'Avatar Day' reaction: Close, but no cigar

Avatar-Sam-Worthington_lSo 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?

Comments (130 total) Add your comment
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  • underthefan

    Wow, I honestly thought it was the best thing I have ever seen! It felt like a rollercoaster ride, and made me feel like an 8-year-old again! The trailer just does not do it justice. I can’t wait for December.

    • Sebas

      Completely Right,
      The reason people believe it to be fake is because the images are so surreal that you cannot comprehend it in your mind. In your mind there is nothing like that which is real That is why people who saw it twice liked it better and saw it as real. The people who think it as fake are the people who cant open up their minds to the possiblities and are rsticted with their imagination.

      • Steverino

        Putting down those who disagree with you does not support your argument.
        The animation looks like animation.

      • Matthelm

        so you give the person a hard time for putting someone else down and then say “The animation looks like animation…?” I can guarantee you that its not animation! for I know these scenes well…I highly doubt you have a source to back up your “animation” theory…

    • john

      hi the movie is so great

  • pop

    i think its going to disappoint.

  • Marc

    Visually, it was stunning. It was *not* photorealistic. Do not drink the CGI kool-aid. What sucked was the dialog. Who wrote it? Was it the same writer that wrote ‘Step Up’ or ‘Bring It On’? I don’t know if I can stand 3 hours of this cheesy contrived teenage hip hip goofiness. Don’t directors realize this sort of dialog keeps films from aging well? Take a clue from Blade Runner.

    • Rick

      A clue as in Bladerunner is as solid as ever due to it not featuring outdated slang?

      • Marc

        I’m saying the movie aged relatively well due to a solid script.

      • Fritz

        Too bad LA cops won’t have flying cars in 2016. Or use public phones in bars. Bladerunner is feeling pretty dated if you drive in LA or ever use a cell phone.

      • Sam

        It’s absurd to suggest that Bladerunner is dated simply because the date is approaching when the movie was set. The 2016 date isn’t at all important to the film. The movie still stands up because it is a quality film with a (1) a great plot and dialogue; (2) solid characters and (3) great acting from Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer and others.

  • underwhelmed

    This teaser didn’t knock it out of the ballpark.

    I’m thinking that a full 2 hours of this will make me nauseous. The best sequence was literally the last 15 seconds when there was a battle going on which hints at what must happen to Jake.

  • Randall

    As really, really good looking CGI becomes more & more the norm, these movies will have to learn to rely less on visual “wow factor” and more on things like plot, character development, and god forbid dialogue. Unfortunately, given the sort of internet-dork-directors that choose to make these thigns, it could be awhile…but it’s been done, The Incredibles is a prime example of what I mean.

    • Marc

      Amen, Brother.

      • 42man

        Look, I couldn’t agree more with the fact that CGI shouldn’t be everything, but this is no “internet-dork-director.” This is James Cameron, the same guy who revolutionized sci-fi for generations. Having said that, the dialogue does sound dumb. Very interested to see how this works out.
        P.S. I love the Incredibles and every Pixar movie, so I agree with that.

      • Ronty66

        Couldn’t agree more Mr 42man. James Cameron is a directing wizard. And the script does sound a little ‘accessible’ heh.

    • Steve

      LOL you guys think The Incredibles had good dailogue? It was goofy as hell…

      • DTS

        It was “goofy” in the comedic sense. But the dialogue — comedic, and sort of serious — was spot-on. As were the characters (the mom and dad, etc). Therefore, it was good — actually great — dialogue. And a great film. (There are great comedies as well as dramas).

      • Shaun

        What did you find “goofy” about The Incredibles, Steve? I mean, sure, you have to be open to accept people with superpowers and wearing spandex costumes and all that. Granted. But if you’re open-minded enough for that, what then did you find “goofy”? Pixar’s films are consistently wonderful, in part, due to the strength of their screenwriters. Fun, intelligent stories coupled with a suprisingly high degree of character depth. Pixar films are a wonder to look at, but they also have a lot of heart. It’s what sets them apart from the CGI schlock that Dreamworks churns out, for instance. I wish Pixar would make an Incredibles sequel. With all the superhero-mania these days, it would seem a natural.

    • Aaron

      Its James Cameron. He has more character development, plot, and story in his movies than any other film maker

  • Black Button

    Don’t judge a film by 15 quickly edited minutes. That’s probably less than a tenth of the movie.

    • Clean Willy

      You’re off the mark here. Of course people are going to judge the movie by the 15 minute preview. That’s the whole point isn’t it? I would think that Fox and Cameron carefully picked out these scenes to create audience buzz and anticpation. If the 15 minutes didn’t work for some people, then why should the entire movie? They took a chance that this preview would knock everyone dead, and that’s not the case. It was a risky move, with a opinions going both ways, but that’s the choice they made.

