Avatar three-disc extended collector's edition Blu-ray review
|REVIEWS - BLU-RAY REVIEWS|
A release to rival Alien Anthology in accelerating Blu-ray take-up...
Oh, Avatar, is there anything you are not? Highest grossing movie of all time, winner of hearts and minds (well…hearts anyway) the world over, capturer of imaginations, technologically groundbreaking, a wonderful use of 3-D, Best Picture nominee, and now…a truly astounding Blu-ray set.
First, for those of us who revel in such things, the packaging is a delight. A book, inside a slipcase, inside a sleeve, houses three discs, one per “page.” And it’s probably the sturdiest packaging I’ve come across. With each step of the process (and this will hold true the further we dive into the discs themselves), you feel as though you own something substantial, far and away worth not only the surprisingly cheap cost (Amazon is selling it for a mere $24.99 right now, or $19.99 for the DVD) but also the insane amount of time one can devote to devouring it.
It’s worth 'fessing up that I am not the biggest fan of this film. I consider it the weakest of writer/director James Cameron’s films to date. And although this new Extended Cut makes some much-needed improvements, the film as a whole still falls flat. The new opening on Earth goes a long way towards giving the humans necessary motivation to mine Pandora of its minerals, but it ends up feeling like a prologue, and not the first part of a continuous story. More troubling, we don’t learn anything about Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) than we end up learning from the theatrical cut, and the film still suffers because of it. Jake is essentially a vessel, with nothing to define him as a person. He is simply there to create the necessary story beats when they’re required, not because they feel motivated from within him.
And I could forgive all of its other flaws – its simple morality, awful dialogue, and familiar plot – had this one element been in place. Without a doubt, when the film shifts into high gear for action sequences, it can be heart-pounding. And the visuals are breathtaking. The film just doesn’t work as a whole, largely due to the missing element of a main character.
So if nothing else, you can definitely take my word that this is a set worth owning, because everything about this is worth your time regardless of your feelings towards the film itself. And if you really dig the film? Oh man, you’re going to be in Heaven.
As Avatar was created in the high-definition realm, the transfer is essentially flawless. I’d only seen the film once prior to this, in 3-D in the theater, and I was once again blown away by just how strong this film is visually and technologically. Uninhibited by the darkening effect of theatrical 3-D, the colors are perhaps the most vivid to have ever graced my screen (one that often features 50s Technicolor films, it’s worth noting), and even without the reality of the extra dimension, the transfer has a stunning amount of depth. You know that shot of Jake emerging from the cryo chamber? It’s still as staggering as it was in 3-D. Everything in the film just sings. When I need a disc to push people towards Blu-Ray, this will almost certainly be it.
The DVD version, comparatively, feels a bit muted in terms of the color palette, and the blacks exist much more in a dark-gray realm. It still looks good, but has none of the dimensionality found in the Blu-Ray version and really suffers from not being able to deliver color the same way. It simply isn't as "alive," for lack of a better word.
One of the great things about reviewing these discs is being forced to pay attention to all aspects of the film. Like a lot of people, sound is something I don’t pay much attention to unless it calls out to me; I’m trying to get better, but we all have our weaknesses. Really listening to the film for the first time, though, was an experience all its own. This is a remarkably propulsive sound track, and in 5.1 surround is totally enveloping. Especially when you consider that much of the track was complete invention, you’ll be all the more amazed by what you’re hearing. Just…be kind to your neighbors, because this disc certainly isn't going to cut them a break.
It's worth noting that there is a Family Audio Track available, removing all objectionable language, on the Theatrical and Special Edition cuts.
Now…here's where things really get interesting. I should note that no matter what you thought you knew about this film’s production, you will learn something. No matter how much of a conception you had of everything that went into the production, your appreciation of the immensity of their achievement will be deepened. It’s all really quite staggering.
The feature is offered in Theatrical, Special Edition, or Extended Cuts on Disc One via seamless branching (and remembering how jarring that was ten years ago on the X-Men DVD made me appreciate how far that technology has come). Additionally, there are options to view the additional scenes all on their own (go over the Disc Three on the DVD version for this) – a nifty feature, and goes to show how thorough the special features are, but for me, it’s better to see these things in the context of the film itself.
Then, we’re on to two Blu-Ray discs stacked with HD extras.
Deleted Scenes – I respect their inclusion in an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, but I am no fan of watching Deleted Scenes. Much less over an hour of them. At the best, you’ll find yourself wishing they’d been in the film. And worst, you’ll quickly realize why they were excised. Rarely is anything truly revealed, and you lose either way. But never let it be said that Scott Nye doesn’t take one for the team. Oh yes, Scott Nye takes one for the team. But let it be known that this mostly falls towards the “yeah, I can see why they cut that,” with the odd curiosity thrown in. You really don’t expect to see Jake to roll in on Norm (Joel Moore) and Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) having sex, for example. So y’know, there’s that if you’re so inclined.
