, but he also puts layers on our side of the screen… not so much in the SCTV comin’ atcha way, but in that the only depth isn’t perceived through the window of the screen… it’s also in the audience itself, filling the peripherals as things move by.
After Lang gives his speech to the green noobs we move to Joel Moore and Sam Worthington going to see their Avatars.
If you don’t know the basic story there’s a new planet called Pandora discovered in the near future. On this planet is an element that is so rare it is worth incredible amounts of money on earth. The trouble is that the indigenous people and hostile nature of the planet make it nearly impossible to mine. The main threat are 10 foot tall intelligent blue aliens called Na’vi.
Scientists have figured out a way to grow their own Na’vi (mixing Na'vi and Human DNA) which are completely blank slates and then recruit warriors and scientists to come in and project their consciousness into these creatures, thus allowing them to travel Pandora without causing war with the Na’vi. In fact, Weaver's character is the head of the Avatar project, trying to make peaceful contact with the Na'vi.
Worthington is a crippled vet, disillusioned, but a warrior at heart. This is the perfect assignment for him as he is freed from the restraints of his broken body.
This shot scared me a bit… when Moore and Worthington are introduced to their Avatars, floating in blue liquid in tubes we get our first look at the Na’vi and… it looked just okay. Because of the liquid the definition of the alien (big, blue, wide-nosed, long pointy ears, thin tail) was at best plain and the real impressiveness of these creatures and the technology used to bring them to life doesn’t crop up until later scenes.
Apparently, this particular Avatar was produced for Huntington’s character’s brother, but is his now.
Now, these Avatars are Na’vi, but share physical characteristics of their users. So, Joel Moore’s Avatar is recognizably Moore in the face as is Worthington’s.
One of the scientists is none other than Dileep Rao, the psychic from DRAG ME TO HELL and another is fan favorite Sigourney Weaver. God, it was so good seeing her in a James Cameron movie again.
In the scene we get of her she’s very no nonsense, getting Worthington situated in his pod (he insists on hoisting himself out of the chair and into his pod without any help). Weaver plays her character a little mother hen as she straps him in and prepares the consciousness transmission.
Another little detail in these scenes that I loved was just how awesome the transparent computer and information screens looked in 3-D. As Worthington slips under and the transfer begins Dileep is monitoring his brain activity on a floating screen. Dileep has to walk, so with a swipe of his hand he moves the screen onto a smaller portable screen that turns the x-ray brainscan around as he examines it.
Dileep walks into check on the two Avatars (Moore and Worthington). We get Sam’s POV as he wakes up in his new body and then our first real look at a Na’vi realized as he wiggles his toes, realizing he has full use of this body. The Worthington Na’vi is definitely excited and against the protests of Dileep he stands, getting used to his body, pulling cords out, knocking over equipment with a wobbly step or with his tail as he turns.
Don’t worry, it’s not a Jar Jar scene, but what’s really cool is that it’s the only time in the footage show we got a real sense of the scale of the Na’vi. It’s easy to say “they’re ten feet tall,” but seeing them stand next to a person and almost double their height, seeing one try to navigate a structure intended for humans… well, it does make them feel like creatures instead of animated humanoids.
From this point on the footage left our world and focused completely on Pandora as the Worthingon Na'vi is wandering alone.
One of the first things we see on the planet is Worthington’s Avatar playing with these tube-snake-like flora. He touches one and it disappears, sucking back into the ground with a FROOMPF. He’s delighted, playing around in this field of tall plants, making them disappear with a touch until he does that to one and it reveals a really pissed off giant rhino lookin’ thing with a hammerhead nose.
It brays at Worthington’s Avatar and stamps its feet, threatening to charge. The Moore Avatar and Sigourney Weaver Avatar are with-in shouting distance and Weaver stops him from using the giant machine gun he’s carrying, saying the hide is too tough and that shooting it will only piss it off.
