There was polite applause at Comic-Con when James Cameron showed footage for “Avatar” — it was neither the rapturous reception that some would have you believe, nor was it the kind of disaster that one could easily imagine when a crowd’s introduced to blue, ten foot tall blue, speckled creatures called the Na’vi from a planet named Pandora.
Sitting there in Hall H, I wondered why there wasn’t more acclaim — what Cameron had shown in 3-D was indeed something of a breakthrough, at least regarding how naturalistic the Na’vi were in an environment that completely came out of Cameron’s head and how, despite the blue veneer, one could see Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana’s performances through their CG-created forms in a way that still eludes motion-capture pioneer Robert Zemeckis. But the “Avatar” footage didn’t adhere to the unofficial Comic-Con rules for success: it wasn’t violent (though Worthington’s fight with a prehistoric-looking creature was exciting), it wasn’t funny (which is why both “Kick-Ass” and “Zombieland” were unexpected hits), and, most importantly, it wasn’t familiar — either a remake or based on a comic book or a toy.
Which is why, like CHUD‘s Devin Faraci, I wonder the audiences who win tickets to “‘Avatar’ Day” on August 21st, when over 100 IMAX theaters will show 16 minutes of slightly different sneak footage, will think. In a time where “G.I. Joe” can become a hit almost solely on its name value, will audiences be curious enough to take a chance on “Avatar”? (Or at least enough of them to cover its massive budget?)
It’s a question hinted at in Anne Thompson’s recent column about why she’d like to see the low-budget “District 9” do well this weekend against the comparatively unoriginal “G.I. Joe.” And it’s a part of the recent online hubbub between Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott and Glenn Kenny, among others, who contemplate the dumbing-down of mass-audience movies and wonder why Cameron’s ex Kathryn Bigelow’s highly acclaimed “The Hurt Locker” isn’t doing better at the box office. And if even “Avatar,” one of the most expensive movies of all time, can’t intrigue with the promise of spectacle, maybe it’s less dumbing-down that’s the problem than laziness, with folks only drawn to what has nostalgic appeal. In which case, we can look forward to many long summers ahead that’ll offer nothing new under the sun.