COMIC-CON: James Cameron unveils impressive ‘Avatar’ footage

Posted by · 5:21 pm · July 23rd, 2009

AvatarJames Cameron made his long-awaited trip to San Diego this afternoon for the world premiere of 25 minutes of footage from his upcoming film “Avatar,” and the reaction was as enthused as it could have been.  A scene-by-scene description is probably the best way to go about this, so first that, then quotes from the post-screening discussion.

If you’d prefer to stay pure on this film and would rather skip the scene descriptions, go ahead and scroll down to the quotes section, indicated in bold below.  Also, for those hungry for any and all info, before I dig into the specifics of the presentation, you should really read through Cameron’s E3 address to get an idea of the film’s plot, or else you’ll be quite lost.

Seven sequences were unveiled, beginning with a “Full Metal Jacket”-like military briefing with actor Stephan Lang front-and-center.  The scene also introduces us to the central character in the film, Jake Sully, a crippled former military officer himself with an eye toward the cosmos and the planet Pandora.

The next scene reveals the avatars, genetic bio-suits constructed from the DNA of the Na’vi, tall, blue-skinned warrior natives of Pandora.  Floating in a tank of fluid, being prepped for integration with human consciousnesses, the imagery is quite beautiful in this scene, the avatars in a docile, tranquil state, Sully peering at them, recognizing in them the chance to walk, however virtually, once again.

The next scene shows Sully’s integration with the avatar and also introduces scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), whose reverence for the Na’vi and preserving the world of Pandora despite the industrial influence of humans and the military is quite apparent.

This scene was an interesting bit of character building, as Sully, infused with the avatar, can’t contain his excitement at being able to move his lower extremities.  In a moment of levity, he hops up, rips the IVs from his (well, the avatar’s) skin and runs gleefully, his (well, the avatar’s) hind quarters showing through the gown, out of the room and down the hall, free to run once again.

Next up, on Pandora, Sully and his team (including an “avatared” Augustine) have a close encounter with two of the beastly species that inhabit the planet.  To attempt a description of these creatures would be folly and certainly wouldn’t do the visceral effect they have justice, so I’ll leave it at that.

We are then introduced, in another scene, to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), perhaps best described as the Stands With a Fist to Sully’s Lieutenant Dunbar.  A quiet introductory scene gives way to the longest sequence of the presentation: As Sully finds himself cornered by some of the more aggressive fauna of Pandora, Neytiri comes to his aid (albeit to her irritation).  Sully follows Neytiri, mesmerized by the plant-life around him (the color palette on this film is exquisite), presumably back to her clan.

Which brings us to the final sequence, which introduces the winged creatures the Na’vi ceremonially tame and mount, leading to a dazzling moment with Sulley soaring through the skies clumsily until, finally, the flight smoothes out and the scene fades out to the film’s title: “AVATAR.”


This film looks to be the blend of science fiction and fantasy that a Comic-Con crowd eats up.  The rendering of the Na’vi is wonderfully acute.  The 3D works and isn’t intrusive, making the numerous manifested elements of the film really pop and come to life.  And yet, with a 25-minute dip into this world, it still feels like the tip of the iceberg.

I caught myself half-way through, mouth agape, literally transfixed.  It wasn’t that the material was so new and ground-breaking, which it certainly is on some levels.  It was because it was so audaciously original and inventive.  I echo the sentiment of an audience member, who said before asking his question, “Thank you for making something that’s original, something that’s not a remake or a sequel.”

Cameron participated in a post-screening Q&A with Weaver, Lang and Saldana.  Sam Worthington was here in spirit but also via a pre-recorded address from the set of his latest film.  A look of relief seemed to splash across Cameron’s face as he was met with the hall’s enthusiastic reception to him and reaction to the footage.

The question on many people’s minds was where Cameron dug up a tale such as this.  “All of those science fiction books and comic books kind of went into a blender and this is what came out,” the director said of his childhood’s impact on the narrative.  “I was the CEO of Digital Domain at the time [I first conceived the project] and we were really good at 2D composite but we were really lacking in 3D development.  I wanted to write a script that would push the limit of CG for the company.”

Weaver, who made a giant splash when she graced the stage, visions of Ripley dancing in the heads of those in attendance, hit just the right note with the audience.  “Thank you for caring about movies as much as you do, for caring about every lush detail, because this is the movie for you,” she said with all the compassion of Grace Augustine.  “Jim wrote such a wonderful character for me to play in Grace Augustine.  I find her so moving in a way.  She’s a woman who’s dedicated her life to something she believes in.”

Weaver said she never did that well in science class as a student, but she was always eager to learn it.  “I think I got a second chance with this,” she said.

And boy did she ever.  Said Cameron, “We’ve done everything from figuring out the ecology, the geography, the different species of plants,” but furthermore, “the Na’vi, linguistics, spent two years working on the language.”  A USC professor of linguistics, in fact, was brought on to sculpt and craft the language of the Na’vi from scratch.

“The language was amazing,” Saldana said during the Q&A.  “It was hard because I thought it would be like picking up French or something.  But it was all these sounds we were making and then to talk English with a Na’vi accent, it was very interesting.  It was about dehumanizing ourselves in the Na’vi culture.  It required an inventiveness that made it a lot of fun.”

