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Empire | Comic Con 2009

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Panel Report: Avatar
Posted on Thursday July 23, 2009, 22:55 by James Dyer

If the New Moon panel was the must-see event for hormonal teenage girls, then the equivalent for the discerning film fan was the panel that followed directly afterwards. Movie-lovers, teenage and otherwise, hustled into the hall clutching their 3D glasses for a first glimpse at Avatar,  Jim Cameron’s first film in a decade and the cinematic event of this year’s Comic-Con.

I should mention at this point that Hall H is boasting a snazzy makeover since last year. Gone is the drab curtain backdrop on the stage, replaced by a monstrous HD screen, which has been outfitted to display 3D footage for the first time in Comic-Con’s history. Tron, Final Destination and the other 3D panels today were just the support acts, warming up the audience for the main event – the three-dimensional spectacular that is James Cameron’s Avatar.

Cameron walks out and commands everyone’s adaptation as he sets up 25 minutes of footage from a film 14 years in the making. “How many of you have ever wanted to visit another planet? Are you ready to visit Pandora?” The cheers are deafening and the footage rolls.

Below are the complete descriptions of the scenes or head to the bottom for the video Q&A that followed.

First Scene
The first piece of footage sees Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch giving a no-nonsense briefing to the troops arriving on Pandora. Everything here, he says, is trying to kill you. It’s a real hell and damnation speech designed to put fear of god into the troops. Sully watches, transfixed. We cut to being taken, along with new colleague Norm Spellman (played by Joel David Moore, aka Dodgeball’s hapless nerd, Owen), to meet his new Avatar, currently being kept in stasis in a tank. Spellman goes over to the tank containing his, tapping on the glass as the lanky, blue creature floats in sleep. “yours is over there” he says. Jake manoeuvres his wheelchair over to the second tank and peers in. “It looks like just like him,” says Jake, referring to his dead twin brother, whose place he has taken by stepping into the Avatar program. “No,” says Norm. “It looks like you.”And it does. Uncannily so. “

Second Scene
The next scene introduces us, and Jake, to the Avatar experience, showing his first moments in the Avatar body. Helped into the Avatar control bed by a flame-haired Sigourney Weaver as Doctor Grace Augustine, his consciousness is downloaded and a slightly woozy Jake awakens to find himself, literally, having an out-of-body experience. His Na’vi body opens its wide eyes and it’s undeniably Worthington staring back at us. The wonders at Weta have managed to smoothly integrate the facial characteristics of the actors into their Na’vi counterparts and Worthington’s Avatar has his eyes, his smile, and his distinct facial mannerisms. It’s a huge, gangly-looking thing with faint, darker blue stripes like a tiger, expressive feline ears and a long black braid of hair running down its back.

For Jake, a paraplegic, the fascination isn’t so much the alien body as being able to move his legs. He stares in wonder at his azure little digits, wiggling his toes for the first time in years and ginning like a nine foot alien loon. As he steps out of bed, planting his feet on the floor for the first time in years, the giddy Jake begins to lose control, despite the warnings of his doctors, who are advising caution. Standing up, Jake discovers that he has a prehensile tail, which whips around uncontrollably, knocking over furniture and smashing equipment. Despite calls from the tech team to sit down (and subsequent frenzied requests for a sedative!) Jake is giddy with his new body and its mobility, running from the room and whooping his delight. It’s this scene, with its high-angle shots of Jake, that gradually shows that Cameron isn’t shooting this in a manner considered conventional for a 3D film. The camera is very fluid here, moving around with a slightly shaky, documentary, Paul Greengrass feel at times. Refreshingly, there’s a distinct absence of characters poking towards the audience with objects.