Capturing Avatar – A documentary running over an hour-and-a-half covering the film’s production from inception (it begins with James Cameron explaining how the idea developed over his lifetime) to release is almost as comprehensive as you’d expect. And the only reason it’s merely “almost” is because of everything else in the set. But I strongly recommend starting here to establish the foundation upon which all the other special features will build. I’ll be repeating this throughout the review, but it really is fascinating to see just how much they had to invent and how completely each and every step was considered along the way. Most notably, I was impressed with the way they approached the role of the camera, which so often feels stagnant in CGI environments, but was really alive here.
The only real flaw with the documentary is that it feels a little whitewashed. We see Cameron make a lot of speeches to the crew about how hard the work will be or has been, and in interviews various crew members mention that it was difficult, but it's all sort of treated in a sort of "for the good of the film!" sort of way. You don't get the sense of how insurmountable the project really was in the same way as the excellent "Under Pressure: Making The Abyss." Now, not all productions are as grueling as The Abyss, but "Capturing Avatar" makes it all sound like simply a long, slightly bumpy production.
A Message From Pandora, perhaps the most needlessly self-serving name for a special feature ever, is a short documentary about James Cameron's environmental effort that was initiated shortly following the film's release.
Production Materials is one of the most intriguing sections for those of us who just love seeing the process of filmmaking. Here you'll see a lot of the raw footage they refer to in "Capturing Avatar," including the first tests of performance capture technology, Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana's screen tests, a ton of overviews of how the visual effects progressed, a really interesting montage of paintings that cover the film's story in a little under 18 minutes, and a bizarre, but weirdly entertaining crew film called "The Volume." This section is not available on the DVD.
All of the special features on this disc are exclusive to the Blu-Ray set, and cannot be found on the DVD.
Scene Deconstruction might be my favorite special feature on this set, and it really takes advantage of the Blu-Ray format. Here you can view seventeen scenes in their motion capture stage (using reference video of the actors in their mocap suits), the intermediary stage in which human performance is translated into a sort of doll-like version of the avatars and Na'vi, and the final image with picture-in-picture reference of the mocap stage. You access each through the different color buttons on your remote, or in a pop-up menu within each scene (there is a little bit of lag after you hit the button, so be patient). I was most fascinated by the raw mocap footage, as you really get a sense of the actors' commitment in spite of the many, many distractions surrounding them. I'd suggest watching scenes you're very familiar with, as you'll gain an appreciation for how props and landscape were created using pipes and wood to substitute for trees and mounds.
The Featurettes section is a sort of deleted scenes for "Capturing Avatar." The same people show up for interviews in the same settings, but their comments are expanded upon in shorts running under ten minutes apiece.
Avatar Archives - Trailers for the film, sure. But also the original scriptment, which leaked online a few years ago and, from memory, was a pretty interesting read. It included a lot of things that didn't make it into the final film that really would have fleshed out the world and upped the stakes considerably. You also get the final screenplay, Pandorapedia (a Wikipedia for Avatar, basically), and the lyrics for the Na'vi songs.
The Art of Avatar - Exactly what it sounds like, and an unbelievable amount of it, too.
BD-Live Exclusives - These will inevitably change from month to month and eventually disappear entirely. I'm not the biggest fan of BD-Live, but if you have a Blu-Ray player connected to the Internet (which is every Blu-Ray player at this point), check in and see what's available.
Whether you're an Avatar enthusiast or simply interested in the process of filmmaking (or hey, just want to push your high-def system to the limit), I cannot recommend this set strongly enough. The DVD edition is fine as far as it goes, but between this and the Alien Anthology set, Fox has given you two very good reasons to upgrade to Blu-Ray this season (plus, players are getting cheaper almost by the day). The production of the film is endlessly fascinating, and there is so much raw material here, you could probably make your own documentary on the film. That's probably what I respect about this set the most - as overly-complimentary as it can often be, they still went the extra mile and piled it with stuff that perhaps most of the consumer base wouldn't be interested in, but is fascinating to the small percentage that will look at it. There isn't a commentary track, which for some is a detriment, but I doubt there's much information NOT conveyed here in one form or another here.
When this was announced, James Cameron promised the ultimate Avatar experience, everything a fan of the film could ever want. Dare I say - he delivered.
Avatar three-disc extended collector's edition blu-ray is out now.
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