Avatar Day in London

Some thoughts on the free Avatar Day screening at the BFI London IMAX.

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Yesterday at 10am I went along to the free Avatar Day screening at the BFI London IMAX.

This was part of Fox’s marketing effort to build buzz for James Cameron’s first film since Titanic and what is reportedly one of the costliest productions of all time.

An unusual promotional event held at cinemas around the world, it saw about 100,000 viewers, who had signed up for free tickets online, get shown an extended preview of the film on IMAX screens in 3-D.

But what exactly is Avatar all about?

It is a sci-fic tale set in the future that has been filmed on cutting edge 3-D digital cameras that produce stereoscopic images that simulate human sight.

James Cameron and Sam Worthington on the set of AvatarThe story centres around a former marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who was wounded and paralyzed in combat on Earth and is selected to participate in the Avatar program, which enables him to walk and travel to Pandora, a jungle-covered extraterrestrial moon filled with different life forms.

It is also home to the Na’vi race, a tall humanoid species with tails and blue skin. As humans encroach on the planet in search of minerals, Jake becomes part of a program by which he can live through the genetically-bred human-Na’vi hybrid known as Avatars.

The Avatars are living, breathing bodies that are controlled by a human “driver” through a technology that links the driver’s mind to their Avatar body. On Pandora, through his Avatar body, Jake can walk once again through his new alien body.

Sent deep into Pandora’s jungles to scout for the soldiers that will follow, Jake discovers more about the planet and meets a young Na’vi female, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who he soon becomes attached to.

Amanda Nevill of the BFI and Chris Green of Fox UK gave short introductory speeches before they started the presentation.

A 50-foot-tall version of James Cameron appeared in 3-D, welcoming us to ‘the 22nd century’ and said that he wanted to offer more than just a trailer, explaining that we were about to see 15 minutes of the film (all taken from the first half of the film, so there were no major spoilers).

Here is how it broke down (if you don’t want to know what happens, then stop reading now):

1. The first shot was of boots walking along the ground whilst a voice says “You’re not in Kansas anymore” and we quickly see that it is a military officer (Stephen Lang) talking to his cadets. The music accompanying this is Journey to the Line from The Thin Red Line soundtrack by Hans Zimmer – which I’m guessing a temp track whilst the score has yet to be completed. The officer tells them that they’re about to be deployed on the planet Pandora, where “everything that walks, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.” While he’s speaking, we see the wheelchair-bound soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) enter the room. My initial impression was that the depth of the image was something I hadn’t seen before and it took a little getting used too.

2. The next sequence showed Jake lie on a machine that looks like a futuristic sunbed which is then inserted into what looks like an ultrasound machine. A scientist (Sigourney Weaver) is talking him through a procedure that will see him wake up in the body of his Na’vi avatar: a tall blue alien and he seems pleased that he can walk again.

3. The third sequence cuts to the planet and follows Jake (in his alien body) on a jungle-like planet as he’s told how to deal with the planet’s free-roaming population of strange dinosaur like creatures. The environment is pretty rich in detail and reminded me a little of the landscapes in a previous WETA creation – Skull Island in King Kong (2005).

4. A night time sequence on the same planet, we see Jake, separated from his group, get rescued from a dinosaur attack by a female Na’viwho fights with a bow and arrow. I’m pretty sure this character is Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana). Jake thanks her but she is angry and dismissive.

5. A daytime sequence with Jake and a group of native Na’vi, including Neytiri, on a mountain by a steep waterfall, where a flock of winged creatures are nesting. Jake tries to tame it and has to wrestle one to the ground and puts something in its mouth which calms it down. The female warrior shouts that he must take his first flight on its back to bond with it. Jake and his new creature then go tumbling off the side of the waterfall in a giddy sequence. This was impressively cut and shot and gave a glimpse of the epic feel Cameron is going for.

The very final images were a shortened version of the trailer before it all ended.

My initial impressions were that the scenes were a little too short to make any kind of sweeping prediction about the film.

I was perhaps expecting slightly sharper image quality (along the lines of The Dark Knight in IMAX) but then this was shot on digital cameras rather than on IMAX film, so perhaps that was an issue.

However, there was definitely enough to pique people’s interest and I suspect Cameron is saving the really juicy sequences for the proper theatrical release.

On the subject of the trailer, it was released on Thursday and seemed to be the main talking point in the queue beforehand. I wanted to avoid watching it before I saw the IMAX footage, but here it is in case you didn’t catch it.

According to a press release from the studio, it is now the most viewed trailer of all time on the Apple Trailers site, with over four million streams in its first day, shattering the previous record of 1.7 million (and this isn’t taking in to account the official and unofficial plays on YouTube).

The online buzz – from what I can gather – hasn’t been that positive with some people saying out that they think the alien design is a tad goofy (Jar Jar Binks and The Dark Crystal have been mentioned) and others have pointed out visual similarities to Ferngully, Delgo and even Dungeons and Dragons.

My guess is that this backlash (of sorts) is something to do with the way Avatar has been ‘pre-sold’ in marketing terms with hype about how it will revolutionise cinema with its astounding never-seen-before visuals.

Given the buzz and publicity the 25 minute preview at Comic-con got, Fox were presumably hoping that all was well in the long Avatar marketing campaign.

But selling a movie isn’t what it used to be and given the quick, online global dissection of anything produced by movie studios it was perhaps inevitable that the first Avatar trailer would struggle to live up to expectations.

However, let’s just hold it right there. The Avatar trailer is (or is perceived to be) struggling to live up to the hype. It says something about the modern movie business that this is the case.

The major studios have been willing to embrace this pre-release hype as we have seen in recent years when genre films (like Iron Man, The Spirit and Watchmen)  have all had big pushes at Comic-con.

This is the bizarre but now fully accepted practice of having a press conference, screening trailers and doing a full schedule of press about a film that isn’t even finished.

My guess is that Fox will be a little disappointed with some of the online reactions to the Avatar trailer but I think Cameron deserves to be cut some slack – shouldn’t we wait to see the actual film before passing judgement like this?

You know the one with the proper story which gives proper context to the images seen so far?

In this current age I guess keeping everything top secret until opening day isn’t an option but part of me wonders if movie studios could learn a trick or two from Apple.

They keep everything secret and by the time Steve Jobs unveils the latest i-Whatever the fever pitch has built to a frenzy bordering on the religuous.

Would it be impossible to release a movie like an iPhone? And is the current drawn out cycle of hype a help or a hindrance? Does it even matter given the many millions of dollars Fox will use to blitz conventional media outlets (TV, print & radio etc) in December?

It will be interesting to see what Fox does from now until the release. Aside from geeky community complaints, I’m guessing the major issue they have to address is what Avatar is (or means) to the wider public who don’t follow the minutiae of fanboy buzz on Twitter.