      • Mark

        Have you seen the footage? I seriously think anyone on here who hasnt seen the 15 minutes should not make judgments. This was mindblowing by a long shot. Go to MarketSaw, and many other threads or videos. Almost every single person who saw it fell in love with it. Haters admitted how ignorant they were for making their impressions off of a teaser from parts of the movie that werent even finished. But all it takes is one slightly biased review for the hate community to feel like they have something to complain about again. Ide say 97 percent of people were knocked dead by the preview

  • Robert

    When I watched the trailer online on Thursday my anticipation level dropped slightly. I took my wife, who is no sci-fi lover, to the Avatar day event for our anniversary, though she was impressed with the 3-d she said she doesn’t think she could make it the wholr movie. I on the other hand will be there on opening weekend. The background landscapes were amazing and may have distracted my eyes somewhat, but it did seem to add some realization that is missing in some movies. I did feel at first that the Nav’i looked a little cartoonish but as the scenes played out I became more adjusted to their looks and movements. the final full scene was the most awesome as I felt I went over the cliff with Jake. Hey, I’ll see you on line in Dec.

    • Nick

      You took your non-scifi loving wife to the Avatar day… for your anniversary?

      Are you sure you’ll make it to December?

      • Tim

        That’s funny.

      • Capt_Plutonium

        I agree. I am shocked he is still married.

      • JGH

        Nick/Tim/Capt_Plutonium – I wish my hubs had your sensitivities.

  • Greg

    I thought it was terrific. It is true that there was a completely different to the Pandora ‘jungle’ scenes, but I speculate that this is Cameron’s way of saying ‘this how the Nav’i see their world.’ He wants to show the contrast between the human and Nav’i/Pandora environments. I’m not concerned about whether ‘Avator’ will be just another effects-driven extravaganza (ala ‘Transformers II’). It is Cameron’s ability to tell a good story that has placed him among the top film directors in the world.

  • Black Button

    Cameron wrote the film and you have to remember that he hasn’t made a film in 12 years so what was good 12 years ago isn’t necessarily good now. I look at the movie Aliens which is great and was good for the time it was released but today that film’s dialogue would be simply too corny. All the same, what would you do if you thought you scared away a ton of Rhinos all on your own. You’d probably react similarly.

  • Debbie

    I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was my first time at a 3D movie..and with the effects included, I can’t wait until December.
    However, I will state that I did get the 2 new Avatar movies confused..which will probably happen to a few more people. I had only seen a short trailer for the Avatar:Last of The AirBenders..and I was looking for the hooded little boy.

    • Shaun

      Debbie, the film based on the (excellent) Nickelodeon cartoon is simply going to be called “The Last Airbender” in order to avoid confusion with James Cameron’s “Avatar” movie. You’re right, however, that it probably will confuse some people. I will likely go see the Cameron film when it comes out (I didn’t see any of these previews and I’m willing to wait), but to me “Avatar” will always be that animated TV show. Too bad they couldn’t use the Avatar name, but it may not matter since I’m not sure the movie based on that show will be any good, as I really dislike Shaymalan’s work.

  • MK

    It was LOTR meets BSG, 3D was cool, but I am not sold yet. I am not sure I will care about the blue characters with tails.

  • spriggig

    “Was it the same writer that wrote ‘Step Up’ or ‘Bring It On’?”

    Ugh! If this is the case, no thanks.

    I think I’m more interested in “Surrogate”.

  • Johnny D

    Saw it. A little disappointing. The most impressive 3D was during James Cameron’s explanatory intro of him talking; aside from that, the 3D was almost unnecessary for the movie – it didn’t really add much. From all the talk leading up to Avatar, I thought the animation would be more realistic. But the movie struggles with the uncanny valley, as this article writer said. I was more impressed by the tech advances in The Matrix and T2 than I was in last night’s preview. That said, I’ll probably still go see the full movie since the story line seems interesting.

  • alex

    With all the hype, I drove an hours in traffic to see this preview. I’m a big fan of Cameron’s work, Ie Terminator, Aliens and Titanic. I was not blown away, this has been done before, Final Fantasy Avant Children and ferngully(ha ha, just kidding) i’m sure the studio will make all there money back $200m. I will see it but not the 1st day.

  • alex

    PS i was more blown away by the $30m District 9 and the Matrix

    • Rudi

      District 9 was Phenomenal! Every scene had an arc, with emotional tension and conflict, as well as building the overall story. The effects were flawless and highly impressive, especially for an Indy production. I also expect that Avatar may share much of the same general story.

    • Jonathan N

      You were blown away by a completed and full fledged movie vs. a 15 minute trailer. well color me surprised.

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