Saldana, who seems to be putting forth a rather fierce and focused performance underneath that mixture of makeup and computer effects, also commented on the strong female character she was tackling, something very much in the Cameron wheelhouse.

“I remember he asked me my level of tolerance when we started strategizing,” she said to laughter from the audience.  “It was the most physically demanding role I have ever done.  I wanted her to be a female action character at least equal to the other ones in Jim’s movies.”

Actor Stephen Lang came out and made his introduction in-character, offering, “Frankly I got a problem with Grace Augustine and her troop of tree-hugging scientists” among other barked sentiments.  Later, with a more casual air, he

“When I read the script, I fell for him immediately,” Lang said of his character, Colonel Quaritch.  “Most actors love a good villain, and I suppose he’d have to be characterized as the villain of the piece.  His sense of mission appealed to me strongly.  I found him very moving for what he lacked, for the fact that his soul was in such a state of chaos and decrepitude, and what a sad thing to be in a place you could characterize as Eden and not be able to see it.”

Intriguingly, as it was reveals from an audience member’s question about a potential role for Michael Biehn in the film, Lang auditioned for Biehn’s role in Cameron’s “Aliens” way back in 1986,  “I came in on Aliens 20 years ago, I got cast in Avatar, so I regard it as the longest call back I’ve ever waited for,” he said.

Cameron’s philosophy on the science fiction of the film seemed simple and stream-lined.  He wanted “something with a spoonful of sugar in the action but also that has a conscience,” he said.  “We make science fiction for human consumption, so what does it really mean?  The Na’vi represents what we’d like to be or even something we’re perhaps losing.  And the humans represent that side of us that are trashing our world.”

Cameron closed the event with a big announcement for the many fans eagerly anticipating the film but weren’t able to attend Comic-Con for today’s unveiling.

“We’re going to do something unprecedented,” Cameron said.  “It’s a social marketing experiment.  We’re going to take over as many IMAX 3D theaters worldwide on August 21 and we’re going to let an international global audience come see 15 minutes of “Avatar” for free, it’s going to be ‘Avatar’ Day.”

“Avatar” lands in theaters Friday, December 18.

James Cameron at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con International

Sigourney Weaver at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con International

Sigourney Weaver at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con International

Avatar mech at 2009 San Diego Comic-Con International

→ 14 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

14 responses so far

  • 1 7-23-2009 at 5:53 pm

    Anthony said...

    Kris, hard to tell on such a small sampling, but are we talking an Oscar level thing here?

  • 2 7-23-2009 at 6:55 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Not that you didn’t do a great job summing up the clips, Kris, but for anyone interested AICN has an insanely extensive, immaculately descriptive and spoilerific rundown of the early footage here:

  • 3 7-23-2009 at 7:08 pm

    twinzin said...

    Everbodies seems to be on the same page. I’m hoping it lives up to the hype. Can’t wait to see if this thing gets major oscar consideration.

  • 4 7-23-2009 at 7:37 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    i wish guy had seen this, his ultra critical eye would be good for something everyones going gaga for. so how good is this kris? best picture, and is there any way in hell it could get acting noms in a full sweep? im very excited for this movie, how do you think it would look on a 2d screen?

  • 5 7-23-2009 at 7:43 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    any changed to predictions after seeing this?

  • 6 7-23-2009 at 7:55 pm

    El Rocho said...

    Yes. From what I hear, I cannot wait to see this thing. I’ll be there hours before hand on Aug. 21st for the free viewing. BUt I agree with Anthony. I know it’s a small sample, but, as an educated guess, is this going to be a strong oscar contender? And in what categories? Aside from the given, that is.

  • 7 7-23-2009 at 8:18 pm

    Pablo (Col) said...

    Cameron says he blended many ideas to get Avatar.

    I just wanted to say… Pantora (just a “d” away) is a planet in the Star Wars universe. And like the Avatar’s planet, it’s home to a tall and blue skinned race of humanoid beings.

    Coincidence ? I guess it is.

    Anyway, im really looking forward to this and i hope Latin America gets Avatar in many movie theaters, in it true quality of course.

  • 8 7-23-2009 at 8:34 pm

    Joel said...

    This sounds astonishing. Can’t wait for December 18, now.

    Pablo: Funnily enough, that’s exactly what I thought of reading the description. lol.

  • 9 7-23-2009 at 9:54 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Stephen Lang is the man. Good casting choice. Wait, I’ve got a better one:

    Tom Berenger is in Nolan’s Inception. SGT. BARNES.

  • 10 7-24-2009 at 12:12 am

    Glenn said...

    That was a really good write up, Kris. Although i did skip through the spoilers after a scene or two.

  • 11 7-24-2009 at 2:19 am

    stanley tweedle said...

    I just hope the story engages as much as the groundbreaking visual specular. Er, they can integrate a human being with an alien avatar yet there is still a need for wheelchairs?

  • 12 7-24-2009 at 5:08 am

    red_wine said...

    AICN says
    ” 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. ”

    ” 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. ”

    I was just wondering about the quality of the CGI. Seems like its still possible to distinguish between what’s real and what’s computer generated. But the CGI is getting more sophisticated.

  • 13 8-21-2009 at 7:27 pm

    sekou said...

    I went today and it was pretty good. the 3d complements the visual effects better than it did in the trailer.