Judge Steve Power once dreamed of a movie where Power Loaders fought giant Space Panthers...God Bless you, James Cameron.
"You should see your faces…"—Trudy Chacon
Avatar is hitting home. Now, all seven people on Earth who missed its theatrical run can see what all the hubbub is about. Is the new reigning box office champ still a contender, without a giant 3D enhanced theatre screen backing it up?
Facts of the Case
Paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) is given the opportunity of a lifetime, when offered the chance of a mission on the distant world of Pandora. It seems a mega-corporation called RDA has struck proverbial gold on this outer space frontier, but the natives are indeed restless. Using remote controlled organic bodies called Avatars—created by splicing human and alien DNA—these scientific minds are attempting to make peace with the tribal N'avi people. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake agrees to work with a group of scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, Alien). It doesn't take long before he finds himself partnered with Neytiri, a beautiful N'avi hunter (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek (2009)), and makes headway into becoming one of her tribe's hunters. Instead of passing his intel on to the base's military commander, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, Public Enemies), Jake goes native. What follows is all-out war for the fate of Pandora.
Avatar really needs no introduction. James Cameron's sci-fi epic has been a very long time in coming; indeed a full 12 years after Titanic shattered box office records and made history. In the months leading up to release, many wondered if Cameron could still bring his 'A-game' to the table. Well December 18th came and went, and the rest is common knowledge: Records were shattered, and Avatar would become the highest grossing film to date, and critics would warmly embrace the film as well…at least for the most part.
For me, seeing Avatar was as enthralling to my 32-year old mind as seeing Star Wars when I was 5. Every frame of Cameron's creation teems with imagination and life. Like the best science fiction films of the past, he has fully realized his setting, giving his characters an intricate and detailed world to play in. Two separate design teams focused on the brushed-steel industrial powerhouse that is Cameron's view of humanity in the far-flung future, and the tribal N'avi culture with its strong connection to nature and the trappings of Native American and other Indigenous Peoples. The attention to detail, from the minutest N'avi trinket to the giant RDA ore harvesters, is simply staggering.
The planet of Pandora itself, to use a well worn cliché, is practically another character. The otherworldly night-time scenes—with luminescent plants and creatures everywhere—are captivating, and the lush greens of the Pandoran (Pandorian?) jungles bloom with life. There are also floating mountains, colossal trees that rival any skyscraper, and all manner of flora and fauna, again overflowing with that anal retentive attention to design detail.
All of these gorgeous locales and toys are used for some mighty fine action. Cameron is known as one hell of an action director, so believe me when I tell you, Avatar has some of the finest action he's staged thus far. Whether it's Jake's initiation rituals with the N'avi hunters, soaring over the lush jungles on the back of a pterodactyl-like predator, or the RDA's attack on the N'avi home-tree; Cameron kicks it out in fine fashion. The final showdown, between Jake and the N'avi tribes vs. Quaritch and the total might of the RDA's mercenary army, is one gobsmacking scene of action bliss that just stuns as it unfolds, and rivals anything that's come before in science-fiction. It makes anything out of the Star Wars prequels look like amateur night. It is eye and ear candy for that inner 12-year-old, guaranteed to put a big stupid grin on your face, if you dig giant mech suits, space panthers, explosions, and epic action.
All this talk of design and action would be for naught, if the visual effects were incapable of delivering on all of that imagination. This is very likely Avatar's greatest triumph. I can very easily state, without a hint of hyperbole, that the computer generated effects in Avatar are the very best to hit the screen, and not by a small margin. Every environment is photo real, the characters move in incredibly realistic fashion, and the texturing and effects work is simply the best I've ever seen. There are one or two moments, perhaps a generous estimate of about 1 minute of total screen time, when the CG work is apparent, or rendered characters wade into the uncanny valley, in a film that runs 162 minutes! More often than not, you will believe what you're watching, and Cameron applies the same visual tricks and camera work one would see in a practical shot, making things all that much easier to sell. Avatar does for computer graphics, what Star Wars did for practical effects and optical composites back in 1977.
The cast also goes a long way toward selling it. Zoe Saldana and the rest of the N'avi people perform amazingly—considering the environments they inhabit aren't real—represented on screen by 9-foot tall blue skinned CG creations. It's always nice to see Sigourney Weaver, and she puts forth great efforts both in human and Avatar form. The rogue's gallery works well enough, with Stephen Lang's Colonel Quaritch as the chief antagonist. He's a hardcore jarhead, with little concern for the natives he's crushing under his feet. His purpose is to get the job done, while Lang chews scenery and twirls the moustache in menacing fashion. He is one hell of a great villain. Giovanni Ribisi (Gone in 60 Seconds) appears in the Cameron staple stock "corporate jackhole" role, but isn't given a whole lot to do other than act like a jackhole. Ultimately, while the supporting cast isn't wasted, there' aren't a lot of standouts either. This show belongs to Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, both of who do very well with it.
