Sam Worthington, Avatar

So Friday was “Avatar Day,” a worldwide (and free) sneak peek at James Cameron’s hotly anticipated 3-D epic on 102 screens in the U.S. and hundreds more overseas. The unprecedented event was Fox’s attempt to manufacture buzz for the approximately $200 million picture, and in light of the mixed response to the first Avatar trailer, the studio and Cameron really needed these 16-minute previews to knock it out of the park.

Did they? Eh, it was more of a solid triple, but I honestly can’t say for sure. I sat through the footage three times at The Bridge IMAX theater in Los Angeles, and my mind is still attempting to make sense of what I witnessed. The footage included six scenes plus a rapidly edited “action montage” consisting mostly of images already shown in the trailer. I’ll describe the six scenes in detail below, but first, some general impressions.

Avatar is, without a doubt, an audacious motion picture, and I tip my hat to Cameron for having the cojones to try to pull this off. Nevertheless, I predict moviegoers won’t be able to completely surrender themselves to this movie’s appearance. I think we’re all going to be watching Avatar from a distance, desperately trying to figure out why a film with such mesmerizing visuals still doesn’t feel quite right. It’s a trip to the uncanny valley, no doubt. And with that being the case, I wish Fox had structured the “Avatar Day” footage in a different manner. Instead of exhibiting six clips of varying lengths, it would have been advantageous to select one 15-minute scene and let it breathe. That way the audience could have grown accustomed to the initially jarring 3-D compositions and CGI environments. Instead, we were whisked from one setting to the next, unable to properly adjust to the film’s unique wavelength.

However, even though Avatar probably won’t be the revolution that many anticipated, the movie still has the potential to be one absolutely engrossing adventure. Friday’s footage confirmed that few directors can stage an action sequence as well as Cameron, and as long as moviegoers walk in not expecting a photo-realistic experience, but rather an ingeniously designed animated film, Avatar should be just fine.

I’ve been informed that what was shown Friday was a shorter version of the Comic-Con reel screened back in July (I wasn’t at Comic-Con, so I can’t compare). Regardless, I don’t think it’ll hurt to dive into the “Avatar Day” footage and offer a few observations. For those who don’t want anything spoiled for them, skip this section.

— Spoilers begin —

First, James Cameron appears on screen for a quick intro. He assures the audience that the footage about to be shown is only from the film’s first half. Cameron then establishes the setting (22nd century on the alien moon Pandora) and the protagonist (wheelchair-bound former Marine Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington). And we’re off!

Clip #1: A live-action scene as Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) debriefs his soldiers about Pandora. “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” Quaritch quips. As Jake Sully pulls up in his wheelchair, Quaritch describes the Na’vi, a 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned humanoid species that uses “arrows with neurotoxins that’ll stop your heart in a minute.” The overall 3-D effect during this scene is very subtle, merely adding a degree of depth to the picture.

Clip #2: Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) prepares Jake to be “integrated” with his Na’vi avatar (humans can’t breathe the air on Pandora, so they’ve genetically created Na’vi bodies that can be controlled remotely). Dr. Augustine asks Jake why he came to Pandora, which she calls one of the most hostile places in the universe. Jake responds, “I was sick of doctors telling me what I couldn’t do.” Jake integrates with his Na’vi body and starts moving the body’s fingers, toes, etc. He is ecstatic about being able to walk again, and he promptly darts out of the procedure room (warning: brief blue rear nudity). Now, this scene actually worked wonderfully for me. Cameron isn’t afraid to use extremely close-up shots of the CGI Na’vi, and the combination of live-action actors, real sets, and the Na’vi actually holds up seamlessly. Strangely enough, it’s when the Na’vi enter a completely digital environment that things start to feel a little less authentic.

Clip #3: Jake and Dr. Augustine, both using their Na’vi avatars, are in the Pandora jungle. Quick note: Jake’s Na’vi doesn’t bear much resemblance to Sam Worthington, but Dr. Augustine’s Na’vi clearly looks like Sigourney Weaver. Did Dr. Augustine specifically ask for her Na’vi avatar to be designed to look like her, or is Cameron simply trying to help the audience keep track of who’s who? Anyhow, in this clip, Jake encounters a rhino-like creature. Our lead character has some machismo swagger in him. For instance, when the rhino creature appears to be retreating, Jake yells, “That’s what I’m talking about, b*tch!” Chances are that Avatar‘s dialogue will not be singled out as its strongest trait. What will be appreciated, however, is what happens next: A tiger-like creature suddenly appears and chases Jake through the jungle. Cameron joyously glides his virtual camera through the jungle in ways you could never manipulate an actual camera, and the sequence is a virtuoso thrill. The audience during the first screening erupted into applause after this clip.

Clip #4: A native female Na’vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) rescues Jake from a group of small but vicious dino-ish creatures. The two Na’vi then walk through the nighttime jungle, which lights up in stunning fluorescent colors. The person next to me let out a “wow,” and I couldn’t agree more. Words cannot describe the bewitching beauty of this scene.

Clip #5: A continuation of the last clip. Jake thanks Neytiri for saving his life, but Neytiri responds, “You don’t thank for this. This is sad. Very sad only.” Apparently she’s upset about killing those dino-creatures, thereby hinting at the movie’s ecological theme — it seems the Na’vi, unlike humans, exist harmoniously with nature. We also discover that Neytiri uses a simple staccato speech pattern: “You like a baby making noise. Don’t know what to do.” Nobody laughed during her “primitive” dialogue, and it didn’t bother me, but I bet some audiences will find it unintentionally humorous.

Clip #6: Jake (still a Na’vi) has to tame a dragon-like reptile before he can fly on it. He takes control of the beast by inserting what looks like a lock of hair into the dragon’s ear, and the dragon’s ear hair then fuses with Jake’s hair-lock thingy, and viola, the dragon is tamed. Yes, that’s the best I could do in describing that very odd moment. Jake then takes the dragon for a ride that starts out dangerously chaotic until he yells, “Shut up and fly straight.” The dragon mercifully complies.

— Spoilers end —

And that’s it. If you’re wondering how the audiences reacted, well, each of the three audiences responded differently. The first group was the most enthusiastic, giving the footage a hearty round of applause. The second crowd politely clapped. The third audience didn’t know what to do once the footage ended. There were a few seconds of dead silence, and then an audience member exclaimed “Yeah!” and everyone started applauding. I talked to several attendees after the screenings, and the general consensus was that the footage looked impressive but not revolutionary. Everyone said they were glad to have made the trek to see it, though.

What about you, PopWatchers? Did any of you take part in “Avatar Day?” What did you make of the footage? And for those of you who didn’t go, are you still planning to check out Avatar once it hits theaters on Dec. 18?

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