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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment / 2009 / 162 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: April 22, 2010
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Reviewed by Joshua Zyber
Friday, April 30, 2010
"I see you."
Let's say that you're a successful filmmaker with a pretty good track record for directing blockbuster hits. Your last feature was, at the time, the most expensive motion picture ever produced. Early buzz predicted it to be a financial failure, but you defied the naysayers. Somehow, you managed to tap into the cultural zeitgeist at just the right moment. Not only did that movie become the biggest box office hit of all time (by wide margin), it also went on to be nominated for and win a bunch of major prestigious awards. Anxiety has got to set in at that point. How can anyone top an achievement like that? Well, if you're James Cameron, you spend the next dozen years putzing around, biding your time, and maybe directing the occasional IMAX documentary just to give yourself something to do. Then, when the moment is right, you go out and do the exact same thing all over again.
Almost as if to make the challenge more difficult for himself, Cameron did it this time with a nearly-unmarketable concept, no major stars to back him, and the worst script he's ever written. How the hell did he pull this off? I can't figure it out.
'Avatar' has thus far earned about $887 trillion at the box office. Odds are, you've probably already seen the film, perhaps a few times. Or, you didn't see it, in which case you probably don't have much interest in it in the first place. In either case, I'll try to keep the plot recap short.
In the late 19th Century, a Civil War soldier who's been injured in battle accepts a posting to a remote outpost in the untamed Western frontier, hoping to "find himself." He soon meets and becomes ingratiated with a tribe of Native American Indians. He's so enamored by the natives that he falls in love with one of their women and abandons his military career. He must learn the tribe's language, must undergo its rituals, and must survive a dangerous test of courage by hunting buffalo. He's not only accepted into the tribe, but soon proves himself to be its very best warrior. He quickly becomes its leader, and must use his superior white man skills to defend the helpless natives from his former military colleagues, who have gone mad with greed and are trying to drive the natives out of their land.
Oh, wait a minute. I'm sorry, that's the plot of Kevin Costner's 1990 Oscar winner and blockbuster hit 'Dances with Wolves'. What was I thinking? Let me try this again.
In the distant future, a space marine who's been injured in battle accepts a posting to a remote outpost on the untamed alien moon of Pandora, hoping to "find himself." He soon meets and becomes ingratiated with a tribe of blue Thundercats called the Na'vi who look, dress, and act suspiciously just like Native American Indians. He's so enamored by the natives that he falls in love with one of their women and abandons his military career. He must learn the tribe's language, must undergo its rituals, and must survive a dangerous test of courage by riding a dragon. He's not only accepted into the tribe, but soon proves himself to be its very best warrior. He quickly becomes its leader, and must use his superior white man skills to defend the helpless natives from his former military colleagues, who have gone mad with greed and are trying to drive the natives out of their land.
I think I now see where I got confused. It's as if Cameron dug up a copy of the 'Wolves' script and did a simple Find/Replace on character and other proper names.
When I was 16, I thought that 'Dances with Wolves' was the best movie I'd ever seen. When I was 25, I watched it again and was greatly disenchanted with it. When I was 30, I tried it one more time, hoping to recapture my original enthusiasm, and found myself embarrassed for ever having liked it. In my younger days, I simply didn't have the experience, the perspective, or frankly the taste to recognize how didactic and simplistic the movie was. 'Avatar' takes those failings, and copies them note-for-note exactly the same without recognition or improvement. Painting the Indians blue and showing them to us in 3-D can't fix the fundamental flaws in the story that were there all along.
Like 'Dances with Wolves' (and its other clones such as 'The Last Samurai' or Disney's animated 'Pocahontas'), 'Avatar' is a ridiculous Liberal Guilt fantasy. It's a movie made by a wealthy and powerful white man who wants to apologize for the actions of his ancestors – actions that in fact directly allowed him to become so wealthy and powerful. He's concocted a silly fantasy where a heroic white man (his narrative avatar) can save the poor helpless Noble Savages who aren't capable of taking care of themselves. The whole point of this fantasy is to assuage his own feelings of guilt and present himself as the hero. What he doesn't realize is just how condescending and insulting that fantasy is.
