Don't worry; I have no intention of spoiling plot points or scenes that aren't featured in the trailers for Avatar. I was one of the guys left unimpressed by the first trailer for the film -- one of the naysayers who moaned that it looked less like a movie and too much like what the next generation of video games might be. I think the second trailer was stronger overall, but nothing I'd seen left me feeling really pumped.
I had trust in James Cameron as a director though, a trust that kept me from dismissing the film outright. I hoped for something that matched the strength of his earlier sci-fi projects, but I couldn't seem to get excited over the images of ten-foot tall blue cat people running around, shooting arrows at military gunships, on a planet that looked an awful lot like Star Wars' Naboo. Sam Worthington was also still a cypher to me -- a forgettable addition to an undercooked sequel (Terminator Salvation).
Now that I've seen the film, I understand what a challenge the trailers for Avatar must have been for Fox.
The Avatar trailers are the cinematic equivalent of a travel brochure. The film is the vacation itself. A huge part of what makes this movie work is its sense of discovery, with the audience exploring and learning about the world of Pandora as Worthington's character Jake Tully does. Actually, the use of 3-D almost allows you to become Jake. Everything he sees looks tactile through the Real-D lenses, enhancing the audience experience of Jake's immersion in an exotic, fully-realized alien environment. It's flawlessly executed, and a subtly brilliant way to use 3-D.
It's incredibly difficult to convey Jake's real sense of wonder and cultural exploration in a two-minute clip. The closest comparison I can make is Dr. Grant's first viewing of the dinosaurs by the pond in Jurassic Park. But Avatar has a half-dozen of moments like that, filled with the same slack-jawed "did-I-really-see-that?" awe. Taken as quick-cut visuals in a trailer, they lose all their impact. They become nothing more than a sampling of moderately interesting production design. Within the context of the film, those moments are beautiful visually, and often emotionally.
It's unfair to judge Avatar by the trailers. The hum of life on Pandora simply can't be reduced to an ad. It's too vibrant, too dangerous, too spiritual, and just too big for the typical three-minute sales pitch.