Avatar

 

Avatar

Extended Blu-ray Collector’s Edition

Written & Directed by James Cameron

2009


Cast:

Sam Worthington

Zoe Saldana

Sigourney Weaver

Stephen Lang

Michelle Rodriguez

Giovanni Ribisi


Studio:

Theatrical:  20th Century Fox, Dune Entertainment

Video: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Video:

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Codec: MPEG-4 AVC

Disc Size: 45.15 GB

Feature Size: 42.79 GB

Bit Rate: 23.54 Mbps

Runtime: 178 minutes

Chapters: 42 (Collector’s Extended Cut)

Region: All


Audio:

English DTS-HD MA 5.1

English Dolby Digital 5.1 (family track)

Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1

French Dolby Digital 5.1

Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1

English Dolby Digital 2.0 (descriptive audio)


Subtitles:

English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Chinese


Extras:


DISC ONE: “Avatar”

• Original Theatrical Version

• Special Edition Re-Release (9 additional minutes)

• Collector’s Extended Cut (16 additional minutes + exclusive alternate opening)

• Family Audio Track (sans objectionable language)


DISC TWO: “The Filmmaker’s Journey”

• “Capturing Avatar“ - documentary with James Cameron and producer Jon Landau (98 min.)

• Deleted Scenes (45 min.)

• Production Materials (94 min.)

• A Message from Pandora – James Cameron (20 min)


DISC THREE: “Pandora’s Box”

• Interactive Scene Deconstruction

• Production Shorts: 17 featurettes covering performance capture, scoring the film, 3D fusion camera, stunts, and more.

• Avatar Archives including original script/treatment, 300-page screenplay and the extensive Pandorapedia

• BD-live Portal with additional bonus materials


Presentation:

Amaray Blu-ray case, in sturdy case and lightweight slipcover.  BRD x 3

Release Date: November 16, 2010



Introduction

The moment that Avatar was announced for a bare-bones release on DVD and Blu-ray for April 22, 2010, a preschooler could foresee two additional releases in the not too distant future.  Six months later, a 3-disc set with some eight hours of supplementary features spread across three discs, all in 1080i or 1080p, for November 16.  There is no wasted space for DVD or Digital Copy clones (I would have bought this just to show my support for the concept.)  At this writing a Blu-ray 3D edition has been announced but without a street date, except for the time being from Panasonic in an exclusive bundle along with their rechargeable 3D glasses HERE. We gather it is curiously cropped in 2.35:1 (Cameron says he thinks it looks more convincing this way) and only viewable with “Blu-ray 3D” equipped players and compatible displays & glasses.  The aspect ratio is all the stranger when we take into account that the 3D IMAX Experience was 1.78:1, same as on the present 2D Blu-ray annd the one that knocked everyone’s socks off and started all the ruckus in the first place.


     


In addition to the gargantuan and, in this case, useful supplements, this edition sports not one, but three versions of the film; one is new to audiences, and amounts to the inclusion of some 16 minutes of material, just about all of which fleshes out scenes and story to some degree, most importantly: an introductory sequence with Jake in Tokyo and Grace’s abortive attempt to get her Na’vi school solidly operational without damage to the narrative line.  On the contrary, the excised Tokyo sequence offers Sully the one shot he has at garnering interest and sympathy for an otherwise cardboard character.


Perhaps it’s just the people I hang out with, but I know only one person who thinks that Avatar is a good film in the same way as we think that The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars are good films. Not that there aren’t things to be critical about in those movies, but there is enough compelling narrative substance to make their respective cases.  And while both in their day had visuals that captured the imagination, story and character ruled the day.  The same cannot be said for Avatar which hasn’t got all that much going for it once we get past the visuals.


     


Ah, but those visuals: Dazzling! Immersive! Hypnotic! The box office take for Avatar makes it clear that the movie works on its audience in some other dimension, or dimensions unlike that traveled in The Twilight Zone.  That dimension is, at the very least, fantasy on such a believable level that we are transported hypnotically and involuntarily to a Pandora’s Box of fantastic imagery with its motion capture humanoid incarnations moving freely and dynamically within the landscape.  In the 3D IMAX Experience, which is how I saw the film in the theatre, I was completely taken in, despite the necessary glasses which I had to endure in conjunction with my personal spectacles.  3D, by the way, at this point in its technology, while convincing, is still not perfect.  There are still nagging bits of problematic focus with near/far objects; but it looks like the idea, if not overused like the new toy it is, is here to stay – at least for the near-term, or until holograms become a reality.