Further, misguided political correctness is far from the only thing wrong with 'Avatar'. For all the technological marvel of Cameron shooting the movie in 3-D, the characters in his script are embarrassingly one-dimensional. The villains are cartoonishly over-the-top, and act completely without motivation. Giovanni Ribisi's pencil-pushing administrator Douchebag McSelfish (yes, that's actually his name; look it up) lacks only a mustache to twirl as he plots his diabolical scheme to bulldoze over the sacred Na'vi Life Tree and slaughter all the gentle villagers there. It seems that the village sits on top of a big deposit of some mineral ore called "Unobtainium." (OK, I may have been joking before. But this one's real. Honest.) Why? Well, we're told that Unobtainium is valuable. That's it. Why is it valuable? Is it really worth committing genocide over? These are questions never addressed.
Next we have Stephen Lang as Col. Snarly Evilpants. He's evil just for the sake of being evil. You can tell because he has a scar on his face. That makes him a villain. (Those of us who remember Lang as the pudgy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds in 'Manhunter' may find him unrecognizable here.) The humans on Pandora have been mining the Unobtainium for decades, and continue to mine it from other parts of the moon. Nevertheless, just as they get a man on the inside in a position to negotiate with the Na'vi, Evilpants decides that he needs to make his move against them right then. Why? Because he's tired of waiting, dammit! And he hasn't killed anybody in almost a whole day. Bwaa haa haaa!!
Our protagonist Bland Heroman (Sam Worthington) is barely more developed. One huge problem with the story is that there's no dilemma for him. The villains are so over-the-top evil, and the Na'vi are so ridiculously good and pure and wonderful, that there's no real conflict. There's no decision he has to make. Of course he's going to join the Na'vi. Why wouldn't he? What other decision could there possibly be? The story would be better served if the hero had to face up to a moral dilemma.
We're only told that the villains want the Unobtainium because it's valuable. It's easy to root against a character whose sole trait is greed. Suppose instead that the Unobtainium were not only valuable, but also vital to the survival of the human race. Then Bland would have to make a decision. Is protecting the Na'vi more important than the extinction of his own race? That's something to chew over, and would not have been difficult to incorporate into the script.
Suppose also that the Na'vi weren't so angelic and perfect and saintly, and weren't such physically appealing humanoids. What if they had a more realistic mix of positive qualities, negative qualities, and just "alien" qualities that the hero doesn't understand at first? That would make his decision much harder, and ultimately worthwhile. Compare 'Avatar' to 'District 9'. In the latter, the hero loves his old life. He doesn't want to join the aliens. He thinks they're dirty and disgusting and vile. When he starts to turn into one, he desperately wants to go back. Over the course of the movie, he's forced to confront his prejudices and beliefs, and to see the aliens in a much more complex understanding. He finally recognizes that what he himself had been doing to them was wrong. Only then does he make the decision to do the right thing. Because he knows that he has to, despite initially not wanting to. That's a much richer and more rewarding character journey. And the director carries us through that arc with almost a full hour less time than Cameron wasted on 'Avatar'. Yet the movie still has plenty of action, excitement, CG eye candy, and sci-fi thrills.
With all that said, how is it that 'Avatar' became such a broadly appealing crossover hit with audiences from all walks of life? Were viewers really that enchanted by Smurfy blue Indians who ride dragons in a magical rainforest? Or was it just the 3-D? In my opinion, that was a big part of it. Cameron didn't just shoot the movie in 3-D, he rethought the way that 3-D had ever been used in the past. He developed new equipment and new shooting techniques to minimize the gimmicky "Comin' at ya!" gags. Instead, he emphasized the immersive depth of the image. Although now in 2010, we're starting to see the rollout of 3-D HDTVs, 'Avatar' was perfectly timed to give audiences a theatrical experience they couldn't get at home on a television. Viewers who would normally wait to see a movie like this on DVD or Blu-ray made a point to see 'Avatar' in theaters. And many of them went back to see it again before its theatrical window closed.
