A reluctant hero. An epic journey. A choice between the life he left behind and the incredible new world he's learned to call home. Return to James Cameron's Avatar - the greatest adventure of all time.
So, here we are again. As you may recall, I'm the guy who didn't like 'Avatar', much to the consternation of some of our readers. I can't help it; James Cameron's sci-fi remake of 'Dances With Wolves' didn't do it for me. It may surprise you to learn that in fact I'm not the only person on Earth to feel this way. I think I spelled out the reasons for my opinion pretty thoroughly in the review of the first Blu-ray release. I'm not going to belabor that argument any further here. You can read that article again if you need ammunition for the inevitable barrage of diatribes against me in our site forums, on Facebook, Twitter, and emailed directly to me for emphasis. I can tell you that I certainly haven't gotten enough of that over the last seven months.
Why am I writing about 'Avatar' again now, you ask? James Cameron felt the need to revisit the film with a new "Extended Collector's Edition," and it's my duty to compare it against the original version and inform you that the addition of a few extra minutes has miraculously turned a mediocre movie into the most stunning masterpiece in the history of cinema.
You didn't buy that, did you? I didn't honestly expect that you would.
This new Blu-ray release actually contains three versions of 'Avatar'. We start with the original 162-minute theatrical cut, which was previously issued on Blu-ray back in April of this year. Because James Cameron felt that two-and-three-quarter hours wasn't nearly long enough for his opus, the director added an additional eight minutes for a "Special Edition Re-Release" that played briefly in theaters over the summer. And since even that wasn't long enough, he's now added a further eight minutes (for a running time just shy of three hours) to create this new "Collector's Extended Cut" premiering on video. Counting the theatrical run, this would be my third time watching the movie, so I decided to jump whole-hog into the three-hour version. As far as I'm aware, the intermediary "Special Edition" doesn't contain footage or have any changes that aren't also included in the "Collector's Extended Cut." I have a feeling that viewers still excited for more 'Avatar' at this point will likewise want to go straight for the super-long edition, though it's certainly nice of Cameron to preserve all three versions for archival purposes.
What's different about the movie now? To start, the Extended Cut has a brand new opening set on future Earth. This completely changes our introduction to hero Jake Sully, and moves up the revelation that he's in a wheelchair. Jake is seen as a down-on-his-luck war vet. He gets in a drunken bar fight, and then is informed about his brother's death. Some of the footage originally presented as a flashback in the theatrical cut is arranged linearly here. To be honest, this prologue is kind of cheesy and has far too much exposition. The scene isn't terrible, but just isn't needed. Also, Sam Worthington's Australian accent is barely disguised at all here. The opening of the theatrical cut (and the Special Edition) works better.
The majority of other changes are mostly brief additions or scene extensions. Most of them stand out pretty badly against the theatrical footage. In a lot of cases, the CG visual effects are not quite as refined, the editing is blunt, and the new scenes disrupt the pacing of the story. Among the new bits are: the introduction of alien cattle called "Sturmbeests"; a scene where Grace (Sigourney Weaver's character) shows Jake the abandoned school where she taught Na'vi children English; a brief explanation for the flying mountains; and a dialogue scene where Grace tells Jake that Neytiri's sister was murdered by humans.
The second most significant addition to the Extended Cut is the Sturmbeest hunt, where Jake has to prove his worth (again) to the Na'vi. You remember the buffalo hunt in 'Dances With Wolves'? Same thing. To the letter. Apparently, Cameron felt that 'Avatar' wasn't already enough of a carbon copy of 'Wolves' and wanted to hammer the point home some more. The visual effects in this scene are almost up to the same standard as the original footage, but for some reason the CG mud splatters look really fake. (Then again, the movie's "Viperwolves" have always looked pretty plastic and artificial, and I guess this is about on par with that.)
Some publicity has been made of the fact that the longer cut has an extended Na'vi sex scene between Jake and Neytiri. I did the math on this and counted the addition of 24 seconds. To us humans, it appears just as chaste as the original version, but I suppose that the bit where the characters connect the tentacles in their ponytails together could be considered the Na'vi equivalent of hardcore penetration. (This also leads to the unavoidable implication that the Na'vi have sex with animals.)