     


Writer/Director James Cameron has taken to similar brinks before: The Abyss (1989) can easily be seen as a dress rehearsal for Avatar, in which his hero attempts to moderate between powerful non-terrestrial life forms and his own species bent on their careless destruction.  In Avatar, the hero is far less successful, but then he he has far less to live for in the human world.


[I might add that I thought the Academy missed an opportunity by failing to properly nominate Avatar in its 3D version.]


     


The Movie: 6

On the distant world of Pandora, there are three groups of Earth-based humans working more or less together to mine the valuable substance “Unobtanium” [I dare you not to giggle.]: the corporation (led by Giovanni Ribisi) who supplies the mining hardware and manpower, the military who pacify the area, and the scientists who use avatars connected to the minds of their human counterparts to learn the ways of indigenous people called Na’vi (why the apostrophe, I wonder?).  As bad luck would have it, tons of Unobtanium just happens to sit right under the feet of the Na’vi and the corporation needs the help of the scientists, led by the unsubtly named Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) to engage, teach and learn from the natives in an effort to induce them to vacate the premises so that it can be accessed.  Failing that, the military would do what it does best.  Talk about a conflict of interest!


     


Back on planet Earth, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), though a paraplegic, is still a Marine and is tapped to take his twin brother’s place - he having met his own untimely death during a robbery - on a mission using an avatar already programmed for the hapless brother.  Jake is promised an expensive procedure that would restore his legs in exchange for intel about the Na’vi that will aid Col Quaritch (Steven Lang) in the almost certain event that the natives can’t be persuaded to leave.  But in his Na’vi identity, Jake discovers a life he never thought possible and the attentions of a princess (Zoe Saldana).


Avatar breaks no new ground in terms of story or message:  To cite a recent and innocuous instance, Disney’s 2001 feature animation: Atlantis: The Lost Empire covers the same territory, and not ineffectively, given the limitations of its medium. The idea is that humans are expansionist and colonialist at heart.  The bi-product is corporate greed which dictates anyone or anything in its path is likely to fall prey, even to the point that we fail to see miracles and possibilities that might offer us better lives.  It seems, however, that we fail to get the message despite Cameron’s movie, or scores of similarly motivated avatars.


     


Critics are quick to point out the movie’s stultifying expository dialogue (I cringed as Sigourney Weaver provides the backstory to Jake Sully’s arrival as if she and her team were taken totally by surprise by the substitution.)  Then there’s all that Marine-speak that Cameron seems to have felt sold Aliens – It’s here again, once more reassuring us that Marines remain reliably on point regardless of the century they find themselves. (I just about fell off my chair when someone uses the expression “shock and awe.”) Come to think of it there are a number of bits in the early part of the movie that are lifted directly from Aliens, like the pep talk given by the commander in charge of Sully’s landing on Pandora and Grace’s needing a cigarette the moment she comes out of her avatar sleep. The acting, too, except for the Na’vi, is generally wooden – Weaver, usually the most competent of actors, is terrible, and totally out of place (even in her avatar guise, which means that it wasn’t just her abominable hairdo, which, by the way, invoked an involuntary sign of the cross on my part.)  She still seems to be playing Ripley, perhaps in some Aliens 3 that was never filmed.


     


But my main concern lies elsewhere - in the character of Sully himself.  Cameron projects Sully as a caricature of the careless, littering American, the sort of guy who cares so little about his environment his very presence is destructive.  And he’s totally unaware of it!  Sully is a man utterly without values.  He’s understandably angry at his paraplegia and he’s jealous of his now-defunct twin brother, in whose genetic footsteps he must walk.  He’s a man without a soul, an empty vessel ripe for redirection and filling.  While Cameron’s recreation of this variety of American may be spot on, he’s left with a character who never has that moment of crisis on which a successful drama depends.  Col. Quaritch tries to generate one when he asks him to choose between his species and the Na’vi. (“Hey Sully... how does it feel to betray your own race? You think you're one of them? Time to wake up!”)


     


But there is no choice, because Sully was scarcely human to start with. He gives up nothing to “go native”.  On the contrary, it’s all gain for him to adopt the ways of the Omaticayan.  He enjoys a level of self respect he’s never felt in his life, to say nothing of the respect of a people who once took for the enemy or, at best, a fool.  He’s “at the top of his food chain,” as my friend Michael Barry, points out.  Sully delights in an extraordinary physical mobility and control over animals he was once afraid of, and has the love of a fine woman - she may be blue and 10 feet tall, but then so is he in his avatar body.


