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It’s rare for a whole day to be dedicated to the release of a forthcoming movie. I know that personally I can allocate a title to a day just because the first trailer hits or the movie hits the cinema, but for a filmmaker to do it somehow makes it feel important. And when that filmmaker is James Cameron and he’s been away from the big screen for twelve years (beside some of his documentary work anyway), the event ramps up from important to outright exciting.

Having seen the trailer (many times) the day before, I went along to the preview screening with high expectations. Sitting down with friends and putting our 3D glasses on I suddenly got that wave of excitement that only comes with movies you’re itching to see. The Twentieth Century Fox rep did a bit of an intro, making sure that we weren’t filming with our mobile phones and asking us to feedback what we thought about it afterwards. So here we go... my first impressions of Avatar.
 
Starting with James Cameron's introduction, in which he lets us know about Avatar Day and how this collection of scenes are all from the first half of the movie and will be spoiler free, he gives us a brief overview of the setting. Telling us about how Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has been brought to the alien planet Pandora and that it’s as beautiful is it is deadly.
 
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New arrivals to Pandora are sitting in a large canteen type room. Silver benches and tables are all lined up and cool scar dude from trailer, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), tells the newbies that as head of security it’s up to him to make sure none of them die. He also mentions the Na'vi, the humanoid species who inhabit the planet, and then points outside of the armoured windows and explains how compared to Pandora, Hell is a holiday resort. Jake Sully arrives late in his wheelchair. This had a nice familiar Aliens/Colonial Marines feel to it and was a great place to start. As for the look of the scene, it was bright, sun-lit and clean. The 3D put you in the room with the crowd (which included Joel Moore from Dodgeball) and this was a fine human start to proceedings.

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Avatar PreviewAvatar Preview Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) puts Jake in a contraption that looks like an MRI or CTI machine (or for the True Blood fans out there, Vampire Bill’s travel coffin). He drags his own legs up refusing her help and seems to have a bit of an ‘I’ll do it myself’ attitude. Having Sigourney on James Cameron mode again was a delight and I’m surprised she wasn’t featured in the trailer, as the pairing of Sigourney and Jimmy C again is proper fanboy exciting. Maybe next time. Also the depth of machine's entrance, in which Jake’s little pod is going to travel down, had some crazy-effective 3D.

Scientists on cool see-through computer screens (which again looked amazing in 3D) monitor his brain patterns and if those visuals weren’t cool enough, when the scientist drags the info onto a handheld monitor it just gets cooler. Jake’s brain pattern gets transferred into a Na'vi and Sigourney takes off her lab coat and says that she's going into hers too.
 
Jake wakes up in the Na'vi body. Scientist/Doctors look down on him and then to check responses click their fingers next to his ears. This totally sells the scale of the Na'vi. Some twelve foot plus blue alien looking photo-realistic next to the human scientist was very effective. As in the trailer, the textures and details in the feet and hands of this thing were astonishingly real and some of Jake's mannerisms in the new body were very subtle. More so was Joel Moore’s character (who IMDb is listing as Norm Spellman (as Joel David Moore) whatever that means) waking up in his Na'vi body on the next bed and is told by the doctors to touch his fore finger to his thumb to check responses. That felt very real, even coming from a giant blue alien.

Anyway, Jake sits up and looks happy that he can use his legs in the new body. The scientists keep telling him to take it easy but then he’s up on his feet fighting to balance and with a strategically placed tail we avoid seeing his ass crack. He wobbles a bit and then hits the window delivering the only line in the trailer ‘This is great’ and as he stumbles out of the room, with the scientists panicking, I began to get the sensation that this really was.

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Now we jump into full CGI in a jungle setting. Jake in Na'vi form is with the other Na'vi avatars of Dr. Grace Augustine and Norm Spellman. The CG work for Sigourney’s character here really struck a cord. She’s blue, has a head band, making her look slightly hippy-ish, and despite being a CG alien, the subtle reflections of Sigourney’s own features were beautifully captured.

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Jake has a gun on a creature best described as a triceratops with a hammerhead shark head. Dr. Augustine is telling him not to shoot, but to stand his ground. The depth of the jungle in 3D was nuts and little details, such as small insects disturbed when the beast moved through the foliage was incredibly effective.

Anyway Jake stands his ground and the big beastie runs away. Jake gets all cocky and shouts stuff like ‘Yeah, you’d better run bitch’ and ‘Next time bring your friends’, only to have a bigger beastie, which I believe is called the Thanator (the big, mean roaring beastie from the trailer) slowly creep up from behind and then pounce at Jake. A chase begins, smashing through Bamboo-esq trees and claws barely missing Jake as he ducks and weaves through the debris. He finds his way under the roots of a large tree and unleashes his machine gun at the Thanator, they seem to hit it and it moves strategically to the right to avoid and then sneaks in for another attack, smashing the roots next to Jake. The scene felt pretty damn exciting, with plenty going on, and once again the 3D quality to it really added another level on enjoyment.

