One note about Avatar before I start: it’s suffering from a terrible identity disorder. When I’ve talked to people about Avatar, I get halfway in before I realize they’re thinking of Avatar: The Last Airbender (a Nickelodeon cartoon coming to the big screen with M. Night Shyamalan behind the wheel). So, this is not that. This is James Cameron’s Avatar.
Driving to our hotel on Wednesday, the Comic-Con banners on the lampposts of San Diego could not be missed. Flanking each banner of the iconic CCI “eye” logo was another eye, staring out from an almost-human-kinda-kitty, blue face with the name “Avatar” emblazoned on the bottom. I now knew a total of three things about this movie.
- It was James Cameron’s.
- It took place on another planet.
- There were blue people, or something that looked like blue people.
The details of Avatar had been kept tightly under wraps; save for instances like Stephen Spielberg coming forward to say that “Avatar will be the biggest 3-D live-action film ever”. So, when James Cameron came out on stage, the refreshed crowd at Hall H cheered wildly (completely full again, despite the Twlighters leaving, with people still waiting in line hoping to get in). He spoke about how this movie was 14 years in the making and that when he tried to approach the film once in 1995, he was told it couldn’t be made because they didn’t have the technology to do it. It wasn’t until advances like the motion capture used for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, did he think they were getting close.
Cameron then showed about 25 minutes of footage from Avatar, bringing the first glimpse of his film to the crowd gathered there in Comic-Con. As the hall darkened for the projectors and we slid our 3D glasses on, security started up and down the rows with scanners, to assure that no one was filming or photographing the screens.
The footage was a selection of scenes from different key points in the movie. A summary of Avatar has since been posted on Wikipedia:
The story’s protagonist, Jake Sully, is a former Marine who was wounded and paralyzed from the waist down in combat on Earth. In order to participate in the Avatar program, which will give him a healthy body, Jake agrees to travel to Pandora, a lush rain-forest environment filled with incredible life forms – some beautiful, many terrifying. Pandora is also the home to the Na’vi, a humanoid race that lives at what humans would consider to be a primitive level, but are actually much more evolutionarily advanced than humans from a human perspective. Ten feet tall and blue skinned, the Na’vi live harmoniously within their unspoiled world. But as humans encroach on Pandora in search of valuable minerals, Unobtanium, the Na’vi’s very existence is threatened – and their warrior abilities unleashed.
Jake has unwittingly been recruited to become part of this encroachment. Since humans are unable to breathe the air on Pandora, they have created genetically-bred human-Na’vi hybrids known as Avatars. The Avatars are living, breathing bodies in the real world, controlled by a human driver through a technology that links the driver’s mind to the Avatar body. On Pandora, through his Avatar body, Jake can be whole once again. Moreover, he falls in love with a young Na’vi woman, Neytiri, whose beauty is matched by her ferocity in battle.
As Jake slides deeper into becoming one of her clan, he finds himself caught between the military-industrial forces of Earth, and the Na’vi – forcing him to choose sides in an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.
The design of the film is incredibly beautiful. The look and feel of Pandora is completely believable and yet, still otherworldly. You can see the influence of Cameron’s deep sea documentaries in the flora, especially, of this new planet. Where Avatar absolutely stands out is in its use of 3D. The 3D is seamlessly integrated into the film, as opposed to being gimmicky and interpretive. You almost forget you’re wearing the glasses and just enjoy the depth of the experience.
The story, however, was a let down. I mean, it seems like an interesting movie, but this isn’t some revolutionary storyline. Brash soldier learns to understand the beauty of nature by a wary, yet, curious native? Leaving the hall after the panel, I heard someone sum it up rather simply, “It’s just like Pocahontas on another planet.” Dances With Wolves has also come up a few times, post-convention.
So, what did we learn?
Buzz and hype can be great, but like a Comic-Con icon once said “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Secrecy can build interest but it can also let expectations run amok. If your top secret project is supposedly going to reinvent the way movies are made, Disney’s Pocahontas should not come up anywhere near that conversation. Personally, I’d rather be unexpectedly blown away than feel the pangs of disappointment when something doesn’t live up to all the talk.
But, will I go see Avatar? Yes. A single pang is not enough to keep me from giving the full movie (from the visionary creator of Terminator, Aliens and Titanic) a fair shot. Frankly, I think the odds are still in his favor.