Blu-ray Review: Avatar Extended Edition
Last week Avatar came crashing onto DVD and blu-ray in its promised "Extended" edition, incorporating footage from the theatrical re-release as well as some additional scenes held back from the previous cuts of the film. I have something of a tortured critical relationship with Avatar which became a bona fide global phenomenon which even climbed the ranks of genuine contenders for the Oscar. Chances are, if you're a regular reader of this site and/or a genre fan, you've more than likely seen Avatar--possibly more than once. Doubtless it's unnecessary for me to describe at length the particulars of the plot--how crippled Marine Jake Sully travels to the planet of Pandora, and how he comes to admire, love, and join the blue-skinned Na'vi (but there you go, just in case).
I'll admit that over the last year, I've increasingly reflected on the movie through crap-colored glasses thanks to what I sniffed at as a lack of worthiness for either its financial or critical success. Having had a chance to watch the extended version of the movie, I'm not sure I can really understand what the fuss was about at this point, but I'm more than happy to concede that it's a solid, mostly harmless b-picture. James Cameron made a big, dumb, expertly crafted action picture, and on those merits alone, the movie works. Still, I remain unconvinced about the white savior myth at the heart of the movie, cloaking itself in social relevance: in fact, I would lump Avatar in with the same kind of confused, tortured, and somewhat opaque ideology of movies like 300 or worse, Ed Zwick-helmed productions like Glory. On the same note, in spite of their superlative technical prowess, the rousing action scenes don't really jibe with what feels like an entreaty to discover another way beyond the cycle of violence.
Pedantic and garbled politics aside, the movie is quite beautiful to look at. It was my first IMAX experience, and in the moment it was tremendously entertaining. So far it's the most convincing 3-D experience I've encountered up to this point, and Cameron should be commended as more than anything else a brilliant connoisseur of technology. Although the ideas at its core aren't fully formed, the world of Pandora is completely realized visually--it's stunning, really, with a meticulous, even obsessive level of detail paid to every element of the environment. Watching it at home this time around I noticed the particulars of the animal life of Pandora: there's almost no fur. Certainly, a part of that might have had to do with the bother of convincingly rendering hair, but the consistency between the species--a sort of sinewy fleshiness--gives the world an added layer of veracity. I'm hesitant to call it "beautiful," exactly, but it's something approaching that.
My initial harshness up above aside, the movie succeeds beyond simple technical proficiency--there are a couple of standout performances in the movie that serve the material (and in some cases elevate it). Renowned stage actor Stephen Lang, in particular, is as good as it gets as the scenery-chewing Colonel Quaritch. As written, he's essentially a cartoon villain eager to exterminate the locals, but Lang gives the character enough of a vicious, hateful swagger that it brings the character back into the realm of an actual threat. Likewise, Zoe Saldana, Wes Studi, and CCH Pounder should all be commended to giving life and sincerity to their mo-cap performances as the Na'vi.
Lead Sam Worthington fares less favorably. I'll admit I'm unable to understand how the actor is continually embraced as leading man material--he's an exceedingly bland presence with the same lifeless, flat delivery in every role I've seen him in to date. It's not a stylistic thing, I don't think--there's just genuinely no investment on the actor's part in his characters. This undeniable vacancy is always there with the actor, and it's difficult to stick with a movie where he's in the lead. Still, the rest of the cast props him up nicely.
Audio and Video
Would it be enough to say the movie looks gorgeous in the home presentation? That it sounds like a million bucks? Well, it does and it does. Particularly notable is the DTS HD audio mix which brings the world of Pandora alive. Every little sound, every little ambient noise comes through with an astounding level of clarity. Again, the movie excels at the technical, and it's the best presentation you'll get of the movie without seeing a digital projection in a theater.
I'm just going to do a little cut and paste from the set's Amazon page since there's a LOT of material here:
Disc 1: Three Movie Versions
• Original Theatrical Edition (includes family audio track with objectionable language removed)
• Special Edition Re-Release (includes family audio track with objectionable language removed)
• Collector's Extended Cut with 16 additional minutes, including alternate opening on earth
Disc 2: Filmmaker's Journey
• Over 45 minutes of never-before-seen deleted scenes
• Capturing Avatar: Feature-length documentary covering the 16-year filmmakers' journey, including interviews with James Cameron, Jon Landau, cast and crew
• A Message from Pandora: James Cameron's visit to the Amazon rainforest
• The 2006 art reel: Original pitch of the Avatar vision
• Brother termite test: Original motion capture test
• The ILM prototype: Visual effects reel
• Screen tests: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana
• Zoë's life cast: Makeup session footage
• On-set footage as live-action filming begins
• VFX progressions
• Crew film: The Volume
Disc 3: Pandora's Box
• Interactive scene deconstruction: Explore the stages of production of 17 different scenes through three viewing modes: capture level, template level, and final level with picture-in-picture reference
• Production featurettes: Sculpting Avatar, Creating the Banshee, Creating the Thanator, The AMP Suit, Flying Vehicles, Na'vi Costumes, Speaking Na'vi, Pandora Flora, Stunts, Performance Capture, Virtual Camera, The 3D Fusion Camera, The Simul-Cam, Editing Avatar, Scoring Avatar, Sound Design, The Haka: The Spirit of New Zealand
• Avatar original script
• Avatar screenplay by James Cameron
• Pandorapedia: Comprehensive guide to Pandora
• Lyrics from five songs by James Cameron
• The art of Avatar: Over 1,850 images in 16 themed galleries (The World of Pandora, The Creatures, Pandora Flora, Pandora Bioluminescence, The Na'vi, The Avatars, Maquettes, Na'vi Weapons, Na'vi Props, Na'vi Musical Instruments, RDA Designs, Flying Vehicles, AMP Suit, Human Weapons, Land Vehicles, One-Sheet Concepts)
• BD-Live extras require a BD-Live-enabled player and an Internet connection. The following extras may be available a limited-time only and are subject to change over time: Crew Short: The Night Before Avatar; additional screen tests, including Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, and Laz Alonso; speaking Na'vi rehearsal footage; Weta Workshop: walk-and-talk presentation
One might consider all of this an embarrassment of riches, even for people like myself who weren't exactly over the moon about the movie. There's a great deal of insightful material here capturing the decade-long creative process that went into this production. The big draw for many viewers would be the extended scenes included here. As such things tend to go they vary in quality and their omission from the final film didn't hurt it any. The most interesting bits are the extended opening, presenting the toxic, polluted Earth of the future, leading up to Sully's induction into the Avatar program. There are also a couple of scenes involving a subplot about an English-language school for the Na'vi and the tragic incident there that lead to Sigourney Weaver's Grace falling out of favor with the tribe. It's not strictly essential material, and to my mind the movie actually works a bit better without the reasons behind her estrangement from the tribe being made explicit.
The sole disappointing omission is a commentary from Cameron (I'm too lazy to look right now, but I'm not recalling any commentaries on previous works from the director).
The 3-disc set also has the distinction of being the second most beautifully-produced blu-ray packaging of the year, second to the Alien set which will be getting its due diligence here soon. Like Alien Anthology, this set is presented in a "book" format with the discs inserted into sleeves in the individual, rigid cardboard "pages." It's essentially a love note to the movie, and whatever feelings one might have towards the film, one can't help but admire the craft put into the presentation of the final product.
Unfortunately, due to some of my own technical limitations, I was unable to check out some of the BD-live features on my home setup, but there was more than enough to digest in what was included on the discs.