The Worthington Avatar is unsure of what to do, even thought Weaver is telling him this rhino thing is just putting on a threat display and won’t charge if Worthington stands his ground. There’s a herd of rhino-aliens behind this one, which keeps braying and using his hammerhead horn nose to knock down trees. It shows its displeasure by a colorful ruff raising (like peacocks feathers but armored).
The creature doesn’t seem to know it’s just a territorial threat display and charges Worthington’s Avatar who just charges it right back, screaming. It stops and looks confused, then scarred, turning back and running away with the heard.
Of course that means a slick-skinned panther-like creature is behind Worthington. It leaps over him and charges the bigger game, which runs off… then it turns and realizes there’s another smaller, but just as tasty morsel right in front of him.
There’s a variation of the “Shoot or run?” type scene that plays here as they do both and scatter. Worthington seems to be on his own as he jumps between trees, under the large, gnarled and tangled roots of one old tree, trying to find a safe spot.
The panther-alien rips at the tree’s roots, tearing them away. Worthington’s Avatar shoots at it, causing it to back off before it darts in, bites down on the gun and rips it from his hands.
From here on out it’s a mad scramble to get away from the beast.
A female Na’vi hugs to a branch, sees the intruder and raises a bow and arrow, taking aim. It’s clear there’s poison on the tip of the arrow (mentioned by our colonel in that earlier scene), but just as she gets the arrow pulled taut a creature flutters into her field of vision.
It’s white and moves like a jellyfish in the air, floating as pumps it tendrils lazily… but it doesn’t look organic, more like a dandelion seed. However it obviously has an intelligence and isn’t floating randomly. This female warrior sees this and even in this crazy alien world this is not normal. You can tell by her reaction.
We find out later this is a Wood Sprite, a seedling from a sacred tree. It alights on the arrows tip momentarily before moving on. This Na’vi, Naytiri (Zoe Saldana), relaxes her grip and lets the clueless Worthington Avatar pass.
This is a good time to talk about Pandora a bit. Imagine the ocean floor if it would exist above the sea line and you’re close. It’s very much dense jungle, but the alien flora is very reminiscent of anemones. Also like the deep sea lifeforms many of the fauna have their own luminescence.
The sequence where Worthington’s Avatar meets Saldana’s Na’vi is a bit of a rescue scene as Worthington is being hunted by a pack of wild dog-like animals.
The dogs are slickly black skinned, like an eel and have sharp canine-like teeth, but when they snarl the lips pull back much further and are more menacing. The dogs are on him and suddenly Saldana’s character comes out of nowhere, arrows flying killing the dogs, swatting them away with her bow. Worthington takes advantage of the intervention and stabs the dog on top of him.
Happily he goes to thank Saldana’s Na’vi, who speaks English… I didn’t catch how she does, but he does comment on it. Anyway, she ignores him at first, looking sadly down at the dog carcasses. The one she shot with the arrow at the beginning of the rescue is still alive and whimpering. She whispers to it in her native tongue as she puts it out of its misery.
She then turns angrily on Worthington’s Avatar, still trying to thank her. She is angry at having been forced into the position of killing these creatures, saying it is his fault. He is like an ignorant child wandering the woods and if he hadn’t been waving fire around and making so much noise he never would have been in danger and the animals could have gone on living in peace.
As she chastises him, she goes around to all the dead animals and whispers some kind of prayer or saying over them.
She also douses his torch and we come to find that she is right. He doesn’t need it. Not only does the forest glow naturally with its own light, but as Worthington makes his way in the dark trying to follow her he sees that his very own interaction with the world creates a light reaction. When he steps on a moss-covered log the moss turns bright green under his foot and tapers out a few feet from the impact point, when he passes by a plant and brushes the fern it glows in reaction.
Turns out Neytiri sees a good heart inside the bumbling fool and she’s not alone. With a giant grin on his face as he discovers the wonder of this jungle world, the self-luminescence, the Wood Sprite returns… with a few dozen of its brothers and sisters.
