SDCC: James Cameron’s Avatar Presentation

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James Cameron screened nearly 24 minutes of Avatar for a huge crowd in Comic-Con’s Hall H. Additionally, it was announced that August 21st will be “‘Avatar Day” and that audiences can go to their local IMAX theater and see 15 minutes of Avatar for free.

Though recording was prohibited and laptops had to be closed, here’s a glance at what was shown, based on rapidly scrawled notes:

The first scene has Sam Worthington entering a military briefing. There are quite a few soldiers and he’s in a wheelchair. The drill seargant-type is telling the group that his job is to keep them all alive. Then he tells that he won’t succeed, not for all of them.

The film launches into narration by Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). He’s talking about reporting for duty.

The scene moves to a lab where Jake is being told about the Avatar program. The programs combines human DNA with the alien race, the Na’vi and allows a mental connection to the artificial bodies. There are tanks in the room and Jake is introduced to his duplicate. “It looks like him,” he says to the scientist. “It looks like you,” the scientist responds, “This is your Avatar now, Jake.”

The next scene has Jake in a lab with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). He’s about to go into the Avatar machine, which looks sort of like an MRI. There’s playful ribbing back and forth between Grace and Jake; he makes fun of her being a doctor and not being able to save his ability to walk. and she makes fun of him being soldier.

Jake goes into the device and there’s a “Sliders”-like tunnel effect of a synaptic nerve. When he wakes up, he’s still in a lab, but he’s in the Na’vi body.

The Na’vi itself is sort of like a mix between a human, a horse and a cat but blue with zebra-like stripes. They’re tall — about 10 feet and Jake tries to stand, despite the doctors trying to stop him, so excited to be able to walk. They shout at him to lay down, but he’s up and literally breaks out of the room, running down the hall and knocking things over with his tail.

Next, Jake is in the jungle on the planet Pandora with a number of other soldiers, one of which is Grace. They’re Na’vi, but dressed in military fatigues. The scenery obviously has a lot of influence from Cameron’s underwater films; There’s a ton of sea anemone-like plants that, when Jake touches them, instantly retract to a tiny bud. He’s sort of excited to see it happens and touches more and more until they all close, revealing a gigantic rhino-like creature with the nose of a hammerhead shark.

Grace shouts at him to not shoot it and he, instead, faces it down, stopping it from charging. Then another creature shows up, sort of reminiscent of the Samael design, but bigger and on four legs. It chases him and he runs through the jungle, underneath a gigantic stump, shooting at it from inside. He runs again, and it grabs him by his backpack, which me manages to slip out of.

The next bit has Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, a female Na’vi who is dressed in jungle-girl style garb. She’s watching Jake’s Na’vi from a tree. She pulls out a bow and arrow, but hesitates before shooting. A tiny butterfly/anemoe creature floats down, pausing on the blade of her arrow. She stops, doesn’t shoot and lets the creature drift away.

The next scene has Neytiri and Jake in a big, fluorescent jungle. There are mushrooms that light up when Jake touches them. There are wolf-like lizard things that Neytiri saves Jake from. He tries to thank her, explaining that he knows she can’t understand. It turns out she can, though, and speaks english back to him, telling him that he’s a child and that it’s tragic that the creatures had to die for his ignorance. He asks why she saved him and she tells him that it’s because his heart is strong and that he has no fear.

The last scene has Jake as part of a Na’vi tribe. His clothes are gone, replaced with a jungle-loincloth. He also has painted markings on his face. The tribe leader obviously doesn’t like him and says that he has to go first, pointing a rock path underneath a waterfall. Jake follows it, coming out on a mountaintop filled with dragon/pterodactyl things. With bits of guidance from Neytiri, Jake swings a sling-like device, approaching one of the (dozens) of creatures. He fights it, getting it to the ground and holds the sling to its face. Suddenly the creature calms and he loosens the sling like a harness, pulling it through the creature’s mouth. Sitting on it’s back, Jake rides the creature, right off the edge of the cliff, flying high above the mountains.

Overall, the special effects are pretty breathtaking and, despite bizarre, colorful images, it’s pretty easy to imagine that it’s practical effects. The 3D is as good or better than things we’ve seen in the past, but it’s easy to imagine this film doing just fine on its own in just 2D.

Avatar opens December 18. Look for a full transcript from the panel soon.