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COMIC-CON

'Avatar' peek thrills crowd

Also: Bruce Campbell and Heath Ledger's final performance.

July 25, 2009|Denise Martin; Scott Collins; Alex Pham

Judging by Thursday's 25-minute preview unveiled at Comic-Con, James Cameron's 3-D "Avatar" will be every bit the spectacle of his 1997 Oscar-winning film "Titanic."

The animated "Avatar" is set on a distant, lush planet called Pandora, a super-saturated world filled with 1,000-foot trees, exotic, near fluorescent forests, fearsome predators and an indigenous people known as the Na'vi -- tall, blue humanoids who are peaceful until provoked. The story revolves around the war between the Na'vi and the human military invading their world.

To make the film, Cameron used a new technology that enabled him to superimpose the computer-generated creatures onto his live actors while shooting. He said he wrote the project 14 years ago specifically to push the art of digital 3-D animation.

The audience, many of whom camped alongside "Twilight" fans for the privilege, were treated to a sequence of scenes condensing the tale: Jake Sully is a paralyzed Marine who volunteers to become an Avatar -- a genetically engineered human/Na'vi hybrid. He suffers several brushes with dinosaur-types, a violent flirtation with a Na'vi princess, and an even more violent Na'vi rite of initiation.

Cameron will get to test-run the film on an even bigger crowd on Aug. 21, which he's declared "Avatar Day." The filmmaker announced he'll be taking over IMAX and 3-D theaters around the world to screen 15 minutes of the film for moviegoers for free.

In introducing the film, Cameron said it was made "for the 14-year-old boy that is very alive and well in the back of my mind."

But don't expect a film for kids. "I don't want to say it's important, because then it sounds like you're making a documentary," Cameron said. But it's "something with a conscience. In the enjoying of [the film], it maybe makes you think about the way you interact with nature and your fellow man."

After the screening, it was clear that cast members Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana and Stephen Lang had become as immersed and invested in Pandora as the filmmaker, speaking of the Na'vi as though they were a historical fact.

A professor at USC worked two years to develop their language, and Saldana said all the actors playing Na'vi took movement classes to "de-humanize" themselves. She also trained in Wushu, horseback riding, archery and weightlifting to play Na'vi princess Neytiri.

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Denise Martin --

Bruce Campbell works the crowd

Who was the VIP who elicited such thunderous cheers Thursday afternoon at Comic-Con? Was it Johnny Depp? Had George Lucas suddenly strolled into Ballroom 20?

No, it was Bruce Campbell.

Average folk may not place the name, but Campbell knows how to whip the Comic-Con faithful into a lather. When the lantern-jawed actor -- beloved by horror fans through his work in Sam Raimi's campy "Evil Dead" series -- strode onstage at a panel for USA's spy drama "Burn Notice," an audience of 4,000 or so erupted in thunderous cheers.

"I love you, Bruce!" one man screamed after the applause died down. Campbell, who plays a comic supporting role as the womanizing private eye Sam Axe on "Burn Notice," promptly walked to the lip of the stage and beckoned the fan to accept a couple of dollar bills in mock payment -- a shtick he repeated with several other well-wishers.

According to network insiders, USA is talking with Fox, which makes the series, about producing a straight-to-DVD prequel that would cover Axe's adventures before his attempts to help his best friend, blacklisted spy Michael Westen (played by Jeffrey Donovan, who did not appear on the panel and was, as it happens, arrested earlier this week on suspicion of DUI). No deal has closed, but it could happen this year, these people say.

Creator Matt Nix and other panelists were asked about the possibility of a "Burn Notice" feature film.

"We've entertained the idea," Nix said. "We all start thinking, 'Wow, we should crash two helicopters into each other. Maybe we need a movie budget.' "

Campbell promised that anything with the "Burn Notice" brand would never rely on CGI effects. "Matt just blows [things] up," the actor said. More cheers from the crowd.

Alluding to his "Evil Dead" past, Campbell predicted that the writers would create a spinoff called "Dead Notice."

Campbell drew applause and laughter for virtually every word he uttered, sometimes just for arching an eyebrow. Not surprisingly, this left fellow panelists groping for attention.

Marveled recurring guest star Jay Karnes: "It's like watching a rock star work the crowd!"

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Scott Collins--

Ledger's final performance

British movie polymath Terry Gilliam unveiled clips Thursday afternoon of his latest project, "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus." The lush and bizarre fantasy movie costars Heath Ledger, in his final role before his death, as Tony, a silver-tongued showman modeled after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Ledger, whose memorable performance as the Joker in "The Dark Knight" inspired armies of costumed copycats at last year's Comic-Con, died in January 2007 before he could finish "Parnassus."

Gilliam's clip shows Ledger, in a white suit and Pulcinella mask, pouring on the snake-oil charm for an audience of gullible women in a mall.

"He was an extraordinary actor," Gilliam said of the 28-year-old Australian. "He was very old. There's a wisdom about him that was far beyond his years."

Ledger, who had a yen for unconventional roles, asked to play Tony, Gilliam said. "I said yessss!" he recalled.

Gilliam, who is one of the six members of Monty Python, is known for his outlandish films, including "Brazil," "Jabberwocky" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

With Ledger's outsized performance, "Parnassus" could prove to be one of Gilliam's most bizarre projects thus far.

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Alex Pham

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