Just as importantly, Cameron finally found a way to overcome that "Uncanny Valley" effect that has up to now prevented fully-CG characters from ever quite achieving photorealism. Mostly, it's in the eyes. Look into the eyes of the rubbery automatons of 'The Polar Express' and you can see that they have no soul. The Na'vi of 'Avatar', on the other hand, are thoroughly convincing as real, living beings, both on their own and in their interactions with live actors. That's a huge achievement.
The environment of Pandora is also a beautiful thing to behold. Much of it is derivative of countless fantasy novels, RPG video games, and anime, of course. But the way Cameron presents it is pretty wondrous. From the luminescent colors of the foliage to the tiniest alien details strewn throughout every frame, even deep into the far background, this is clearly a world that its creator has put enormous thought and planning into.
And, it must be said, it's nice to finally be back in the hands of an action movie master of James Cameron's caliber. The flawless, virtuoso choreography of his action sequences provide much-needed relief from the irritating Shaky Cam fad that has taken over Hollywood in recent years. This is how a real filmmaker shoots an action scene.
All of which just makes the movie's reliance on such a lousy script that much more disappointing. Imagine what 'Avatar' could have been with a decent story and multi-dimensional characters. It could have been a masterpiece. Instead, 'Avatar' is just a very pretty visual spectacle with a lot of whiz-bang, state-of-the-art special effects. That shine won't last forever. I guarantee you that in no more than five years' time, other filmmakers will have built off and improved Cameron's breakthroughs to such an extent that 'Avatar' will look downright clunky and primitive. (Even now, for long stretches of the picture, you must accept that you're watching an animated film, with little live action in sight.) The best movies use their advances in technology to serve the benefits of a good story. The technology in itself cannot make a movie good, without a strong story to back it up. James Cameron has apparently forgotten this lesson, and allowed himself to get lost in his fantasy concoction.
But, you know what they say. You can't spell "Naive" without Na'vi. *
[* Credit where it's due, I believe that this phrase was first coined by my friend, Toronto film critic Norm Wilner. But it's just so good that I couldn't resist using it. I hope Norm will forgive me.]
The first Blu-ray release of 'Avatar' has been released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. I say "the first" because James Cameron and the studio have already announced that they're planning a multi-disc Special Edition package for release later this year. And then, sometime after that, they'll release a 3-D Blu-ray edition. And then a Special Edition 3-D Blu-ray. And then…
Despite its release coinciding with the first official 3-D Blu-ray technology, this copy of 'Avatar' contains only a standard 2-D version of the movie. There is no 3-D version here. The Blu-ray comes as a 2-disc set packaged in a standard keepcase with cardboard slipcover. The first disc is the Blu-ray, and the second disc a DVD copy of the movie. Neither have any bonus features. At all.
The Blu-ray is a bit slow to load due to Fox's paranoia and ever-changing copy protection encryption protocols. Early reports from a number of users have noted compatibility problems with some standalone Blu-ray players. Hopefully, the manufacturers will resolve those with firmware updates soon. The disc played without issue in my OPPO BDP-83 player.
The Blu-ray and DVD both load straight to the main menu without any annoying trailers forced at the start. Apparently, this was done at the insistence of James Cameron himself, who jokes, "I have a deal with Fox that any time my movies make over a billion dollars, I can leave the crap trailers off the DVD." Good for him.
As mentioned above, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer on this Blu-ray is presented only in 2-D format. The disc has no option for 3-D viewing. With that out of the way, the next most important issue to discuss is the choice of aspect ratio, which is a bit more complicated than most movies.
