Last night saw attendees of the Real D-sponsored Fantastic Fest greeted with an extended look at footage from James Cameron's forthcoming Avatar, and with it (for me at least) a more defined shift in expectations for the long-awaited film. The footage -- more often than not composed of extended scenes from Avatar Day -- still looks terrifically realized in 3-D, but the bits and pieces of story filled in by producer Jon Landau between scenes and the voice-over of Sam Worthington's character during them suggest something a little less... rapturous.

What I knew to be the future-set tale of Jake, a paraplegic solider (Worthington) granted the luxury of inhabiting an alien body on a far-off planet and then forced to choose sides between the natives he now knows and the military he always knew, turned into a quest for the mineral 'unobtainium' [sic?] on part of the humans and a journey for Jake to pick up where his identical twin brother (!) left off. On both counts, I say, "really?" The film is said to open with the line, "When I woke up in the V.A. hospital with a hole blown through my life, all I could think about was flying." The 3-D renders his eventual flight on Pandora a more breath-taking experience than such ham-fisted character development could hope to, and as much as Worthington's own performance comes through in the digital realm, I'm not entirely sure that we're looking at a particularly good performance come December.

(I do, however, reserve the right to eat my foot if that's the case when that time comes.)

Every scene as introduced by Landau was Jake's first time at something: his first security briefing (shown at Avatar Day), his first glimpse at his avatar body (new stuff), his first time inhabiting said body (A.D.), his first time landing on Pandora (new), his first time greeting the predators of Pandora (A.D.), love interest Neytiri's (Zoe Saldana) first seeing him (new), his first time seeing her (A.D.), Jake being greeted with sprites of some sort and thus gaining a renewed interest in Neytiri's eyes (new), Jake meeting their pet pterodactyl-like creatures (new) and Jake taming one of his own (A.D.). It was all then capped off with a similar montage to that shown at Avatar Day, with every other shot replaced by something we hadn't just been shown. We were shown maybe 15-20 minutes of footage in total, about 5 of which had been unseen before. (Besides those two scenes, much of the August footage was simply expanded.)

Given that the film is already estimated by Landau to run north of two-and-a-half hours, that's still not much to judge by. At the very least, Avatar is going to look great, but when someone describes with a straight face creatures called "viper wolves" in a movie not called Gentlemen Broncos, I'm taken out of the story in a way that 3-D can't quite restore.

(But it does look great...)

Miscellaneous notes:

-James Cameron wrote Avatar before Titanic, and the whole production has been an estimated fifteen years in the making. The decision to shoot it in 3-D came in 1999.

-Cameron wants to write a novel based in the same world as Avatar, likely to come out after the film does.

-What's the budget? "Yes," replied Landau.

-The film will be shown in 2.35:1 on 2-D screens to seem more epic, in 1.85:1 on 3-D screens to seem more immersive, and 1.43:1 on IMAX screens.

-That font is not technically Papyrus.