Third Scene
The third sequence brings us face to face with Pandora itself, a living, breathing jungle that’s as believable in photorealised 3D as you could possibly imagine Jake, Norm and Grace’s Avatars navigate the foliage with ease. A close-up of Weaver’s face showing just how picture perfect the capture technology Cameron has developed truly is – it’s clearly Weaver, only twenty years younger, looking like she just stepped off the set of of Aliens (if, you know, Ripley were nine feet tall and blue). It’s astonishing. The trio travel through the Pandoran jungle in search of specimens. Jake has clearly been sent along as the muscle, holding an Aliens-style pulse rifle . But he’s new to the planet and to his body, and while Grace and Norm talk plants, he goes for a little wander through the incredibly rich, vivid jungle scenery, encountering a colony of spiralling fuscia plants that retreat from his touch whenever he goes near. Intrigued, Jake tries to touch one flower, then another, then another, before all the plants disappear, revealing a giant rhino-esque beast It’s a Hammerhead Titanothere and it looks pissed! Jake levels his rifle before a panicked Grace tells him to stow it. The creature’s hide is too tough and he’ll only get on its bad side. “Don't run” hisses Grace, who’s appeared at his shoulder. It’s a territorial thing. The beast charges and so does Jake, screaming his challenge as the beast thunders towards him. At the last second it pulls up short, pauses and starts to back away, uncertain. Exhilarated, Jake begins to laugh, especially as several more of the beasts, milling around in the background, start to shuffle uncertainly.

Jake isn’t the force he thinks he is, though. The camera pans around to reveal the true reason the beast had pulled up. A huge black beast as big as a t-rex and twice as nasty has dropped out of the jungle behind him. It’s a Thanator, a huge, six-limbed predator with teeth as long as your arm (think the meanest panther in the jungle crossed with the alien queen and you’re partway there). It doesn’t take long for Jake to twig.

“What about this one?” he asks. “Run or stay.” “Run!” Grace replies in horror. “Definitely run!” What follows is a frenetic chase scene as Jake tears through the jungle with the Thanator hot on his heels. Jake hides amidst the roots of a giant tree. The monster tears at his sanctuary, trying to dig him out and Jake unloads his rifle in its face. The Thanator responds by tearing the gun from his hands and tossing it aside. This is not going well and it’s clear, if there were ever any doubt that Pandora is not a friendly place. Making a break for it Jake is snatched up by the Thanator. It trips him and grabs his backpack in its teeth before he struggles loose.

Fourth Scene
The fourth scene takes place sometime later with Jake in ripped clothes walking through the Pandoran jungle. Watching him from the trees is a Na’vi. It’s Zoe Saldana’s free-spirited Na’vi, Neytiri, a tough-skinned but beautiful tribeswoman. Dressed in simple (and skimpy) loincloth, she’s a feral-looking force of nature, adorned with beads and feathers, holding a bow and her hair braided into shoulder-length dreadlocks in addition to the long braid hanging down her back. She draws a bead on Jake with an arrow. Just as she’s about to fire a feathery wood sprite floats down and lands on the tip of her arrow. With a gasp she stands down.

Fifth Scene
The fifth scene, set soon after, sees Jake alone in the jungle at night. A flaming torch lighting the foliage around him. Once again, he’s not alone. He’s attacked by a pack of relentless beasts called Viperwolves. In a tense sequence, soundtracked by menacing trills and groans as the dog-like creatures surround him, is beset on all sides by the vicious little critters. Pinned by one and a hair from taking his last gasp, he’s saved by Neytiri, who kills one and sees the others off. She saves him only to push him down and storm off when he tries to offer his thanks. It was a tragedy, she tells him, and the Viperwolf should not have had to die.

As the scene progresses, he follows, imploringly, only to be rebuffed by Neytiri, who berates him and all the humans for the damage they’ve caused. He is like a child, she says, making noise and idiotic. Why did she save him then? The question gives her pause. “You have a strong heart,” she says. “No fear.” She speaks heavily accented English but her meaning, and distain, is clear enough. She throws his torch into a pond but, rather than snuff out what little light he has, it allows his Na’vi eyes to adjust and the entire forest comes alive with a mysterious bioluminescence. The plants and insects are like a tiny cityscape amid the leaves and Neytiri’s own luminescent patterns light up her skin like constellations.

The two continue to bicker as they walk. Mid-argument, however, Jake and Neytiri are silenced by an exquisite, ethereal flurry of what appears, at first, to be snow, but soon reveals itself as a swarm of pleasantly drifting fluffy, feathered creatures – more wood sprites - that, much to Neytiri’s astonishment, alight on Jake. It’s a magical, almost messianic moment and it clearly changes the relationship between them. They are the seeds of a great, holy tree, she explains. The favouritism they show Jake clearly change her perception and she tells him curtly to follow before bounding off with a purpose.

