So OK, I was one of the fortunate who managed to get the Avatar official website working long enough to snag tickets to Friday’s “Avatar Day” IMAX preview screening event. Attendees were treated to 25 minutes of footage from James Cameron’s upcoming “sci-fi epic,” which has largely been touted for its supposed-to-be-revolutionary CGI f/x.

So did Avatar live up to the hype? Yes and No.

First, there has been a lot of “what’s the big deal” talk surrounding the online release of the Avatar trailer. Some have felt let down but others (including us here at Screen Rant) have noted that the larger the version of the trailer seen on your PC (higher and higher resolution versions) the better it looks. This is a film that was absolutely designed for the big screen so watching the trailer on a computer monitor can’t do it justice.

Another item: There was a rumor that come December Avatar would ONLY be showing at IMAX theaters that hosted the Avatar Day preview footage. Not true – Avatar will get a wide IMAX distribution, so if a nearby IMAX theater didn’t have the preview, don’t worry about not seeing it in December on a mega-screen near you.

Now – a quick rundown of the screening:

We got about five scenes (if I counted correctly) that I’d say cover about the first half of the film. The scenes were screened in what seemed like chronological progression, starting early with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) wheelchairing himself around the human military base. Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is comforting the troops with a warm speech about how some of them will die under his command. We see Jake interact with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and learn of his disdain for medical science telling him his limits. The CGI environments are so real it’s hard to tell what’s not, but the 3D effects in the live-action scenes are hardly revolutionary.

Scene #2  In the lab where Jake is being (uploaded?) into his Avatar body. We see him trying it out for the first time, stumbling and knocking into things and feeling the rush of it all. The scene ends with Jake busting out of the room and taking off down the hall pursued by some nervous military doctors. It’s readily apparent that while gorgeous, the CGI Avatars don’t quite feel 100% flesh-and-blood real as was hyped. Darn. (Or it could be that they’re not quite done rendering and this is not the final product.)

Scene #3  Jungle scene where Avatar Jake (I’m officially dubbing him “Javatar”) and (I believe) Dr. Augustine in her Avatar body, are confronted by an alien rhino thing that is stomping the ground like an angry bull. Jake gets into a growling match with the beast before we get the old “there’s a scarier monster behind you that made the first one run away” shtick. A chase through the jungle with the scarier monster ensues and the film gets a little gimmicky with the 3D. I’m still not impressed and getting a bit worried: could Avatar be all hype?

Scene #4  Nighttime in the jungle. Javatar (now all alone) is being attacked by a pack of alien jackals. Into the fire light jumps Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who dispatches the pack of beasts with deadly ninja grace. Then she yells at Jake for causing their deaths by being stupid ‘loud, ignorant of everything around you…like a baby.’ In the end she cops to saving his ass because she likes him. Watching the two motion-captured actors onscreen as two creatures sparking chemistry by the fire light, I’m finally starting to feel the magic of what Cameron has done.

Scene #5  High on a floating cliff (again, the environments in this film are spectacular) where Neytiri and a Na’vi warrior party are taking newbie Jake out for an initiation/rodeo of sorts. Jake’s task: corral one of the alien pterodactyls perched on the rock and break it in as a steed using some weird Na’vi mind-meld ritual. It takes Jake a few near-death tries (an impressive sequence) but he does manage to mind-meld with the creature and fly off into the cloudy sky on its back. At this point I’m REALLY feeling the magic: Avatar is something special.

While the CGI visual effects are undeniably impressive, I feel they’re inevitably going to be the most disappointing aspect of the film – specifically for the viewers who are coming to the theater on that hype alone. Avatar is advanced work, technically speaking, but human imagination is a fickle thing and real actors standing alongside NBA-size blue aliens is still too difficult a sight to accept as “real.”

However, Cameron really has set a new standard for what actors can play onscreen: Worthington and Saldana’s Na’vi characters look fantastic, move and breathe and even blink like living creatures and are never, ever, soulless or empty. Cameron’s new motion-capture technology effectively turns CGI into high-grade digital makeup for the actors, and the results are DEFINITELY revolutionary in that respect. This Christmas the Screen Actors Guild had better thank James Cameron for adding a whole new dimension to their repertoire.

Seriously though: the scenes of Jake out and amongst the Na’vi were truly epic, IMHO. Had Cameron made the film a 100% motion-capture CGI flick about the Na’vi living on Pandora, then Avatar would undeniably be the greatest fantasy adventure to come along in years. The Na’vi seem to have a fully realized culture, language, politics, history – everything you expect from the alien peoples of great fantasy entries like Lord of the Rings. Unique animals, tools, mysticisms… I could go on.

Who knew James Cameron had so much Tolkien in him?

The irony is: everybody is looking at Avatar under a microscope right now, hoping for the greatest f/x film ever, as well as a strong sci-fi story (in the Cameron tradition) to anchor it. I personally think the film has impressive f/x when it mixes live actors and CGI characters, a reliable (read: cliched) sci-fi premise framing it, yet an awesome, epic, goosebump-inducing fantasy story at its core. And in those “total fantasy” moments – when the film loses itself in the wondrous world and alien race it has created – Avatar plays (and looks) like another James Cameron classic.

At this point the studio would be well-suited, I think, to spend their last few months (and dollars) pushing this film as a revolutionary fantasy (key word! key word! key word!) that audiences everywhere need to just sit back and experience. No more pushing the new f/x; no more trying to assure the sci-fi geeks that you’ve done right by them. No more hype. Open your mind, and enjoy (most of) the ride through a brave new world.

Worthington and Saldana set new standards for CGI characters

Avatar (at its best) is fantasy brought closer to life than ever before. And although I have to see the finished film to cement that assessment, I’m feel pretty confident in saying that I hope that is exactly the kind of mindset you bring with you to the theater on December 18th. In the end I think you’ll be more happy for it.

Did you attend “Avatar Day?” What was your reaction to the footage?