AVATAR – Blu-ray review

In his review of the bare-bones Blu-ray release of “Avatar,” Dean Winkelspecht called it “the single biggest technological leap in filmmaking since ‘Star Wars.'” That pretty much echoes what James Cameron has to say about the film in several of the bonus features on this tricked-out three-disc version. Certainly “Avatar” marks a zenith for motion-capture technology, and a milestone, frankly, for realistic-looking CGI humanoids. I use that term loosely because we’re talking about the famously blue-skinned Na’vi that inhabit James Cameron’s planetary world.

And speaking of zeniths, you’re not going to do any better than this Extended Blu-ray Collector’s Edition, unless you want the 3D version.

This three-disc set includes an all-new extended cut with 16 minutes added, including an alternate opening. There’s over eight hours of never-before-seen material, including more than 45 minutes of deleted scenes, an in-depth feature-length documentary, 17 featurettes, and an interesting bit of self-censorship billed as the Family Audio Track (which removes all objectionable language!). What’s more, you can watch the movie three different ways: this Extended Cut with 16 minutes of added footage, the Special Edition re-release with nine minutes of additional footage, or the original theatrical version.

It’s all contained in a three-page heavy board Digibook that has pull-out inserts which house the three discs. I’m no fan of cardboard holders because of the potential for scratching, but as non-plastic holders go, these seem improved. The cardboard that the playable surface rubs against is slickly coated, and there’s ample room to tuck it into a slick crypt-like page that has a fold-down tab to keep it from jostling around. That Digibook is tucked inside a super-thick and super-slick cardboard slipcase, and that slipcase is tucked inside another. It’s probably overkill, and the Na’vi would object to killing a few more trees to add that extra slipcase, but nonetheless it’s a handsomely produced set.

Of course, it’s a handsomely produced movie, too. Cameron won Best Picture for “Titanic” (1997) largely because he wowed everyone with his computer effects, which he did again with “Avatar,” a film that everyone uses to show off their home theater set-up. It looks fabulous on Blu-ray. But “Avatar” is more than a visual effects movie. It’s also a rousing action film, a cautionary eco-fable, a tale of clashing cultures, and a love story, all rolled into one. Like Oz or Wonderland, Cameron and his artists and designers create a complete and distinctive world–this time with a completely new language. Hard as it is for anyone to believe, given how huge this film has become, we learn on the making-of documentary that some actors walked out on their auditions because they were asked to play a scene in a made-up language of their own choosing. It felt like gibberish, said one of the actors who made it into the film . . . but then came a meticulous collation of phrases and sounds and words and the creation of the Na’vi language.

On this three-disc set we see plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of the actors going through basic training, learning how to move, talk, shoot a bow, and react like a Na’vi instead of a human. While the film’s main through-line might be predictable, the attention to detail commands your attention. So does the writing, which is stronger than what we got in “Titanic” and which seems to facilitate more fully realized performances from the actors who have minor or supporting roles. As for the headliners? Sam Worthington is superb as Jake Sully, the wheelchair-bound veteran who ends up having to sub for his deceased scientist brother because he has the same DNA and can therefore be the only one to inhabit/pilot a fully realized “avatar” Na’vi clone that “drivers” operate from inside a thought chamber while their bodies roam the planet Pandora with the Na’vi. Like Worthington and Joel Moore, who plays a sidekick, Sigourney Weaver does double duty as both a human and a Na’vi avatar, and the trio really does some work that goes well beyond journeyman. Giovanni Ribisi is spot-on for the bean-counting company man who’s charged with extracting as much of a valuable mineral available only on Pandora as they can. And at all costs–even if it means destroying the main tree of life (shades of “The Lion King“) that sits at the center of the Na’vi universe, one which revolves around an earth-mother goddess they call Eywa.

There’s a nice cultural texture to this film because four distinct groups of people are involved. In addition to the nature-loving Na’vi and the company men who want to destroy nature in order to profit from it, there are the scientists who developed the avatars and the military men charged with protecting the civilian operation from the Na’vi, who have grown increasingly more annoyed with the big machines that keep tearing apart their planet. Stephen Lang clearly has fun with his role as Col. Miles Quaritch, the military leader who’s both a stereotype and a unique individual, all at the same time. Then there are the Na’vi, those blue-skinned natives played by actors in skin-tight performance capture wetsuits. Zoe Saldana plays Neytiri, the love interest, with veteran heavy Wes Studi excelling as Eytukan, the warlike tribal stud who objects to Neytiri’s growing relationship with Jake’s avatar.