'Avatar' was shot with digital video cameras that had a native capture ratio of 16:9. James Cameron has long been a fan of "scope" 2.35:1 projection, and composed the movie to be safe for matting to that ratio. (This is similar to how the Super 35 film format that he normally uses works.) All 2-D theatrical prints of the movie were projected at 2.35:1. However, for the IMAX 3-D presentation, Cameron instructed that the mattes be lifted to a ratio of 1.85:1. He felt that the taller image was more immersive in 3-D, especially on IMAX screens. Digital 3-D theaters were distributed copies of the movie in both aspect ratios, and were instructed to project whichever would be larger on their screens.
In interviews conducted last year, Cameron stated that 1.85:1 was his preferred aspect ratio for the 3-D version of 'Avatar'. However, at the same time he also emphasized, "But only in 3-D. I still like the scope ratio compositionally for flat projection." Because of this, it was expected that the initial 2-D Blu-ray release would be presented at 2.35:1, while an eventual 3-D Blu-ray down the road might be opened up to 1.85:1. More recently, Cameron turned around on this issue. This first Blu-ray release, although still just 2-D, is presented in a fully open-matte 16:9 (1.78:1) transfer. According to Cameron, "Even though I love the Cinemascope ratio compositionally, I actually found myself falling in love with the movie in 16:9, as we went along, and I prefer to watch it in that."
It must be emphasized that this is a decision that James Cameron made after-the-fact. While shooting the movie, he composed the photography for 2.35:1. When I saw the film projected theatrically at 2.35:1, I found that framing to be very well composed. For this review, I watched it in full at 16:9, as it's encoded on the disc. Although I can see what Cameron is saying about certain sequences (specifically, the flying sequences) having a more immersive sense of vertigo at that ratio, for the most part the movie looked very unbalanced and awkward to me. There's too much dead space in the frame, especially the lower part of the frame. Also, the subtitles for Na'vi dialogue are positioned up high in the middle of the screen, much higher than subtitles are normally placed. This looks very strange, especially in medium and wide shots. I'm sure most viewers won't notice, but I personally don't care for the full-frame 16:9 presentation of this particular movie. The scope theatrical screening I saw was much more satisfying from a compositional standpoint.
Because I have a 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection screen, I attempted to zoom the movie to 2.35:1. Unfortunately, a straight zoom doesn't work very well in this case, mainly because the theatrical scope portion of the image was not a direct center extraction from the original capture files. It was taken a little above center. Also, certain on-screen graphics (like those for Jake's diary entries) have been repositioned a bit for the 16:9 transfer. They still float strangely in the middle of the 16:9 frame, but extend beyond 2.35:1. A great deal of the movie looks fine at 2.35:1, but foreheads are clipped in too many scenes, especially most of the Na'vi scenes. I didn't find this acceptable.
As a compromise, I adjusted the aspect ratio of the movie to 2.20:1 (the 70mm theatrical ratio). To my eye, this looks pretty much perfect. Faces are correctly framed, and on-screen graphics fit the screen without getting cut off or floating in the middle. Overall, the movie just looks much better composed this way than 16:9. Even the flying sequences look fine.
Here's a screen capture taken from the enclosed DVD edition of the movie, to be used only to demonstrate the aspect ratio issues. At 16:9, the diary graphics float weirdly in the middle of the screen. At 2.35:1, the graphics are cut off. At 2.20:1, they are perfectly positioned to hug the top and bottom of the frame, as they looked in scope theaters.
As I said, most viewers won't see anything wrong with the 16:9 framing. However, CIH viewers with the ability to do so are advised to try watching the movie at 2.20:1. In my personal opinion, that's the best compromise for this Blu-ray.