To make my point more evident, imagine that it is Col. Quaritch who suddenly finds himself lost and defenseless in the jungle and is taken in by the Omaticayan; and as part of his recovery learns their ways – HE would have a crisis of conscience if he was later ordered to destroy them.


     


With the rapid growth of Industrialization and Technology we have carelessly alienated ourselves from our environment and from what Gene Roddenberry took such pains to remind us of: our proper human potential.  It is for this very reason that Sully is such an attractive character for audiences to identify.  We’re suckers for two-dimensional characters into which we can dump our dreams and desires. We deaden our hearts and minds with cynicism just as we are seduced by the appearance of irony. It’s a devastating one-two-three punch that has taken many unawares, at least at the cinema.  Add to this recipe the awesome power of a near perfect three-dimensional world that we can immerse ourselves into and leave behind at will, like an elaborate Disneyland ride –less expensive and more able to trick us into believing we have witnessed something special, something meaningfully specially, not merely technically special.


     


For technically special is what Avatar is all about and what is likely to be its legacy, as witness the present rush to 3-dimensionalize movies already conceived in 2D.  Actors and scripts will become increasingly immaterial (I think that’s the right word) now that a medium has been assured that acts like a drug persuading us that we have been somewhere and done something. 


Before I let go of this altogether let me run by one more thought as to why Avatar may hit a chord, if an unconscious one: It’s hard not to notice that the bad guys in this movie are white, American and are all but obliterated by a colored race.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dances with Wolves where Kevin Costner’s character, like Sully, is an empty vessel who leaves his idiot white brethren behind only to lead a fight against them at the end. As in Avatar, Costner stacks the deck by painting his race in such negative terms. Like Sully, Dunbar isn’t really offered a choice.


     


In fighting “his own people” Dunbar will be felt by many as evening the score between whites and Indians. In Avatar Col. Quaritch gets his ass kicked for laying waste the country, the people and their god, and we applaud the deed.  But Quaritch is presented in such monstrous terms that we will fail to identify with the part of Quaritch that is us: all of us who permit and enable the growing cancer of profit over humanity.  Cameron appears to dispose of him in the name of humanity - not so much in the name of the Na’vi (though it is tempting to see it that way.) We feel relieved, but because his movie is absent a dramatic conflict for the protagonist - or the antagonist, for that matter - we walk away without understanding.  Cameron’s aim is thereby deflected. He will have missed his mark. . . all the way to bank, as we say, but missed it nonetheless.


     


Image : 9/9

Other commentators have given Avatar (in this or the first Blu-ray presentation) highest marks for image and sound.  And I would echo their observations: surely the transfer is defect-free; noise and noise reduction is non-existent, and color and black levels are ripping.  But there is one nagging point that I have not yet come to terms with: it has do with the rendering in 2D, not the transfer itself.  I realize that 3D technology has come some way since the 1950s, but I have read nothing that convinces me that you can have it both ways without shooting the movie twice, and some studios have done that very thing. 3D requires a higher lighting contrast ratio – it’s something we can observe in a flash if we take off our glasses in the theater. In addition, because of the light lost by the use of polarizing glasses, the image is overexposed as well to compensate.  Even if Avatar was not rendered to require polarizing filters, the pre-glasses image, as I understand it, has to be different from 2D in terms of contrast.


     


Be that as it may, my feeling about the Blu-ray image in 2D is that it suffers a little from being overlit, almost as I would expect it too look if it were 3D but without the parallel ghost image.  This effect is most noticeable in the brighter scenes, such as Jake’s arrival on Pandora, the flights of the banshees, and the battle for Pandora near the end of the movie.  Consider any of the shots of the military craft where people are visible in them or Jake and Neytiri as they ride to meet them: Does it not appear that the lighting is unnaturally intense, that there is more contrast at the higher values than there needs to be?  The result is that these shots appear noticeably more artificial compared to the forest scenes, yet they look correct in 3D.  In 2D, much of the CGI in the daylit scenes are more suggestive of good Japanese CG anime than live action.  There are moments, such as the banshee attack on Quaritch’s invading attack copters that could have been a densely rendered Last Exile.


     

 

Audio : 9/7

Possibly setting something of a trend, we note that there is a 5.1 Dolby Digital track with “all objectionable language removed” (and dubbed by the actors).  These exist for the theatrical and Special Edition re-release versions only.  I have to say that I am of two minds about this in regards this movie – both of them puzzled. Compared to most PG-13 movies these days, the language in Avatar that I can imagine deemed “objectionable” is sparse.  (But then I’m not the one who might object.)  More important, the visual content, which is intense, violent and erotic – or, at the very least, titillating – by turns, is pervasive.  This is not expunged.  So, what’s the point, exactly?  And what does objecting to foul language while horrific and tasty images are left to work their spell supposed to protect one from?