Sixth Scene
Neytiri and Jake are on a hunting trip. But this is no ordinary hunt. Accompanied by a group of Na’vi warriors they are approaching a Banshee colony. Jake and Neytiri ease out across a promontory under a waterfall and approach a vast colony of the large, aerial predators. Be careful, she tells him, the Banshee must choose him. “How will I know?” he asks. “Because it will try to kill you!”

Jake walks among the creatures, each hissing and flying away at his approach before one of them confronts him. He spits at it and it lunges at him. What follows is a furious fight as Jake wrestles with the creature, wrapping its jaws with a vine before swinging onto its back. “That moron’s going to die,” says one of the Na’vi. The Banshee gets the upper hand though, flinging him off and nearly sending him over a cliff. Jake rebounds and leaps atop the beast, pinning it’s head between his knees and forcing it to the ground. Taking the long braid that hangs from his head, he connects it to one of the Banshee’s antennae and it immediately stops struggling. The Na’vi look on, amazed.

Jake spurs the creature on and it leaps from the cliff face but instead of flying it plummets towards the ground. Desperately trying to gain control, Jake engages in a battle of wills with the creature as it screeches and hisses. “Shut up and fly straight!” he screams. And as if by magic it does, soaring up into the sky with Jake poised on its back like he’s been doing this all his life.

The audience reception to the footage was overwhelming. We’ve seen a lot so far at Comic-Con but it’s clear that this has been the highlight for everyone so far. I was lucky enough to see the footage (or most of it) at CIne Expo earlier this month and the impact hasn't lessened in the slightest with a second viewing. The effects, the 3D and the sheer scope of Cameron's vision are absolutely awe-inspiring. If I could only see one more film for the rest of my life then, assuming they don't make a sequel to Nuns On The Run, Avatar would be it. This isn't just the event movie of the year but quite possibly the most ambitious film of the decade and I am literally counting the days until I get to see the whole thing. There are still three days to go at this year’s Con but they’re going to have to work very hard to top what people have now seen of Avatar.

Cameron was joined by producer Jon Landau, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana and Stephen Lang, each of whom gave a brief introduction before sitting down for a Q&A. I could tell you all about it but it's far easier just to show you. Here's a snippet from the panel filmed in glorious 2D shake-o-vision. Apologies for the dodgy camerawork - motion sickness may result.

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1 JoshuaTree
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 02:20
Incredible, I just cannot wait to see this film!
Thinking though whether it would be better to hold on and see the complete film, rather than random scenes in october hmmmm
Great post!

2 sagart
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 08:57
I 've read elsewhere that on a VFX level, it's not as revolutionary as Jurassic Park. After being disappointed by Titanic, I'll withhold judgement (and excitment) until I actually see the whole movie.

3 steveg66
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 09:15
Sounds good. All nicely descriptive but what was your opinion of it Mr Dyer?

4 lukeyboy
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 09:32
This movie sounds right up my street! I can't wait for it!

5 grahamfp
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 10:11
This sounds absolutely terrible - the wonders of Naboo stretched to an Epic - there isn't always a bigger bloody fish

6 warren7355
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 12:19
Yep, getting some serious 'Phantom Menace' vibes from this.....

Oh and Empire, sort out your punctuation, it's pretty appalling in places.

7 Hillsman
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 12:20
Cameron = Genius. It has been too long........

8 nclowe
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 12:44
I cannot wait!! Please try and get this footage for Movie-Con!!!

9 andrewkassell
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 12:46
I have a bad feeling about this...

10 Twinstarmovies
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 13:10
December is too far away. Movie Con footage would be great, but 21st August is now in my iPhone as a key date!!

11 joanna likes films
Posted on Friday July 24, 2009, 16:03
Drooling at the thought of it all, my God it sounds so good! Can we have it now?! Please! Twinstarmovies is right, December is too far away. I really really want to see this, stuff any other movie out this year or what's left of it this is the one I can't miss out full stop.

12 rumblefish1976
Posted on Saturday July 25, 2009, 19:17
I hate to say X-Meets-Y. But this film sounds more and more like The Matrix-Meets-Dances with Space.
Gonna reserve judgement on the film until I see it, but it sounds like only the visuals will be revolutionary and perhaps not the plot

13 Chrisseh
Posted on Monday July 27, 2009, 16:37
For all those who are striking comparisons to Phantom Menace, or Matrix... etc, this film was written 14 years ago.

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