SDCC 2009: I have laid eyes on ‘Avatar,’ part one…

07.24.09 8 years ago 4 Comments

20th Century Fox

“Avatar” absolutely will change the way films are made.

Or, to be more precise, it will revolutionize the way $400 million films are made.  And make no mistake… we’re about to see another price paradigm shattered, just like we did the first time a single film cost over $100 million.  “Avatar” is ginormous to the power of superhumongous.  And, personally, I’m glad.  Because it’s not my money.  I’m in for at least $28 or so theatrically, and another $40 for the eventual BluRay that will be just plain awesome.  So for a personal investment of around $70, I get to go to Jim Cameron’s new planet, Pandora, and have a crazy adventure with the giant blue cat people.


I’m glad I didn’t live blog this event, and that I didn’t rush back to the hotel to just run a description of the footage.  I’m glad I ended up doing several other things after “Avatar,” and that I’ve run into a number of people whose disappointment in the footage was profound, near-complete.  I’ve been listening to the reactions of the ones who are disappointed.  A good friend of mine, a guy who loves at least one James Cameron film so much that if he ever has a son, he will probably name that son “Aliens”… that guy was so upset about the footage tonight when I saw him that I felt like he was almost confused by how upset he was.  There were things he liked about it, but a whole lot of it was stuff he didn’t like.  And that freaked him out a little.  I don’t think he expected at the start of today that he’d be a raving fan of “District 9” and disappointed and irritated by “Avatar.”

But that’s Comic-Con, isn’t it?

[more after the jump]

There are two separate things I want to write about regarding “Avatar” tonight.  First is the footage itself, which I liked a lot.  I’m not going to hype it more than that.  I’ll tell you about my reaction, and about what they showed us, but as far as hype goes… well, that’s the second part of what we’ll talk about here.

I thought the entire presentation today was very strong.  Hello, Mr. Rothman, right up front.  If I were the president of Fox, you bet your ass I’d be in San Diego introducing the new James Cameron movie.  I’ve seen Tom talk at many events, and I’ve sat in his office and pitched him a movie, so he’s certainly seen me nervous.  But today was the first time he’s ever seemed… let’s just say “enthused” to this degree.  He was almost breathless.  Like someone chased him onstage.  I’ll bet you’d feel like that every day if you had bet on a film the way Fox is betting on this one.

I’m going to use a sort of a crude metaphor here, so if you’re easily offended, skip down a paragraph.  I don’t mind.  Basically, today James Cameron walked into a room with 6,000 people and pulled out his dick and slapped it on the table.  With an HD camera pointing right at it.  And for the last year or so, there’s been a fairly constant stream of buzz, with certain phrases repeated so often that they have become part of the official marketing of the film.  “Dreaming with your eyes wide open.”  “First new world on film since ‘Star Wars.'”  “Photoreal.”  That last one, in particular, is a word that I am learning to dread.  Because the moment it’s said, the moment that becomes the focus of the film, you’re in trouble.  No movie has ever made $300 million because it was “photoreal”  Audiences aren’t out there chanting, “We won’t see anything unless you promise us it’s photoreal!”  Special effects have been an evolving art form just like storyteling itself, an ever expanding vocabulary, with today’s cutting edge serving as tomorrow’s dated and charming relic.  I show Toshi a film like “20 Million Miles To Earth,” and there was a time when those effects were absolutely the most amazing thing anyone had seen on screen so far.  And the reason the film is still fun to watch is because the effects have character.  They’re in service of something.  They’re fun in context.  They don’t have to be photoreal as long as they are really cool.

“Avatar” is really, really, really, really cool.  It is not photoreal.

Your brain is never going to tell you “Hey, look, I think that’s an actual real ten foot tall blue cat person alien.”  You will always look at that and say, even if you don’t consciously say it, “Well, that can’t be real.”  So you start picking at the trick, trying to take it apart.  There is not a film that has been made using lots and lots of special effects that can pass the photorealistic test.  You always strive to create something cohesive, something that works as a whole.  Stylization can really help with that.


“Avatar” is extremely stylized, both in characterization and in terms of design.  Cameron has always painted in types, and right at the start of this one, when Stephen Lang shows up as Col. Quaritch, the gruff face of the military, the head of security for Hell’s Gate, which is the scientic outpost on Pandora, you can see that Cameron is writing in big, sassy, macho “Aliens” mode.  Lang addresses a batch of new arrivals to the planet, tells them that the planet they are on wants nothing more than to kill each and every one of them as soon as possible.  “My job is to protect you,” he barks at them, softening only a bit as he adds, “I will not succeed.”

As he explains the rules that will keep everyone alive, we get a good look at Lang, who has crazy claw scars on his face and body, as if he survived a mauling of some sort.  He doesn’t say from what, but his attitude sort of seems to extend from whatever happened to him.  He knows what he’s talking about, and as he goes over the rules for how you have to behave on Pandora to stay alive, Jake Sully comes rolling into the room in his wheelchair.

Jake, of course, is Sam Worthington.  My friend who was so disappointed by the footage seems to have taken an instant and intense dislike to Worthington.  I thought he was one of the redeeming things about “Terminator: Salvation,” but the work he did in that is really nothing like the work he does here.  Like I said… Jake rolls into the room.  Here’s this guy, this burly rugged man, and he’s trapped in his chair, simmering, bristling at the way people look at him, at the way they help him.  And Quaritch knows that Jake wasn’t supposed to be here.  That he’s a last minute replacement for the guy who was.  And for a guy like Quaritch, who needs to know that people will follow his orders so no one gets killed, a guy like Jake is nothing but trouble.

