You don't want to know what Judge Steve Power connects his prehensile tail to...
Return to Pandora.
Barely half a year has gone by, and already we're faced with the second version of Director James Cameron's (The Abyss) record breaking science fiction epic. Is this the version of Avatar that Blu-ray fans have been waiting for? And more importantly, is it worth the double dip for those early adopters who sprang for the "Earth Day 2010" Edition?
Facts of the Case
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Clash of the Titans) is a down and out Marine. An incident in combat has left him confined to a wheelchair, his prospects on earth rather bleak. When his twin brother is murdered, the military comes calling, and Jake finds himself recruited to travel to the distant moon of Pandora. Once there, his mission is to "link" with a 9 foot tall, blue-skinned alien body called an Avatar, and help in the efforts to make peace with the locals, who also happen to be blue skinned and 9 feet tall.
When Jake falls for a local girl and goes native, a rogue officer (Stephen Lang, Tombstone) decides he's had enough of this hippie crap and takes his Marines out hunting; the outcome is all out war.
Not much has changed for me in the 7 months or so it has been since Avatar hit Blu-ray in theatrical form. In my mind it's still a great piece of escapist sci-fi action, and if it isn't my favourite James Cameron film, then it's right up there. Sure, it's boneheaded and preachy, and at times it feels more like anime than Hollywood (James Cameron apparently has a thing for Japanese cartoons) but I'll be damned if it isn't visually captivating, paced like a bolt of lightning, and fun as hell. I won't re-hash old arguments or attempt to defend the film to its legion of detractors; I've done that once already. You already know about the incredible production design, the considerably epic scope, the great performances, the moustache twirling villains, the power loaders with machine guns fighting giant six-legged space panthers, and the best CG effects ever.
If you held off for the inevitable double dip and skipped over the bare-bones release from this past April, congratulations, your patience has been rewarded with one hell of a fine collector's edition. Included are three full cuts of the film: the 162-minute theatrical version, the 'Special Edition' that saw a re-release this past August with 8 minutes of extra footage, and a new 3-hour 'Collector's Extended Cut' which doubles the added material of the special edition. The 8-minute longer cut is nothing too extraordinary, with a few scene extensions in the middle act and an extra tidbit towards the end. It's the 3-hour cut that really shines. An alternate opening gives us a Blade Runner-esque glimpse at the earth of the future, and extended bits about the early efforts in relating to the Na'vi really fleshes out both Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, Ghostbusters) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, The Losers) as characters. The 'Collector's cut' is definitely an improved film, and for that alone this set is worth the double dip.
The original Blu-ray was certainly a sight to behold, but visually, this one actually looks a shade better! There's a little less grain in the image, allowing for more clarity and vibrancy, and textures and fine detail have been given a noticeable bump in quality. It's a not a sort of "night and day" difference, as the old disc was pretty damn sharp to begin with, but it's definitely a difference. The sound mix remains unchanged from what I could hear, which is of no consequence, as it's one of the most natural and immersive mixes out there. The world of Pandora envelops the listener, firing from all speakers without ever feeling too bombastic or over produced. The action scenes are formidable, and the music is suitably sweeping. This is reference quality stuff.
The second and third discs in the set house what can only be described as an exhaustive collective of bonus materials. Kicking things off is a 90 plus minute documentary, Capturing Avatar which is a candid, all-encompassing trip through the production featuring most of the people involved. Cameron comes off well here, seeming considerably mellower than the last time he stepped behind a major Hollywood picture. He's got a passion for the material, and a drive to push the creative envelope. And push it he does. Most eye-opening is the rather incredible "Virtual Camera" technology that was developed for the film. Computers were able to interpolate motion capture data in real time and create primitive polygon models of the actors on the fly, allowing the creative team to view a version of the film (with Playstation one level graphics) as they were shooting. Add in the virtual camera rig, and Cameron was actually able to move around these primitive renders and create all of his camera moves, as though he were shooting a real scene. This is simply jaw-dropping tech. It was great to see all of the practical photography as well, and to get into just how much post-production work was required (James spent a year on an empty mocap stage just re-creating his camera moves within the existing motion captured footage before shipping it off to Peter Jackson's Hobbits at WETA in New Zealand). The practical work was equally extensive; every vehicle, every thread or fibre of a Na'vi costume was crafted on the material plane before being rendered with 0s and 1s. Every dollar of the film's budget is on that damn screen for all to behold.
It's also great to hear Cameron's reactions to the post-release critiques (no mention of Judge Dave Johnson's Cinema Verdict review, however). Suffice it to say, Cameron is well aware of the negative criticisms that face his film, and he attempts to address them as best he can being so close to the project.
Over 45 minutes of deleted scenes are presented in various forms of completion. Many of them should have been left in, some are curiosities, and others are just plain bad. There's a 20 minute featurette dubbed, "A message from Pandora," which gets into Cameron's environmental concerns and his inspirations for Avatar. Finally, the "production materials" section is a collection of random stuff like effects progressions and cast videos. It's all worth a look; I found "The Volume: A Cast Video" to be particularly entertaining, and hilarious.
The third disc houses another 14 featurettes, each covering specific aspects of the production and running about 5 minutes on average. There's some overlapping information with the documentary on Disc 2, but not so much that these aren't worth a watch for more a more concentrated look at various aspects of the stunning design and execution of the film. There are also some interactive scene deconstructions that allow you to view some choice scenes while switching between various stages of production. Rounding out this disc is an archive that features the great teaser and theatrical trailers, and a ridiculously thorough "Pandorapaedia," a sort of glossary or encyclopedia of the creatures, weapons, places, gear, flora, and fauna found in the film. The degree of background material present is insane; we're talking total nerd fodder. Also included is an English to Na'vi translation guide, and a stills gallery consisting of over 600 images! On top of that, the BD Live portal houses still more stuff, including a slightly humorous flash animation dubbed "The Night Before Avatar," as well as other raw video bits that can either be streamed in standard quality, or downloaded to your machine for playback in high definition. There's also the promise of additional updates with more exclusive material to come. This is really awesome stuff, and it just makes this collection that much more of a treat for fans of the film. Nothing on this set is in standard definition, every extra on the second and third discs is also presented in full on high definition, and looks freaking great.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the extended version definitely adds some meat to Avatar's bones, the film's plot remains as thin as Zoe Saldana. There's nothing here to staunch the flow of Dances with Wolves comparisons, or off-handed FernGully references. I still think the film is a hell of a lot better than its critics give it credit for, in spite of the workmanlike plot. I also think that the story goes a long way toward serving the spectacle that develops on screen. The 3-hour cut of Avatar won't make any new friends, but it will definitely entertain those who are already onboard.
The extras are pretty thorough, sure, but I would have really liked to hear some commentaries on there. Maybe get Cameron in a solo track, and another featuring Worthington, Saldana and their director. It's hardly something to boycott over, but I do like me some commentary tracks.
An already technically stunning Blu-ray release actually gets better, with three cuts of the film and a ludicrously huge collection of extra features. The feature length documentary is honest and engaging, the still galleries are immense and actually worth the look, there's the Pandorapaedia, and even some worthwhile BD-Live features! This is one of the very best releases of the year, and the definitive package for fans of Avatar. Even if the movie itself didn't entirely float your boat, folks with an eye for behind the scenes material would do well to check out the bonus features. Cameron is nothing if not an energetic and passionate filmmaker, and every ounce of his creative energy is there to witness.
Not a court in this world would convict this one!
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