What we saw at the 'Avatar Day' preview

The footage presented on "Avatar Day" Friday turned out to be the same scenes we reviewed at San Diego Comic-Con, with the small additional benefit that we were able to review scenes from James Cameron's upcoming sci-fi epic on actual 3-D IMAX screens, and the effect was demonstrably better. (For a description of the footage, check out our Comic-Con report here.)

The military briefing scene allowed viewers to perceive the depth of the hall all the way back through each row of grunts. The live-action 3-D footage provided a grounding for the subsequent scenes on Pandora: Stephen Lang's military commander intones, "You are not in Kansas anymore, you are on Pandora," which foreshadows the images to come.

Once Jake (Sam Worthington) enters his blue-skinned avatar, the size differential really stands out. Just sitting down, Na'vi Jake is bigger than the doctors examining him in their hazmat suits. His big blue feet fill the IMAX frame. Once he stands, he towers over the puny humans.

The battle scenes in the jungle showcase Cameron's flair for action. A spiky-whiskered beast weaves through the trees to pursue Jake and chews away at the branches shielding Jake from its teeth.

As in the Comic-Con footage, we see Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) put down a wounded animal, but we get a better sense of her physical presence as she hisses her way through battle and perches like an animal.

The IMAX footage also highlighted the bioluminescence that Cameron loves to talk about: Purple and green neon plants light up the screen.

In the banshee sequence, we see the Na'vi clans wrestle their animals, and the flight scene recalled IMAX documentaries in which the camera flies over cliffs, imparting a real sense of vertigo.

As for the avatars and Na'vi themselves, I thought only Sigourney Weaver's face came through in her computer-generated blue, elongated form. Worthington and Saldana were unrecognizable to me. But I found myself relating to the creatures: They're just different enough to be fascinating but familiarly humanoid.

I found some of Jake's dialogue disappointing. I would expect more than "That's what I'm talkin, about, bitch" from an epic hero. He talks about creatures "killing my ass" like a small-time street kid.

The scenes ended with a montage of shots, as in the teaser trailer: the AMP mecha suits, military guns and hover copters, all of which hint at the action to come. A quick shot revealed Neytiri crying over a Na'vi body, so something bad happens to someone she cares about. The montage faded out just as Jake and Neytiri inch close to kiss.

Cameron appeared in a brief 3-D introduction to the footage, acknowledging that fans have been waiting for a trailer. He promised the limited "Avatar Day" run would be better than the trailer, which debuted on the Web to mixed reviews, and also that all the scenes were from the first half of the movie so as not to spoil anything.

In sum, we thought the IMAX 3-D footage better showcased what Cameron's trying to achieve with his groundbreaking movie than the small 2-D trailers seen so far. It remains to be seen whether the film's story will live up to its hype.

In other news, the AMC Burbank 16 put tickets to the 12:01 show of Avatar on Dec. 17 (Thursday night before opening day) on sale for five hours only. After Friday, the first showing was locked for sales until later.

Also noteworthy, the entire three front rows of the theater were empty except for a pair of viewers who preferred to sit close. There were also plenty of other empty seats throughout the theater, suggesting that reports of sold-out showings were exaggerated.

Avatar opens Dec. 18.

(Check back Tuesday to see what Worthington told us about the Avatar footage.)

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