On the one hand, we’ve seen this plot so many times that we can pretty much set our watches by the shifts in storyline. For example, Disney’s animated “Tarzan” had the same structure, with outsiders gaining an influence over Tarzan, who tries to assure them that everything will be peaceful, while one of the apes handles Eytukan’s role as skeptic, and of course Jane and Tarzan coming together reluctantly themselves. But there’s something about this blue world that Cameron has created that makes it feel fresh. Obviously, the visual dynamics go a long way toward achieving that feeling, and “Avatar” did win Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction, and Visual Effects. The nature scenes are nothing short of magical in this film, and they’re breathtaking in 1080p.

So what’s in those 16 extra minutes? A new opening that situates Jake (Sam Worthington) in a hurry-up, congested urban society and establishes the wheelchair-bound vet as someone who obviously feels alienated. There’s also a more fully developed sequence involving hunting with those gigantic, prehistoric-looking birds, and expanded love scene (nothing graphic), and more archery.

For fans, it means that it’s probably time to re-gift that bare-bones Blu-ray and upgrade. Pandora is so fascinating that as many extra minutes as you can get, you take them, gratefully.

“Avatar” comes to three-disc (50GB) Blu-ray courtesy of an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and it looks superb. Flawless, even. Presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, “Avatar” gets high marks for the “wow” factor, which is why so many people pop it in their Blu-ray players to show people what HD looks like when it’s firing on all cylinders. Colors just pop out at you, edges are strongly defined, and even in 2D there’s a wonderful sense of 3-dimensionality that pervades this film. Black levels are also strong, and you get plenty of detail even in shadows. As I said, the nature scenes are the most magical, and shots of Pandora and a full CGI world tend to look more strikingly pristine than live-action or live-action and CGI combined sequences, but it’s still one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year.

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that rocks the house. Prioritization of dialogue is nicely handled, though, so that the gap between the spoken word and sound effects isn’t so great that you have to scale the volume up or down according to the sequence. All of the speakers get fully involved, too, which makes the soundtrack feel totally immersive. You hear every tropical planetary sound in striking clarity–every squawk, squeak, croak, and chirp. And when the bullets fly, they seem to ricochet off the walls. And when the music crescendos, it feels as if you’re right there in orchestra hall. There’s a terrific sense of movement across the sound field, and it all feels natural to the situation on the screen. Additional audio options are an English Dolby Digital 5.1, an English 2.0 descriptive audio, and Spanish, French, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with subtitles available in English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

The generally curious will appreciate that Cameron included a feature where you can jump right to the added material on both the Collector’s Extended Cut and the Special Edition Re-Release. It’s a nice feature that definitively confirms what’s been added, so you don’t have to speculate.

In addition, there’s close to 70 minutes of deleted scenes–45 minutes previously unseen. When you watch (and admire), you can’t help but think how long this film could have been if Cameron didn’t have a judicious editor.

Speaking of editing, parents who wish their kids could watch a film without being inundated with foul language will applaud Cameron’s addition of a Family Audio Track (which removes all objectionable language).

The BIG bonus feature is a four-part, 98-minute making-of documentary that leisurely (but not ploddingly) covers every aspect of the film’s genesis, precursors, casting, pre-production, art and character design, mo-cap problems and solutions, and all of the technical aspects that really make you understand why everyone is saying this film took CGI work to new levels.

Then there’s a bunch of smaller featurettes that probably fall under the category of “miscellaneous,” including an early art reel, a “Brother Termite Test” that was an early attempt at the type of animation that would be used, screen tests, Cameron’s opening speech, and all sorts of progressions to show how sequences developed. All totaled, they run around 80 minutes.

I can’t imagine a lot of people wanting more ecological messaging, but remember that South American tribe that appealed to Cameron a while back? There’s a 20-minute feature that details his eco-activism and also shows his efforts to help the tribe stop the destruction of their land. Life imitating art.

Then there are 17 featurettes on performance capture, stunt work, scoring, 3D Fusion Camera work, creatures, vehicles, amp suit, and so on. And with scenic deconstruction you can use the buttons on your remote to see how different aspects of the technological production were achieved and layered on. Good stuff, and while it’s technical, it’s not so technical as to be uninteresting to a general audience.

In another miscellaneous hopper you’ll find trailers, teasers, and original (text-only) script and something Cameron calls a “scriptment.” If you’re fascinated by the world of Pandora there are also things like a glossary of terms and even the words to the Na’vi songs you heard. When Cameron creates a world, he does it completely!

Rounding out the bonus features is an art portfolio that contains literally hundreds of images, and BD-Live featurettes that mostly consist of more screen tests (which, frankly, I don’t know why they couldn’t have been added to the disc) and a few more short features, none of them much more than 10 minutes long.

Still no commentary from Cameron, who prefers to let his films do the talking.

Bottom Line:
If you didn’t think “Avatar” was a major motion picture event before, you’ll think it after watching all of the bonus features on this Extended Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. “Avatar” looks and sounds magnificent, and this set is certainly worth buying as an upgrade. And if you haven’t bought it yet, this is the one to buy.