Worthington’s Avatar bats one away without a thought and Neytiri acts as if he just broke a cross in half or spit on the Buddha. The little jelly-fish like seeds don’t seem to mind and all alight on him, completely ignoring Neytiri. She tells him (and us) just what these things are and that it is an amazing honor to be chosen by them.
All that is from the first act of the film, by the way.
The final sequence shown is a bit of a training scene as Worthington’s Avatar is now a part of Neytiri’s tribe and going through an important rite of passage.
Gone are his human clothes, replaced by native gear and face paint, like a Native American warrior. He must bond with a winged creature, so the other warriors, there mostly to laugh at Worthington’s sure failure, and Neytiri take him to their nesting ground.
These are reptilian, brightly colored and mean little suckers. Worthington’s Avatar is pushed in, asking over his shoulder how he’ll know which one is his match, the one he was meant to bond with. “He will choose you.” Well, how will Worthington know he is chosen? Easy… the one who chooses him “will try to kill you.”
Cameron draws out the suspense as the creatures see him and back away or fly off, hissing and making territorial displays. Finally the one comes forward, a particularly mean looking creature. The other warriors laugh at Worthington’s Avatar, talking in their tongues together (subtitled) sure he’s going to be killed.
In order for a Na’vi to bond with one of these creatures they must bond, which requires Worthington to take his pony-tail, which has little vermicelli-like strands of nerve bundled up in there, and connect it to one of this beasts’ antennae. It takes some doing, Worthington’s Avatar almost getting flung off a cliff for his trouble, but he comes back, wrestles the beak shut and melds the two pieces together, which naturally entwine.
When that happens the creature’s wild eye goes soft, pupil enlarging. Worthington’s Avatar carefully removes the leather tie around its beak and it stands up, collecting him on its back. Neytiri says he must fly or risk breaking the bond. Their bond can only be concreted if they fly, so she sends the creature off the ledge with Worthington’s Avatar en tow.
They fly recklessly, Worthington's Avatar barely holding on. They crash into cliff walls, fly through waterfalls. The creature, quite dragonlike, actually, squacks and Worthington tells it to shut up and fly straight... And it does. The bond is complete as it glides through the air.
That’s the end of the footage.
All the Pandora stuff that was shown was incredibly detailed, layer upon layer of movement, life, detail. But it seemed to be completely mo-cap and computer animated. While I thought it looked fantastic I think people need to reel in their expectation a bit.
What I saw were glimpses at a fantastic bit of storytelling, a rich fantasy tale, by a master of the artform, but the CGI creatures and characters are just that. They’re amazingly executed, no doubt, but it’s not like when you saw your first CG dinosaur and you said, “This is a game changer” to yourself.
What I hope Cameron gives us is the character work to fill out this highly stylized universe and he hasn’t given me any reason to doubt him yet. This presentation was all about showing off the visual eye-molestation brought to you by Weta Digital, Workshop, Cameron and his talented crew.
I can say that Sam Worthington seems to giving his best, most relaxed and natural performance in this one, based on the footage I saw of him and the voicing of his fake Na’vi counterpart. At the very least his accent is consistent.
All in all this was a tech demonstration. The 3-D was a stand-out, but Cameron’s collaboration with Weta Digital and Workshop I think is going to yield a dense, sci-fi fantasy flick with hopefully lots of military on Na’vi battles… I just want to see one that goddamn Power Suit in action!
Honestly, I’ve never had a picture of this movie in my head. The plot has been vague, the details minimal… so I’ve only ever hoped to see a fun, kick-ass James Cameron movie. On that level, I’m positive the eye-candy will be there for me come December. But I will say lower those expectations. The footage was good, layered, incredibly detailed and full of imagination and incredible imagery, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the next quantum leap forward in filmmaking. However there's no doubt Cameron's pushing the limits. Just don't expect to have your head blown out your asshole or eyeballs raped or whatever the newest talkback thing is.
No, what this presentation convinced me of is that AVATAR will be a strong return to narrative filmmaking from one of the best filmmakers of the last 30 years. Once we see the whole picture it might be more than that because I have a feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
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