     


The soundscape for Avatar is not nearly as riveting or inventive as the image in 3D, but in support of the 2D rendering on Blu-ray it is something to admire.  My benchmark for high-definition audio for live action films is Black Hawk Down and while one of the first generation uncompressed audio mixes in this medium, it still hold its own – which tells us how important source material is.  Black Hawk Down mixes military copters, small arms fire, RPGs, dialogue face-to-face and over the radio, crowd noises, and one of the busiest, most dynamic music tracks ever laid down.  Sony’s Blu-ray makes for interesting comparison to Fox’s new mix. I ended up giving them the same score (9 of 10) since Black Hawk Down gives up something in sheer breadth and depth of sound. Avatar’s roaring whoosh of the helicoptors is so visceral it pushes you back in your chair, and yet it doesn’t blot out the texture of finer elements of the action.  On the other hand, I found Avatar’s music and dialogue comparatively flat, dynamically speaking.  This may be just a matter of taste: I doubt there is anything amiss with the mix itself.


That’s the big stuff. In the forest scenes, where more delicate shadings of bird calls, rustling leaves, the rushing of water and wind, animal grunts and the deft running of Na’vi is called for, Fox’s DTS-HD MA delivers beautifully.


     


Extras: 9

Fox offers three versions of the movie, including a previously unreleased extended cut, and, in place of the usual accompanying audio commentary: more than eight hours of bonus features including over 45 minutes of deleted scenes, interactive scene deconstruction, a Pandorapedia, documentaries and featurettes, plus BD-LIVE content available via the Internet and your Blu-ray player.  A detailed listing of each of these would go on and on, so I think this area of the review would be better served in summary fashion:


Disc One: Avatar

Seamlesss renderings of the three versions of the movie. And a special feature where all the extra footage is gathered together and separately for each version, with Play All functions and a detailed listing of the new scenes.  Brilliant.  Obvious.  I’ve not see such an Index on any video prior to this.


     


Disc Two: The Filmaker’s Journey

Deleted Scenes:

Some 45 minutes of new material that did not make it into any of the versions of the film presented in various stages of development (raw motion capture to nearly finished production.)


Capturing Avatar:

An hour and a half long documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau exploring every facet of the production from pre-script genesis to the final film’s release.  Motion capture takes center stage here, but considerable attention is also paid to creature and soundscape design, casting and scoring.


A Message from Pandora:

James Cameron, the environmental activist, is featured in this 20-minute documentary.


Production Materials:

Nearly an hour and a half’s worth of material here that looks at a variety of areas including screen tests, artwork, visual effects.  Some of it is a bit raw, even if presented in 1080i.


     


Disc Three: Pandora's Box

Scene Deconstruction:

Seventeen scenes are offered for you to choose to observe the progression of visual effects.  A whole hour if you Play All.


Featurettes:

More extended featurettes (3-9 minutes each) of brief production clips that appeared in Disc Two “Capturing Avatar”: production design, flying vehicles, the Banshee, costumes, the Na’vi language (which strikes me as a cross between Aztec and Klingon), flora, stunts, the 3D Fusion Camera, editing, scoring, and sound design.  Thorough.  Altogether, some 103 minutes, give or take.


Avatar Archives:

Perhaps most interesting and unique is the Pandorapedia, a guide to the world of Pandora, the lyrics to the Na’vi songs, translated into English and other bits. Trailers. Cameron’s original script/treatment. Hundreds of images relating to Pandora, the Na’vi and their human guests and invaders.


     


Recommendation: 8

As it stands, Avatar represents something of a guilty pleasure for me.  If it weren’t for the visuals, which are, admittedly, beautiful, artful, and seductive, I can’t see myself revisiting it – but I could be wrong.  No way to find out, however, since the story is inseparable from the images.  That said, Fox’s Blu-ray is close to faultless and will, no doubt, be requested by the occasional guest in the months and years to come.  The extra features are extensive, for the most part absorbing, and – cheers! – no wasted space for a DVD clone or Digital Copy!  Fox hasn’t figured out how to present multi-disc sets yet, but I give them credit for eschewing the dreaded clunky clangy plastic flip pages that seem to be the default on most sets (see HBO’s Rome for one way how to do this right).  This is the definitive 2D Avatar and those who enjoyed it in the theater in this format will not be disappointed in the slightest.

 

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

December 5, 2010


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