As filmmaker James Cameron began the panel spotlight on his newest film, “Avatar,” at Comic-Con International, he had two questions for fans: “One – how many of you have ever wanted to go to another planet? And two – are you ready to go to Pandora?”
With this, Cameron revealed over twenty minutes of his first feature production since “Titanic.” It unspooled on all screens contained within the San Diego’s Convention Center Hall H in glorious 3-D, and from the reaction of those present, they are ready to book return-tickets to the planet of Pandora.
The movie is set during the 22nd century on a small moon called Pandora which is inhabited by the Na’vi – ten-foot tall blue humanoids who are peaceful unless attacked. Humans can’t breathe Pandoran air, so genetically-engineered human/Na’vi hybrids (known as Avatars) are created which can be controlled via a mental link. A paralyzed Marine named Jake Scully (played by Sam Worthington) exists as one of these Avatars, but things get complicated when he falls in love with a Na’vi princess (actress ZoÃ« Saldana) and gets caught up in the conflict between the Na’vi and the human military that is consuming Pandora.
The scenes Cameron revealed to the crowd were amazing in terms of storytelling, CGI, design, and 3-D effects. The presentation began with a simple scene of actor Stephen Lang (head of security for Hell’s Gate – the human compound on Pandora) warning the latest batch of recruits about the dangers present. He told them, “My job is to keep you alive. I won’t succeed with all of you.”
We are then treated to a scene of Jake seeing his Avatar for the first time, followed by a meeting with head of the Avatar program, Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver). This lead to a clip where Jake was “linked” with his Avatar, and we got to see the blue, ten-foot tall creature move around. It’s fairly amazing – the avatar moves very naturally and interacts with real-world items in a way that’s seamless.
Next, we finally got to see Pandora itself, with Jake and some other Avatars exploring the land. The artistry of this scene is mind-blowing. Cameron has created an entire world with its own unique plant-life and animals, and immerses the audience in the environment via the 3-D, which only makes the monsters that then attack seem that much more frightening.
The scares then subsided with a scene of Pandora at night. It is here that Jake met the Na’vi that Saldana plays. And if the audience reacted with pleasure to the sight of Pandora in the day, they wondered at the spectacle of the planet’s nighttime views. Somewhere between a rain forest and a neon disco, every part of the theater seemed to come alive in this portion of the presentation.
The final scene previewed was one where Jake had to wrestle with a pterodactyl-like creature and form a mental link with it. Once that was done, the flying animal became his personal aerial transport and took him into the sky. And thanks to Cameron’s efforts, the whole audience was soaring by the end of clip.
With that, the lights came up and the audience applauded loudly. The filmmaker explained that he made this film for the fourteen-year old boy that exists in the back of his mind. “I took my favorite science fiction books, comic book, old movies, dropped them in a blender, and this is what came out.”
Cameron then brought out Jon Landau, the producer of “Avatar” (as well as “Titanic”). Following that, several actors from the film came out, including Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, and ZoÃ« Saldana. Actor Sam Worthington couldn’t be present due to production on another film, but he sent a video message expressing his hopes that audiences will like the film.
The panel was then opened to questions from the audience, and considering Cameron’s long absence from theaters, there were inquiries a-plenty. One of the first fans to the microphone asked Weaver what it was like to re-team with Cameron, who she last worked with on “Aliens.”
“We’ve kept in touch and we picked up right where we left off,” she said. “It felt just as normal as could be, but better. Jim really cares about his actors. He’s always saying, ‘What do you want to try? Let’s try this. Let’s try that.’Working with Jim is not like anything else I’ve ever experienced.”
Next, Saldana was asked about all the training required for her role. “You definitely have to take Jim seriously,” she explained. “I remember he asked me about my level of tolerance when we first started planning and strategizing on how the training was going to be. Seven days a week, I was taking Wu-Shu training, archery – which I still now practice – horseback riding, extensive dialect training. I was also lifting weights with Sam – in solidarity.”
Saldana went on about the linguistics coach and the difficulties of speaking the Na’vi dialect – that’s right, in addition to creating an entire world, Cameron created a whole new language. He worked with a doctor at USC and spent two years developing the Na’vi language and culture.
The next audience member directed a question to Cameron about an actor he has worked with several times in the past, Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the Governor of California. He, along with several other members of the crowd, were looking forward to a future reunion. Cameron responded, “I wouldn’t rule that out, but Arnold loves a press conference as much as anyone else, so I’m going to leave it to Arnold to announce anything.”
And on the topic of former collaborators, another fan wanted to know if actor Michael Biehn would appear in “Avatar.” Cameron explained that he considered Biehn for Lang’s role, but decided to ultimately go with Lang. Interestingly, it was then pointed out that Lang was originally up for Biehn’s role in “Aliens” before Biehn took it from him. Lang laughed and said he views “Avatar” as “the longest call-back I’ve ever had.”
The fan that followed this asked the simplest of questions – why? Or, more specifically, why make a movie like “Avatar?” What made Cameron want to make this movie?
“The super-honest answer, which sounds a little mercenary, is that I was the CEO of Digital Domain at the time and we were lagging behind in 3D character development,” the director responded. “So in the same way I wrote ‘Terminator’ to get a directing gig, I decided to write a story that was full of interesting characters that would push the art of CG for that company. But when we broke down the script, they looked at it and said, ‘We can’t do this! Are you out of your mind?’ So I literally stuck the treatment in a drawer. When I got it out four years ago, I thought it was more timely than ever – with us being at war, with us being in more of an environmental crisis than at any point in our history.
“Peter Jackson had made ‘Lord of the Rings’ by then, and Gollum was looking pretty damn good. It looked like some soul and some real personality could be captured by CG. To me, that was like the door opening to the possibility of making this movie.”
The panel then concluded with some notes on the toys and video games that would be released in conjunction with the film in December, as well as a special announcement: Avatar Day is coming! Lest those who can’t make it to Comic-Con feel left out, Cameron, Fox Studios, and Lightstorm (Cameron’s production company) are going to show fifteen minutes of “Avatar” free on August 21. They are currently attempting to get the film into every IMAX 3D, IMAX, and digital theater they can. Details will be forthcoming, so for now, eager cinephiles will just have to take the word of the privileged Comic-Con fans in attendance – Avatar Day is worth marking on your calendars!