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It's time to geek out

The festival of pop culture fandom returns to San Diego, now with more fervor-fomenting film-directing phenoms.

July 22, 2009|Geoff Boucher

Zombies will parade through downtown San Diego. Glamorous movie stars will patiently answer questions posed to them by amateur Jedi knights and homemade Harry Potters. Spandex will be tested by every sort of body shape and, while it won't always be pretty, it will be forever documented on YouTube.

That's right: Comic-Con International, the circus maximus of pop culture, the World's Fair for fanboys, is back. More than 125,000 people are expected to attend the Thursday-through-Sunday event that is a bazaar of the bizarre for collectors and, more than ever, the place where the entertainment industry goes to hype its movies, games, toys, television shows and assorted cults of personality.

This year the tent is once again bulging at the seams. Remember when comic-book nerds had to defend their tastes? Now they're defending their territory, squawking that "their Con" is overrun with genre tourists and promotional piggybackers. And with good reason: On Friday, Emmy winner Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond") will be on hand for the screening of ABC's new heartland sitcom "The Middle." The feeble connection is explained in the official program: Heaton's character finds that "getting her kids out the door for school every morning is a super-heroic act."

Nevertheless, there will be plenty of movie stars in attendance this year touting high-profile projects more likely to set fanboy hearts aflutter -- among them Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson, all in town to warm up the jets for next year's "Iron Man 2," and Denzel Washington, promoting the post-apocalyptic western "The Book of Eli." The loudest cheers -- or certainly the most shrill ones -- will be for Robert Pattinson, the British heartthrob who became your daughter's favorite actor by playing the "Twilight" vampire Edward Cullen, in town to talk about the franchise's second installment, "New Moon."

Director heroes

Maybe more notable than the actors are the directors making the trek to the San Diego Convention Center. James Cameron, who is coming with perhaps the most tantalizing project, his years-in-the-making "Avatar," leads a parade of elite filmmakers at this year's convention.

Oscar winner Cameron directed the highest-grossing film of all time, 1997's "Titanic," and hasn't directed a major Hollywood release since. He wrote "Avatar" before "Titanic," and, essentially, he's been waiting for the technology he needed to make the otherworldly adventure. Hollywood is buzzing that the movie's use of immersive 3-D technology and revolutionary visual effects makes it "a game-changer."

"There's a renaissance because now, if you can imagine it, you can do it, and that's different than it's ever been before," Cameron said.

Cameron will screen 20 minutes of "Avatar" footage on Thursday in the 6,500-seat Hall H, and while he doesn't mind that "game-changer" descriptor ("It's good," he said, "as long as it does change the game, right?"), he said he is most enthused that his movie bucks the trend of movies finding their stories and characters in some other medium, such as a comic book, TV show or fantasy novel.

"We've had all these big money-making franchise films for a long time now, like 'Batman,' 'Harry Potter' and 'Star Trek,' and there's a certain kind of comfort factor that comes with that," Cameron said. "But there's no 'shock of the new' that's possible. It's been a while since there was something that grabbed us by the lapels, dragged us out the door and took us on a journey to a place we didn't know . . . like 'Matrix.' We had no real way of knowing what that film was going to be about, and it took us on a ride."

Cameron says that banking hundreds of millions of dollars on something wholly new is "simultaneously one of the great strengths and one of the potential weaknesses" with "Avatar," due in theaters Dec. 18. But he won't risk the ire of fans who would slag on his movie because it didn't match the source material.

"We won't be prejudged like 'Watchmen,' or even 'Batman' or 'Spider-Man' or something that has a huge brand awareness and fan base," the director said with a chuckle. ". . . . They can't say we messed it up."

Close on Cameron's heels when it comes to setting box-office records is another Oscar winner, Peter Jackson, the director of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy who, startlingly, has never made it to Comic-Con before.

Also making their first appearances at the convention this year are Tim Burton and Robert Zemeckis. Burton will show scenes from "Alice in Wonderland," which stars Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, while Zemeckis is screening 3-D footage from his motion-capture retelling of "A Christmas Carol," with Jim Carrey in key roles. Spike Jonze ("Where the Wild Things Are"), Guy Ritchie ("Sherlock Holmes"), Jon Favreau ("Iron Man 2") and Kevin Smith ("A Couple of Dicks") will also be on hand for presentations and panels.

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