After villain Selfridge orders the clearing of some sacred trees, we're given a new scene where the Na'vi destroy the bulldozers. In the aftermath the next day, we're told that they also slaughtered a bunch of construction workers and human soldiers. This is the only time in any version of the movie where the Na'vi are presented as anything other than good and pure-hearted and innocent (which is obviously why the scene didn't make the theatrical cut).
Finally, Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso) gets a new death scene in the movie's dénouement. In the theatrical cut, we last see him being gunned down and falling out of an airship. Turns out that he wasn't quite dead yet, and takes a moment to formally pass the reigns of clan leadership to Jake. This is another scene that really isn't needed in the story's progression. Further, its placement here causes a serious continuity error. The scene takes place after Jake was ripped out of his Avatar body by Quaritch and the neural transfer equipment was destroyed, yet he's back in that body again for this scene. The next time we see him, he's a human again, when the tree god transfers his consciousness back to the Avatar. This scene simply does not fit into the story continuity, and was rightly cut the first time.
When all is said and done, I don't think that any of the additions to the Extended Cut improve the movie any. (And none of them addresses the plot hole of what happened to all the other Avatars seen at the beginning of the film.) On balance, I feel that the theatrical cut is tighter, better structured, and generally flows better. However, none of the changes are awful, per se. (This isn't the 'Star Wars: Special Edition' we're talking about.) I'm sure that fans of the movie will appreciate the opportunity to spend a little extra time on Pandora. For one viewing, at least. Fortunately, the Blu-ray box set offers all three versions of the movie, so viewers can choose which they feel like watching at any particular opportunity.
The theatrical cut of 'Avatar' was previously released on Blu-ray in a stripped-down edition with no bonus features whatsoever. Even at the time, it was known that a more elaborate package was planned. And here we have it. In a recent promotional event, James Cameron claimed that he's not a fan of "double dipping," and that this 3-disc Extended Collector's Edition would be the definitive home video release of the movie, with everything that an 'Avatar' fan could possibly ever want.
Except for 3D, of course. The Collector's Edition is entirely 2D. A separate 3D Blu-ray release is expected in the near future. For the record, that would constitute a "triple dip."
The Blu-ray discs are stored in a Digibook-style case with surprisingly flimsy cardboard trays. That slides into a thicker cardboard box, which fits into a slipcover. It's an attractive, if awfully redundant package.
All three versions of the movie are contained on the first disc in the set via seamless branching. The other two discs hold the supplements. As a new release from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, it should go without saying that the discs are sloooowwwww to load in a Blu-ray player. Like most Fox releases, the Blu-rays are packed with complicated Java programming and layers of copy protection encryption. A few of my attempts at playback failed unless I cleared my Blu-ray player's Persistent Storage beforehand. I wouldn't be surprised if some hardware models require firmware updates to play the discs at all.
The original Blu-ray release of 'Avatar' rated our highest score for video quality. It's as close to perfection as anything I've yet seen on the format. At the time of release, the studio bragged that the disc authors had maxed out the bit rate throughout the movie to ensure optimal compression. That was a very simplistic attempt to justify the lack of supplemental content on the release. ("We didn't have room for any! We needed every single bit for the video!") It was the old DVD "SuperBit" marketing strategy re-applied for the Blu-ray era.
So now we have an extended cut of 'Avatar' that runs 16 minutes longer. If the bit rate was already maximized for the theatrical length, wouldn't that mean that a longer version has to suffer a lower bit rate? Indeed, mathematically, that's correct. This realization caused a minor freakout in some internet quarters, among people who assume that bit rate is the only factor important to determining video quality. The reality of the situation is far more complex than that, of course.
The long and short of it is that this Extended Collector's Edition looks exactly the same as the original release, despite what the bit rate meter may say. I defy anyone to tell them apart. That is of course a very good thing. As before, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is incredibly sharp and detailed, with no noticeable digital artifacts whatsoever. I'm not particularly a fan of the modern fad toward inundating movies with the color teal, which is an affectation that James Cameron has unfortunately fallen into. (The Na'vi themselves are awfully teal.) However, Cameron thankfully mixes in a whole host of other vibrant colors here, many you'll rarely see in other movies. Regardless of what I may think of the movie's story, it's quite lovely visual eye candy.