Much was made of the 3D technology that went into the creation of Avatar, and many theorized without the multiple stories tall 3D screen to boost the goings on, the whole thing would flounder. Thankfully, that's not the case at all. In fact, I found the film considerably more enjoyable without the "multiple planes of reality" shenanigans. Without the 3D spectacle to "ooh" and "aahh" over, the film's stellar effects work is emphasized that much more. I found the on screen action that much easier to follow, and the film's lush beauty easier to get lost in. It doesn't hurt that Fox has put together one hell of a visual package. The Blu-Ray's 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer is reference material, no doubt. If there are flaws in this print, I didn't notice them. Colors pop, especially towards the end when the action gets fierce, and there's no sign of any kind of blurring or pixelization. I did notice one or two brief bits of aliasing, but they don't even remotely detract or distract from the awesome visual presentation. The audio is also incredibly well handled, with a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that is loud and boisterous when it needs to be, and completely immersive, even when the film goes quiet. This is one of the best technical packages I've seen on the format yet. Expect to see this disc demoing systems for a while.
The only extra included in the package is a bonus disc that contains the DVD version of the movie, which is a bit more of a mixed bag. I did notice quite a bit of compression and pixelization on this one, and the audio, while awesome for DVD, certainly lacks the punch of the Blu big brother. It's still great to have it on hand as a loaner, or maybe to placate the kiddies with some big blue alien on human mech suit violence.
It's easy to blame Fox and Cameron for this superfluous bare bones release, and people will immediately cry, "Corporate money grab!" The truth is that Fox is in a hard position here: do they wait almost a full year to release the film to rental markets and casual buyers, or do they strike while the iron is hot? We are not a patient lot, and with piracy being what it is, I'm sure a 10-month window would only have hurt the film, especially if the only option available was a lavish (read: more expensive) collector's edition.
Something else to be aware of: this version of the film is NOT presented in 3D, and the rumoured 4-disc version, which may or may not contain up to 40 minutes of additional footage, is also rumoured to NOT be in 3D. So as of right now, you're looking at a double or even triple dip before you get the ideal version of Avatar. For some like myself, having the movie is more than enough, and I'm sure I'll be double dipping for the collector's edition come Fall. As far as 3D goes…well, we'll see.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In all of the praise I've dumped on the film, you'll notice I haven't mentioned the screenplay. Avatar is written from a very specific mindset—this is Cameron's love letter to the science fiction novels and films of his youth, in the same way that Star Wars was fueled by George Lucas' pre-pubescent Buck Rogers fantasies. There are no new ideas here. While some detractors would say the story has been told a million times, in truth that isn't the case. It's just an old story. Avatar is the age old tale of Imperial colonialism encroaching on the natural world. It's the Europeans conquering the New World for spice, gold, and slaves. It's Captain Smith shacking up with Pocahontas and her people. It preaches the evils of oppression and industrialism with a lead-heavy hand. It's none too subtle in delivering its tree-hugging message and, in truth, it doesn't hide the fact that past works were a big influence.
Yes, Cameron throws in allegory and political musing with all the care and consideration of a toddler armed with a mitt full of grape jelly. Those who don't appreciate being preached at (not preached to) will surely feel ruffled, and it will certainly hinder your enjoyment of the film. Subtlety is not something I'd typically associate with Jimmy C, and his politics are all over this sucker. Hell, he chose to make a political statement by releasing the film to retail markets on Earth Day!
I can get past all of the preaching, because the heart behind the film just feels so genuine. At the end of the day, in spite of whatever messages Cameron wanted to get across and whether or not it feels like Dances with Wolves with giant Smurfs, above all else, he wanted to craft a kick-ass sci-fi adventure. He succeeded and that's all that matters to me.
The value of this disc in your collection is entirely dependent on your love of the film itself. If you're looking for cutting edge 3D in the comfort of your home, you won't be getting it here. If you crave supplemental features, again, you will be disappointed. You can get the film; you can wait until the fall of this year for the rumoured 4-disc edition, or wait even longer for the 3D version to hit home. So know going in, that this version will inevitably be replaced in a few months, in fact this release will be put into moratorium as of July of this year.
I love Avatar and make no bones about it. The movie is definitely Not Guilty. This particular release however is a more muddy issue. I'm inclined to acquit and view it as a necessary evil. Did I mention the mech suits and space panthers?
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