SDCC: Avatar 3-D footage wows Comic-Con

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

After an afternoon at San Diego's Comic-Con packed with amazing new revelations, including a first look at images from Tron and clips from New Moon, James Cameron offered fans the first-ever look at footage from his forthcoming, highly-anticipated film Avatar. And while his prerecorded comments at yesterday's IMAX event might have suggested that the filmmaker's confidence outweighed his capabilities, rest assured that the 20 minutes or so of material he screened more than lives up to expectations in a full 3-D screening this afternoon.

The footage drew cheers of wild appreciation from the crowd, and Cameron, clearly pleased, said, "Everybody always asks: So where've you been? Well, that's where I've been. Pandora."

The first scene introduces Jake (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic grunt who serves on the remote planet of Pandora under Commander Miles Quarich, a gruff military man who reminds one of familiar drill sergeants like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. Jake jokingly absorbs Quarich's motivational speech about the sad fact that not all of his fellow soldiers will survive the battle against the Na'vi, an indigenous race of alien creatures: "nothing like an old school safety brief to put your mind at ease." Enlisting for the military's avatar program, which allows the personality of humans to be projected into clones of the Na'vi people, Jake lies down in a tomblike chamber where his brain is connected to that of his designated host. Interestingly, he and his companions' avatars look remarkably similar to their human counterparts, even though they are in fact tall, blue-skinned creatures with tails, whose primitivism is exceeded only by their grace and beauty.

After a literally shaky start in his new body, which affords Jake the chance to walk, he descends to the surface of Pandora, where he is endlessly fascinated by the flora and fauna. While exploring a patch of indigenous, orange conical flowers that retract when touched, he accidentally reveals himself to a nearby creature that design-wise seems to combine a hammerhead shark with a prehistoric triceratops. Ushered by his fellow Avatar, Grace (Sigourney Weaver), to stand his ground, he scares off the creature and its herd, only to discover that what in fact drove them away was an even more fearsome creature, a black, reptilian monster that chases him deep into the forest. Narrowly escaping by distracting the creature with his backpack, he falls to the ground, and the scene comes to an end.

Cutting next to a shot of Jake alone in the rainforest, he tries to hunt, or perhaps protect himself with a spear. High above in the trees, an actual Na'vi native, stealthily aims a bow and arrow at him and plans to kill him. Before she shoots, however, a small, wispy jellyfish-like creature floats down and perches on the end of her arrow. Mysteriously enchanted by the creature, she lowers her weapon as Jake wanders further into the lush vegetation. Before long, however, he is attacked by a band of small creatures who look and act like wild dogs. The female Na'vi, whose name is Natiri (Zoe Saldana), bravely saves Jake's life, twisting and turning in a balletic display of athleticism. But when he approaches her to thank her for saving his life, she reprimands him, calling him a baby who knows not what he does.

He challenges her, asking why then she saved him from death, and she explains that "he has a strong heart." As he follows her back to the treehouse community where she lives, more of those jellyfish creatures float down and swarm him, which seems to indicate that he is indeed a special person even among these magical beings. But before this is explored, the footage cuts to a scene in which Jake and Natiri are training to tame these large winged creatures, like a cross between a Nazgul and a horse. Negotiating a narrow cliff that runs beneath a waterfall, Jake emerges onto a cliff face where a herd of pterodactyl-like monsters are shrieking at the Na'vi creatures who have invaded their territory. After being told that his supposed "mate" would be the creature that would try to kill him, Jake challenges one of the creatures and it responds.

After the two of them grapple with one another for a few minutes, Jake successfully mindmelds with the beast by lassoing its ear and weaving his own animal tendrils into its. He is told that he now has control of the creature, and when it is suggested that he tell it to fly, it promptly dives off the cliff face and clumsily begins weaving in and around its fellow flying monsters. But just as he seems destined to crash land atop the beast's back, he demands that the creature fly straight, at which point it begins gracefully gliding through the air. Jake, empowered as he controls the creature, instructs it to bank left, and the screen goes to black as he flies off into Pandora's expansive landscape.

Even such a thorough description fails to do justice to the footage: This truly is something unlike anything any filmmaker has ever created, both technically and artistically. The images themselves are breathtaking in their beauty - as when Jake, intoxicated by this new world, runs free and excited through a landscape that looks as if it's been shot only with black lights. Technically, the 3D looks immaculate, and is fully immersive while not sacrificing the visceral quality that Cameron's action scenes classically possess. But the performances are complete, and the scenes are not purely a technical virtuosity; Worthington, Saldana and Weaver (among others) do a brilliant job investing the characters with depth and emotional dimension.

As the panel came to a close, Cameron revealed that even non-attendees will soon get an opportunity to at least some of the footage from the film prior to release, when he shows 15 minutes of material absolutely for free at IMAX 3D and regular 3-D theaters across the globe. But even if he showed nothing between now and the film's December 18 release date, Cameron has proven that his film shows all signs of being worth the 12-year wait, and that Avatar promises to be one of the biggest and most groundbreaking films of the year, if not all time.