As for its other image quality attributes, this 'Avatar' Blu-ray is, frankly, perfect. I can find nothing at all wrong with it. The digital video picture is razor sharp and has enormous amount of fine object detail that puts the comparable DVD to shame. There is absolutely no grain or noise in any shot. Nor are there any digital processing artifacts such as artificial sharpening, Digital Noise Reduction, or compression flaws. The vibrant, vibrant, vibrant colors are stunningly beautiful. Cameron uses colors in 'Avatar' that you just don't see in other movies. The contrast range has solid blacks and excellent shadow detail. For a 2-D image, the picture has a terrific sense of depth. Really, this is the best-looking demo material yet released on Blu-ray, regardless of which aspect ratio you watch it in. I'd give it 6 stars if I could.
When I saw 'Avatar' theatrically, I was pretty underwhelmed by the audio experience. I chalked that up to the particular theater I was in having a poor sound system. That may be the case, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack on this Blu-ray is certainly a big improvement over my first viewing. However, it's still missing something. Make no mistake, it does sound excellent. I'm not complaining, per se. But I can't list this disc among the best that I've heard on Blu-ray.
First, the compliments. In general, this is a very well balanced sound mix. Although it has a lot of dynamic range, it isn't obnoxiously loud just to be loud, like some other recent sci-fi action movies. Dialogue is always crisp and clear (though I do have to say that the ADR dubbing of the Na'vi characters is sometimes too obvious). Sound effects are sharp. And the surround channels are put to very smart use. Directional effects distinctly pan to the rear channels in a natural extension of the on-screen action. They're not gimmicky, and create an immersive, convincingly three-dimensional soundfield. The 5.1 track also matrixes nicely into 7.1 with Dolby ProLogic IIx decoding.
The mix has a lot of low-end rumble in many places. The AMP suits make a nice thump when they walk, for example. Some of the action scenes rev up nicely. On the other hand, the bass never really extends to the deepest registers, even when you expect (or need) it to. As a result, certain sequences, like the destruction of the Life Tree and the big action climax, are curiously uninvolving from an auditory standpoint. I would say that James Horner's score is presented with fairly good fidelity. But, for much of the movie, it lacks warmth and sounds too sterile. (To be fair, it's better in some scenes than others.)
None of this is to say that the soundtrack on the Blu-ray is "bad" in any way. I've just heard others that impressed me more.
There are no bonus features on this initial Blu-ray release. Those are being held off for a re-release later this year. The printed insert in the case provides a registration code for access to a web site with some exclusive features such as "First-Looks and Sneak Peeks" and "Money-Saving Offers." Because those are not actually part of the disc (not even via BD-Live connection), and because I doubt the studio will really host them permanently, I did not review them for this article.
Obviously, there are no Blu-ray exclusives either.
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What the hell do I know? Millions of people around the world love 'Avatar'. Not only did this picture break James Cameron's own 12-year record for highest-grossing movie of all time, it smashed it. The film was nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture. (But, it must be noted, unlike 'Titanic', 'Avatar' only won 3 Oscars in technical categories, and was bypassed for all of the big awards. However, it did win a Golden Globe.)
Here's my question: For all the touchy-feely New Age "save the environment" preaching in this movie, how much electricity did the Weta Digital render farms waste when cranking out the extensive CGI visual effects in every shot of this nearly three-hour feature? I hope those computer servers run on solar power.
Anyway, in most likelihood, you've already seen 'Avatar' and have made up your mind whether to buy it on Blu-ray or not. Most of you reading this probably will. I won't begrudge anyone for that. All I can do is give you my perspective on it. You can take that or leave it. Truth be told, 'Avatar' isn't a terrible movie. It's just a terribly disappointing one. I'll be honest that it plays better on second viewing, after you've come to terms with its shortcomings and know what to expect. Still, this film could and should have been much better than it is.
I may quibble over James Cameron's choice of aspect ratio, but there's no denying that this Blu-ray looks absolutely amazing, even though it's only 2-D. It also sounds pretty great. But the lack of bonus features, which have shamelessly been held back for a double-dip later this year, is pretty tacky. And of course there will be 3-D releases down the line as well. Keep all that in mind when you make your purchasing decisions.
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