Writer/director/producer James Cameron was on hand at Comic-Con for the first public showing of footage from his sci-fi epic Avatar, his first full-on feature film since Titanic. He closed his introduction with two questions: "How many of you have ever wanted to go to another planet?" The 6,500-strong crowd in Hall H of San Diego's Convention Center roared. "Are you ready to go to Pandora?" Another, even louder roar.
The cheers were merited. Cameron showed nearly half an hour's worth of scenes from the movie in eye-popping 3-D, including some of the most impressive CGI ever seen on screen. Avatar, which Cameron says was "14 years in the dreaming and four years in the making," opens December 18. Cameron announced that August 21 will be "Avatar Day," when IMAX and 3-D digital theaters will be showing 15 minutes of it for free.
The film is a technological wonder, an adventure story set on the planet of Pandora, whose impossibly lush landscape and fantastic, dangerous wildlife can only be negotiated by Earthmen if they transfer their consciousness into cloned "avatars" that look like Pandora's native humanoids, the Na'vi. The latter are effectively "noble savages": they're fearsome archers, wear loincloths and necklaces, and know how to coexist with nature much more gracefully than the ugly-American Earthlings.
The outline of the story was clear from the preview scenes: Wheelchair-bound soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) explores Pandora in a ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned, prehensile-tailed avatar body. His rival and eventual lover is the Na'vi woman Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), who teaches him the ways of Pandora — both how to survive its menaces (there's a monster-attack scene in the forest that out-Jurassic Parks Jurassic Park) and how to appreciate its bizarre and lovely flora and fauna. Meanwhile, there's a confrontation brewing between closed-minded colonel Miles Quarich (Stephen Lang) and conservationist botanist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, who drew cheers as soon as she appeared on screen.)
Weaver, Saldaña and Lang joined Cameron for a question-and-answer period after the screening. Saldaña described her part as "the most physically demanding role I've ever done" — impressive, considering that her character is totally CGI'ed out, but she trained by taking up archery and weightlifting. "I wanted [Neytiri] to be a female action character at least equal to the others in Jim's movies," she said, with an affectionate glance at Weaver, who starred in Cameron's Aliens.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Avatar is the extent of the design that went into creating its gorgeous, alien worlds and life-forms. "All those science fiction books and comic books I read as a kid go into the blender," Cameron said, "and we sit in ugly stuffy little rooms for a year and a half, designing every blade of grass and tree." He explained that, although he'd written the first version of the script in the mid-'90s, it couldn't have been made until the second Lord of the Rings movie made him realize that "some soul and real personality could be captured by CGI."
Avatar has that for sure — and despite the heavy-handed politics and exoticized sexuality suggested by the preview footage, it looks hugely engaging, receiving a wildly enthusiastic response from the Comic-Con audience. "Thank you for loving movies as much as you do," Weaver said. "This is the movie you've been waiting for."
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