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Jake is alone at night having problems with some more of Pandora’s deadly creatures. You briefly see a glimpse of this in the teaser trailer where he swings the fire torch at some dog sized beasts that in the short flashes look a little like the chestburster that came from the Rottweiler in Alien 3.

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Saving Jake with a few arrows all while doing a cool slow motion jump comes Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) a native Na'vi (who, I assume isn’t an Avatar for a human counterpart). She scares off the dog like beasties and even puts one of the injured ones out of its misery with a subtle touching sadness. Jake is all hyper and thankful for the save but Neytiri gives him shit about his involvement in the situation claiming that it’s his fault these deaths had to happen because of his stumbling through the forest without a care.

Neytiri is by far the most impressive CG character on offer here (and potentially ever), for sheer level of detail and also proves to be a thoroughly believable and likable character. She is a fine mix of beauty, fierceness and sadness and there’s so much going on in the performance, with her twitching and emotive eyes, she’s impossible not to be enthralled with.

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Scene five seems to take place a few moments after scene four and we see Jake and Neytiri walk deeper into the forest. They are surrounded with fluorescent plants and flowers and the depth in the 3D as well as the overwhelming glowing colour in the foliage was very impressive.

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Avatar PreviewAvatar PreviewJake now seems to have joined the native Na'vi, with no clothes as such and lots of new markings painted on his body. He edges along the side of a waterfall with the other Na’vi in tow and Neytiri is explaining that he will know when he’s been chosen. We see what might choose him when they turn the corner and there's a whole pack of dragon type beasts sitting on the cliff edge.

Jake wanders over, with Neytiri watching as the dragons start to hiss and fly away. That is until one stands its ground and turns to face Jake. Jake hisses at it (as per the screenshot from the trailer) and the dragon hisses back. Jake's been chosen.

Jake hops on top of the dragon and starts to wrestle with it. Think Cowboys/Indians trying to break in a horse. It head buts him and struggles but Jake perseveres and soon gets it on the ground. Neytiri tells him to make the connection now. Jake grabs his long ponytail and holds it next to one of the dragon’s antennae, the strands within both weave together and all of a sudden the dragon calms down with Jake on its back. Neytiri says that the first flight has to happen now and leads the dragon off of the cliff. Jake and the beast drop and Jake seems to be able to control it with his mind (after a bit of clumsy practice). It has to be said at this stage in blockbuster cinema the problematic effect of having a humanoid form on the back of a beastie has always looked pretty shoddy from Star Wars to Lord Of The Rings they've all failed, but here it looks fantastic and totally works.

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Finally we slip into an extended trailer with more scenes of the battles the movie has to offer and little extensions to what was seen in the trailer. Explosions, more marine stuff (which sadly wasn’t featured more in the preview) and plenty to sell Avatar as one of the must see movies of 2009.

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As someone who has been following James Cameron’s new project with much anticipation ever since rumblings of it first began, I was happy that I got to see this preview footage (which ran about seventeen minutes with the introduction) twice.

I found the teaser trailer to be great though not mind blowing but with the fifteen minute preview (which in all honesty the trailer seemed to be teasing) my first experience with Avatar was a good one. The CGI on first look is staggering, especially on the big screen. The subtle character traits in the animation are top notch and very, very realistic (especially for Neytiri) and James Cameron’s Pandora looks to be a world full of wonders.

On a slightly more negative side, I have to admit some of the full CGI shots had me slightly disconnected from accepting this as anything beyond a very, very, very high end animated movie as opposed to a live action one. The Na’vi look incredibly real, but beyond key moments I kept having to remind myself this wasn’t an animated movie but something creating the illusion of reality. The one scene in the preview that crossed over the animated characters with the live action counterparts worked wonders though and I’m sure that the full movie with more interactions like this will sell the illusion of the fully animated scenes with ease.

I was left wanting to see much more from Avatar. I can’t wait to see long scenes of the military, with all those mecha-suits and hover-ships; they look like they could really bring some incredible visuals. I of course want more of a feel for the story as the teaser trailer and preview have only really hinted at moments (and those moments conjure comparisons with 10,000 B.C., Dances with Wolves and of course Star Wars, while always remaining something new at the same time). Beyond Neytiri and the excitement of seeing Sigourney in another James Cameron movie, I didn't get the chance to warm to many of the characters. I felt Jake came off as a little too typical as the smart mouthed guy on his way to making good by movies end, sort of like a Disney hero, Jim Hawkins from Treasure Planet came to mind in fact.

Overall, I’m in for the Avatar trip. Those blue aliens have won me over with their Nightcrawler/Kaminoan good looks, the action looks top notch, the effects look like they could set a new standard come December (if they haven’t already) and the 3D brought a whole new feeling to the scale for this sort of movie. I’m ready for Avatar and Jimmy C’s return to cinema after a hiatus which has seemed like forever. Basically, what I've seen here is enough to make the wait for the December 18th release date unbearable. ‘This is great!’

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