I discussed the controversy about the movie's aspect ratio at length in the original review. Once again, the director has opted to present the picture in an open-matte 16:9 framing, which I still think looks awkward and unbalanced. (To see the original 2.35:1 composition, check out the deleted scenes and trailers in the supplements.) For this movie, I prefer a compromise ratio of 2.2:1 on my Constant Image Height projection screen. You can refer back to the previous article for more detail on why I feel that way about this specific movie. I don't expect (or require) everyone to agree with me on this. For what it's worth, the scenes in the Extended Cut also crop well to that ratio.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is likewise identical to the previous Blu-ray, as far as I can tell. It's excellent overall, with clear dialogue and crisp sound effects. Surround activity is very immersive, and the dynamic range is well balanced so as not to come across as obnoxiously loud.
However, I still can't say that this is among the best audio I've heard on Blu-ray. The sound mix is just a little too cold and sterile for my liking, and a number of important scenes are curiously uninvolving from an auditory standpoint. Make no mistake, falling short of a perfect score in no way means that this is a poor soundtrack. It's very good and satisfying. It just doesn't hit that upper echelon that only a select few Blu-ray soundtracks are worthy of reaching.
The Blu-ray menus go out of the way to point out that the English Dolby Digital 2.0 track on the disc has been specially remixed with extra attention given to how it will sound through TV speakers or stereo and older ProLogic surround equipment. While I didn't test this myself, I would advise viewers who fall into those categories to try it out before assuming that the DTS option is appropriate for everyone's needs.
The disc also contains an English "Family Audio Track" in Dolby Digital 5.1. Parents concerned about the use of profanity in the movie will find the dirty words censored. However, choosing this soundtrack does not remove any of the cigarette smoking or intense violence in the movie. This feature is only available on the theatrical cut or Special Edition Re-Release, not the full three-hour Extended Cut.
If you found the lack of bonus features on the original Blu-ray release of 'Avatar' disappointing, the 3-disc Extended Collector's Edition more than makes up for that with a wealth of supplemental content.
Disc 1 contains all three versions of the movie, a special chapter menu with Direct Access to New/Additional Scenes, and a BD-Live link (more on that in the next section). All other supplements are on Discs 2 and 3. James Cameron apparently did not record an audio commentary for the movie.
The following features are shared in common between the Blu-ray and DVD releases of the Extended Collector's Edition.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
To the best of my ability to tell based on currently-available information, the following features are exclusive to the Blu-ray release and not found on the DVD edition.
The titles of most of the following featurettes should adequately describe what they're about.
Live Extras (BD-Live: Requires Profile 2.0)
All discs in the set include a link to the studio's BD-Live portal for 'Avatar'. Most online features offer the option of download (higher quality) or streaming (faster). Attempts to stream the features on my OPPO BDP83 Blu-ray player invariably caused the player to crash. I was only able to use the download option on that machine. The streaming feature did work on the PS3, however.
I have no way of knowing whether this content will remain static or be updated (or replaced) over time. At the time of this writing, the following features are available:
According to Engadget, Disc 3 has a 3D version of the theatrical trailer and a 3D featurette called "Pandora Discovered" that can be accessed by pressing Down from the "Live Extras" option in the menu. I tried this on my 2D player just to see what would happen, and nothing did. The highlight just moved to the next menu option. Perhaps it can only be accessed on 3D equipment?
I've watched 'Avatar' three times now, and the new Extended Cut did nothing to change my opinion one way or the other. It's still the same movie, just a little longer. However, if you are a fan, you may appreciate the opportunity to spend a little extra time on Pandora more than I did.
As a Blu-ray release, the 3-disc Collector's Edition is everything that the first Blu-ray edition should have been. It maintains the same stellar video and audio, but adds multiple versions of the film and a huge bounty of supplemental material. I don't even like the movie, and I think that this is a pretty terrific set. The shameless double dip bothers me a bit, especially since we all know that a 3D release is just around the corner. Even so, if you like 'Avatar', this is an easy recommendation.