In the past, we've wondered if James Cameron's project, Avatar, could really live up to the hype. Even the trailer, released last week, left us feeling kind of meh. But on Friday, Cameron released 20 minutes of 3-D footage in IMAX theaters nationwide, and it was instantly apparent why Cameron felt an Avatar Day was necessary, and why non-3-D footage of the movie doesn't convey how amazing the movie looks. Not that the movie is some groundbreaking piece of cinema: the storyline is a sci-fi take on Dances With Wolves (with a dash of Soul Man), the designs for the aliens and the military vehicles are old hat, and some of the dialogue is horrible. But when you're watching naked, blue versions of Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington running around the jungle in high-definition 3-D, all of these worries melt away. Read on for a day-after description of the footage; I may be hazy on some details, but it's mostly the same as the footage that was shown at San Diego Comic-Con. And don't worry about spoilers, as a 3-D James Cameron informed us a the beginning that these are all from the first half of the movie.
Scene 1: Live-action. In a dark meeting room/cafeteria with a slatted window that shows a jungle outside, the grey-haired but still-imposing Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) with three claw-like scars cross his temple is in the middle of briefing all of his new charges (including the nerdy Joel Moore of Dodgeball and Grandma's Boy fame). As he explains to them that his job is to keep them alive, and that he will fail with some of them due to the presence of a deadly jungle outide, soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington rolls in in his wheel chair and tosses his duffel on a table.
Scene 2: Live action. Sully rolls into a high-tech lab, where Dr. Augustine tells him to get into what looks like a futuristic tanning bed, or possibly a man-shaped sandwich maker. She asks him why he chose to come all the way out here with no training, and when she tries to help him pull his legs into the pod, he tells her he can do it himself, and swings them in manually. An array of wires is placed around his head, and the pod is closed. We see technicians looking at 3-D holograms of his brain, which looks very cool. The process is begun, and we get Sully's point of view of flying through a tunnel of light, which looks a heck of a lot like the Stargate transport effect.
Scene 3: Live action with some CGI, not that you can tell the difference. Sully's POV again, this time of the ceiling as a pair of environmental clean suit-clad technicians ask him if he can hear them. We see Sully and Norm, now inhabiting 10-foot-tall Na'Vi alien bodies, as they slowly regain consciousness. Norm sits up, and a tech walks him through some simple hand-eye coordination tests. Sully, however, is immediately entranced by his wiggling toes, and he swings his legs off the table and tries to stand as the techs yell at him not to. Once upright, Sully starts to stumble, and is distracted by his tail, which grabs his arm and sweeps things off of tables. He leans against an observation window for support, and the techs decide to try to tranquilize him, but he sweeps them aside and books it for the exit. Norm tries to stop him, and starts removing his own monitor wires to go after him as Sully runs out a door and into the jungle. The security in this place is for crap.
Scene 4: CGI everything. I guess Sully has come to his senses, as he (or rather, his Na'Vi avatar) is now wearing military clothing and walking around the jungle with a machine gun, accompanied by a similarly dressed Na'Vi Norm and -- awesome! -- a Na'Vi Sigourney Weaver! The three of them are face-to-face with a giant jungle creature that looks like a hammer-headed rhinoceros, except where his horns would be, there's some kind of festive piñata. Augustine tells Sully to stand his ground, and the creature charges, coming frighteningly close to Sully before he starts shouting and moving forward. The creature stops, looks confused, and runs back to his herd. Sully taunts the creature as it leaves, even calling it a bitch, ad we see the ferocious predator that really scared the creature away behind him. It jumps over him, and starts to advance on the herd of massive candy rhinos before turning to contemplate Sully and his friends. (I'd like to pause to mention that this predator looks like a darker, bigger version of the Sammael monsters from Hellboy. Moving on.) Sully asks for advice from Augustine, who yells "Run!" All three scatter, but the predator follows Sully in a dizzying chase through the jungle under fallen trees and through branches, until Sully takes refuge under a tree's sturdy roots, where the creature can't reach.
Scene 5: CGI everything. It's night, and Sully is alone in the jungle, standing by a campfire in his fatigues. He's surrounded by what look like smaller versions of the predator from the previous scene. They're like alien hyenas. They're swarming to attack when an arrow hits one, and the Na'Vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) appears on the scene. She uses her knife to dispatch some more creatures, and the remaining ones run away. She tosses Sully's torch in a nearby stream, and Sully whines a little bit and goes to fish it out, for some reason. Neytiri goes to the animal with the arrow in it and sees that it is in pain, so she whispers something in Na'Vi and puts it out of its misery with her knife. Sully comes out of the stream and sees that he is surrounded by bio-luminescent plants which weren't visible in the light of his torch. He thanks Neytiri, but she lashes out at him, saying that the killing she had to do was unnecessary. When he asked why she saved him, then, she replies that he was stupid and foolish... but he had a good heart. There may be more in this scene, but at this point I vomited all over the person sitting next to me. [True. I had to throw my clothes in the laundry. -- Angel] It should be mentioned that it appears that the only thing Neytiri is wearing in this scene is a fernlike necklace. Expect a flood of Avatar fan-fiction to come out of this, if nothing else.
Scene 6: CGI everything. Now wearing tribal war paint, Sully leads Neytiri and a group of Na'Vi along a ledge on the side of a mountain. As they come around the bend, they see a group of winged, dragon-like creatures just hanging out. Sully asks how he'll know which one to choose, and Neytiri says it will choose him... by trying to kill him. Sully steps into the open, and walks up to each dragon in turn, and each walks or flies away from him. Finally, he meets one who faces him down, and he jumps on it, wrapping his legs around its neck. As he struggles, Neytiri shouts for him to make the connection, and the other Na'Vi in the group laugh and make fun of Sully in 3-D subtitles. Sully is thrown off the creature's back, but he grabs him again, and inserts the feathery end of something (his tail? A vine?) into the creature's ear. The creature instantly calms down, and Neytiri yells to take it on its first flight to complete the bond. Sully shouts a command, and the dragon pretty much steps off the ledge, plummeting fast until it levels off. We see that they are on a floating island, and the creature's flight is erratic, banging into walls, until Sully shouts for it to fly straight, and the creature instantly acquiesces.
The footage ended with a quick mish-mash of clips from the trailer, including a fleet of attack ships, an army of military battlesuits, a flock of Na'Vi on their winged mounts, Sully and Neytiri about to kiss and one of the mounts swooping up to an open door on a military ship, grabbing the door gunner in its jaws and flinging him out into nothingness. Check out the trailer below to see most of that footage.