I really liked what Lang was up to in this scene.  Quaritch is one of the “bad guys” of the film, and I like that he’s a James Cameron archetype, the military man a la “The Abyss” or, of course, “Aliens.”  And in “Aliens,” they were undeniably the good guys.

Not so sure that’s the case here.

As a first scene in a clips package, this was interesting because it was all live-action, no effects, and our chance to adjust to the 3D.  Which works here because Cameron did something very smart… he lit the everlovin’ shit out of everything.  This is one amazingly bright film.  Everything we saw was BRIGHT.  BRIGHT LIGHTS.  BRIGHT COLORS.  So even if the glasses dim things a bit, you won’t notice it.  It’s a sign that Cameron has carefully thought about how to use this as part of his palette, not just as a gimmick.


Jake heads into a lab with Norm (Joel David Moore), who is another of the Avatar drivers who just arrived on-planet.  Norm has been training for this.  Jake, on the other hand, has not.  His brother was supposed to be the Avatar driver.  His twin brother.  But he died, and since the Avatars are indigenous creatures from Pandora, crossed with specific human DNA, they can actually be controlled by remote thought link, by human beings.  The humans are able to use these Avatars to interact with the planet of Pandora in a way that no one in a biosuit will ever experience.

Jake and Norm meet Grace, the head of the project, played by… waiiiiiiit for it… Sigourney Weaver! Yay! If the thought of Sigourney Weaver playing a major role THAT ISN’T RIPLEY THANK GOD in a James Cameron scifi film doesn’t make you smile, then you, sir, are a godless heathen.  That’s a scientific fact.  Look it up.  Dileep Rao, who played the psychic in “Drag Me To Hell,” plays another of the tech guys for the Avatar project, and he takes Jake and Norm to see their personal Avatars, where they’ve been growing in tanks.

The first shot of the two giant creatures in the tanks is interesting because we meet these things in stasis.  Not in motion.  Not as characters.  But as things in tanks, waiting to be turned on.  We see the faces of the creatures.  One looks somewhat like Norm, and the other definitely has the facial structure of Sam Worthington.  We see that Jake is somewhat overwhelmed by the first sight of the thing.  He manages to choke out, “It looks like him.”

Norm knows what Jake’s talking about.  His brother.  Can see how much the thoughts tear Jake up.  He tries to comfort him.  “He looks like you.”


Here’s where it started to really get crazy.  This is the scene where Jake’s Avatar wakes up for the first time with Jake inside it.

And here’s the moment where opinions really begin to diverge, too.  As the camera pans across the close-ups of the Avatars on the table, as they wake up and start to test the responses of their bodies.  Jake wakes up and starts to move his legs.  His feet.  And as he realizes that he can, in fact, move his feet and legs, he sort of goes crazy.  He jumps up, ready to skip all the boring diagnostic tests and all the poking and prodding… ready to walk.  Ready to run.  Ready to see Pandora.  He starts pulling tubes out of himself, sensors off of himself, and then starts looking for a way out.  This ten-foot-tall Nav’i smashes all hell out of of evverything trying to get to the door, and I loved the interaction of Jake’s Avatar or Norm’s Avatar with the real actors in the scene.

Jake manages to storm down the hall, throw open the door to outside…


… and the rest of the footage all took place on Pandora, with Avatars and Nav’i interactng.

Pandora, of course, doesn’t exist, but the level of detail that Cameron has devoted to this ecosystem, the world itself… it’s astonishing.  Let no one tell you that the world-building is anything less than persuasive and deep.  From the moment Jake begins to explore the planet, what we saw looked to me like a location, a place.  Jake can’t help but stretch the legs, and as he does, he touches the local plants, watching them react to him.  It delights him, so he keeps doing it until he accidentally enrages a Hammerhead.  These are giant rhino-looking things, and this one in particular doesn’t like Jake in his space, so he starts bellowing, roaring, threatening to charge.

We see that Jake isn’t alone.  There are two other Avatars with him.  Grace has one, and Norm has his.  And just like Jake and Norm’s Avatars, hers looks like her.  It’s sort of amazing.  She warns Jake not to move, and he stands down the creature, only to get attacked by something smaller and more immediately deadly, a creature called a Viperwolf.  This time, Grace has different advice:  “RUN!”

Jake’s battle with the Viperwolf is intense, furious, quick.

And we did not see how it ends, so I assume Jake dies and the movie’s over, right?

Oh, wait… no… there’s another scene right after and Jake’s fine.  His Avatar is fine.  Jake actually meets one of the Nav’i, Naytiri.  She is frustrated by this Earth man, frustrated at the stupid danger he puts himself in, and frustrated by the fact that they just… keep… coming.

For me, the first big scene with Naytiri and Jake is where I was sold.  I bought it.  I bought both of these creatures, bought the interaction between them… bought the world.

I’m going to have to crash for a few, so I guess I’ll have a part two of my thougths on “Avatar,” as well as much more Con coverage in the morning when I get up.  Stay tuned.

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