With so much riding on a new three-minute theatrical trailer for “Avatar,” it stands to reason that James Cameron would explain what the upcoming 3D fantasy film is actually about.
Distributor Twentieth Century Fox was wounded by what was generally considered a disappointing first step in the rollout of its December release when the initial trailer, an indecipherable mishmash of action sequences, failed to catch on with audiences.
And a sneak peak in August was deemed underwhelming by many fanboys and bloggers — a key group that the $200 million-plus epic needs to reach if it has any hope of recouping its investment.
The footage released Thursday tries a somewhat different tack from the special-effects feast, giving viewers a lot more insight into the tightly guarded plot.
“The first trailer was little more than a bunch of pretty pictures, and even the 16-minute preview, although it was cool as hell, didn’t make me care for the characters,” wrote Wilhem Oliva on the popular fansite Gordon and the Whale. “Yeah, James Cameron has always been a visual effects genius and maybe that’s the reason we first saw some of his movies, but the reason we’ve watched and re-watched them over and over has to do with his ability to craft compelling characters and stories.”
The sneak peak is still chock-full of action sequences — battles rage, futuristic helicopters slice through a dense canopy, dramatic calls to arms are delivered. But the exposition-heavy trailer also is meant to serve another function: Give some sense of the complicated story.
To that end, the dialogue (never a strength of Cameron’s) is clunky in a knock-you-over-the-head-with-context sort of way.
Apparently, the film’s protagonist, a marine played by Aussie actor Sam Worthington, is shipped off to a planet called Pandora, where a dizzyingly valuable mineral is found in abundance. To infiltrate a tribe of natives called the Na’avi, Worthington is furnished with an avatar, helpfully informing us that “the concept is to drive these remotely controlled bodies called avatars. They’re grown from human DNA mixed with DNA of the natives.“ Shakespeare it ain’t.
After a break for stirring visuals, enter Giovanni Ribisi to deliver a few more plot points. Gazing at what appears to be a chunk of granite, Ribisi intones, “We’re hear because this little gray rock sells for 20 million a kilo. Their village happens to be resting on the richest deposit and they need to relocate.”
The middle section of the trailer could probably best be referred to as the “Dances With Wolves” passage, in which the cynical outsider drops his guard and embraces the mores of the Na’vai to the point where he, in essence, goes native.
The trailer closes with Worthington’s computer-generated doppelganger aping “Braveheart’s" William Wallace by rallying the ragtag group of aliens to his cause while a menacing-looking collection of marines and high-tech weaponry bears down upon the seemingly overmatched tribe.
“They’ve sent us a message that they can take whatever we want,” Worthington’s Avatar cries. “Well, we will send them a message that this is our land. “
So far, the studio’s gambit seems to have worked. The reaction among the Internet hordes to Thursday’s trailer was enthusiastic.
“It’s sort of the trailer we’ve seen for every action flick ever, but it’s a trailer that works and actually looks good,” wrote Dr. Cole Abaius at the film blog Film School Reject.
But a few fans, while remaining upbeat, expressed some qualms, arguing that a laptop screen failed to convey the rich texture of Cameron’s 3D landscape.
“There’s little doubting that Mr. Cameron puts his money firmly on the screen,” Simon Brew wrote on the website Den of Geek. “Appreciating this is a film that’s ultimately designed to be seen on a very big screen, and in full-on 3D, watching the trailer in a window on a website may not be the best way to go about this.”
Outside the blogosphere, the reaction of more established critics was much fiercer.
“Dial back all the visionary talk or risk raising expectations too high,” wrote Andrew Wallenstein of the Hollywood Reporter. “Blow some minds or risk blowing an opportunity to make ‘Avatar’ the sci-fi classic it so desperately wants to be.”
The studio still has over a month to stoke the excitement of naysayers like Wallenstein, but even with the largely positive reaction to today’s trailer, the risks remain huge.
In the middle of the trailer, a roll call of Cameron’s greatest hits scrolls across the screen. “Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Terminator 2,” “True Lies,” “Titanic” — they’re all here. Conspicuously absent is the director’s 1989 film “The Abyss,” another hugely expensive gamble set in a fantastical world that failed to pay off.
Whether “Avatar” joins the list of milestones or is similarly deleted from Cameron’s CV will depend on a lot more than a single preview.