'Avatar' has been reviewed here twice before, with Josh Zyber nailing this escapist fantasy on all angles in the barebones initial release coverage, while detailing the various ins and outs of the extended cuts the second time around. Neither review caused any controversy, right? I really didn't see the point in reviewing this beast again (3D be damned!), and it took me some time to realize there's something I wanted to say, possibly enough so that this third trip down the Smurf well will be at least semi-justifiable (and for the record, I do agree with everything Josh said, save for the fact that I disliked this film even more than he does).
It is not my aim to create an immersive, end-all be-all review. We already have that, and there's really only so much that can be said. Regurgitation, fun as it may be to some, doesn't quite make for good reading. Anyway, this review may not even matter, as anything I say will be ignored in favor of complaining about the very low score I will always bestow on any version of 'Avatar.' My dislike is not due to any single reason, but there is one giant obstacle that I will never be able to get around, one that will always prevent me from being a fan of this flick.
Jake Sully is a massive, massive tool.
I do not believe a synopsis is necessary, as everyone who wanted to see it has seen it by this point. We all know about the numerous parallels and messages in this film that are nearly impossible to miss. Humans, Pandora, Na'vi, big tree gets blown the F up, Unobtainium (also spelled Unobtanium in some circles), dragons, kinky pony-tail sex, war. That right there is 'Avatar.'
So what makes Sulley such a total douchebag, since, after all, that's going to be the theme of this review? The fact that he's a hypocrite, through and through, an egocentric jerk. For three hours, we witness a film that is quite obviously told from his, and only his, perspective. We see his trials and tribulations as he so bravely navigates the strange world of Pandora. Yet, we are given absolutely no reason to like him.
There are numerous Jake Sulleys in this film, so let's run them down one by one. First up, there's Jake Sulley, paraplegic marine. This is our initial protagonist, the man we're introduced to, the reluctant adventurer, whose twin brother was murdered, leaving Jake the only man who can fill in his shoes on the mission to Pandora. He's a wounded man, in body and spirit. He'd be the very image of a reluctant hero, you know, if he were either of those things. He's thrust into a world he doesn't know, and he seems to hate every minute of it. He's just there. He's depressing (not due to his scenario, but rather his seemingly dead-to-the-world mentality) and completely devoid of character or likability. He merely exists, and we're forced to either empathize with him, or disconnect from the film, a none too nice piece of film blackmail, considering you still have about two and a half hours worth of film to get through.
Next, there's Jake Sulley, Na'vi. Sure, we know anyone that has an apostrophe in their name is the by-product of some pretentious parents, and this alien species is beyond that. The natives of Pandora are big, blue, humanoid, and none too happy with the invaders on their planet destroying their land. We all know that the namesake of this film is what will be Jake's second body, a soulless, lifeless drone that he is able to control through some fancy gadgetry. As Jake begins his mission, he's a completely different person. Jake Sulley, paraplegic marine, is completely gone without a trace. Jake Sulley, Na'vi can wiggle his toes, walk, run, jump, saunter, suck at basketball, you name it. The wounded man is suddenly whole again. If you had any doubt he was depressed and a shell of himself due to his brother's death or his extraction from everything he once knew, which would make him a bit more likable, that's all out the window. He's happy now. He's full of life, energy, enthusiasm. Now, whenever he isn't puppeteering his Na'vi, he's existing only to sustain his body and mind, so that he can jump back into the saddle the next day. He does nothing in his real body other than be depressed that he isn't running around, and literally stares at his watch, waiting for when he can be big and blue again. Take from that what you will about what James Cameron thinks of the handicapped...
Let's not forget Jake Sulley, hippy hypocrite! As Jake ingrains himself into a Na'vi tribe, he is to learn their customs, while at the same time scout the area for his human overseers, a mole in perfect camouflage. Of course, he's terrible at being what he isn't, and literally acts like a wolf in sheep's clothing. The logical Na'vi doubt him, and want nothing to do with him, other than to be the ones who murder his fake ass. Of course, a future leader in the tribe, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who once saved the naive Sulley-tar, is forced into mentoring him in their ways, basically teaching him how to destroy them from within. Eventually, she falls for him. This is where our hero becomes nothing but a real jackass. You're a double agent. She's bound for greatness, and somewhat spoken for. Yet, you indulge in her forbidden fruit, since she's the only woman who has given you attention in who knows how long, despite the fact that you're playing a large part in the destruction of her home. That just screams of selfishness, and it's hard to like any lead character who only cares about himself. You can't say he has a change of heart, because he doesn't once broach the subject of "hey, those humans are going to totally screw over your home. Let's fight them now, while we have a tactical advantage and they're not expecting us." No, he'd rather go through the motions, and pretend to be one of them. As Sulley goes through his training to be a Na'vi, it's hard to not feel like he's just doing what he's told, not believing a single damn thing, just repeating their words, feelings, and movements. He's a complete and utter tool. He only changes sides because the blue people offer him sex. Yeah, real noble.
Last, but not least, there's the vicious, unrelenting Jake Sulley, warrior. For a tree hugger, he can be a mean son of a bitch, I'm sure you all know. Let's not dismiss him fighting for a peaceful cause as peaceful, as he singlehandedly takes over the military functions of the Na'vi, in essence leading them head on into battle (a battle that, honestly, is beyond ridiculous and pointless, and amazing in the sense that both sides knew exactly when said battle was to take place). Jake Sulley abandons the dragon-like creature that he bonds with as part of his Na'vi gauntlet of training to grab a bigger, stronger dragon (further proof he's just a selfish dick), and along with Tsu-Tey (Laz Alonso), the man he somewhat cuckolded, Sulley forms an army, banding together the various tribes of blue people. Jake Sulley seems to be fighting to win back his woman, not for the good of the all-too-perfect Na'vi people, who are never shown being aggressive in any way, to make their pacifism and connection to nature that much more emphasized. So now a man is using his fellow man's technology, the Avatar system, to fight back against the cruel, greedy oppression that he himself helped further empower. He's hardly a real hero when you realize he's fighting off what he helped create, though Captain Scarface McGillicutty (Stephen Lang), the human army leader on Pandora, takes the heat of being the bad guy when at least he isn't a duplicitous jerk.
Besides my long-winded diatribe on why our protagonist is a total douche, there are other problems with this film. 'Avatar' is a film of excesses, one that dillydallies along rather than getting to the point, for no reason other than to show off the 3D technology and visual effects in the film. There are numerous sequences that could be removed from the film entirely, that would not affect the final product, especially the "dragon" taming. How hard would it have been to have the Na'vi treat the flying beasts the same as they do the ones that are akin to horses? Do we really need extended swooping sequences, flying through those magical flying mountains? What about all of the supposedly dangerous animals Jake Sulley encounters on Pandora, as he's separated from the rest of his group, and left to fend for himself? Those entire portions can be removed entirely, with the introduction to Neytiri being found in the scene where she is forced to tutor the absolute incompetent goon that falls in her lap.
As Josh pointed out in his earlier reviews, Jake Sulley isn't so much given a dilemma as he is given a free pass to be a dick. His actions may affect the Na'vi, and help lead them to victory over their invaders, but at what cost? Apparently, no cost to him whatsoever. The portable building he uses to connect to his Avatar doesn't seem to have a power source that's reliant on long extension cords or batteries, and we never get the feeling he may run out of time, no matter how remote his pod may be. What if his victory would cost him any use of his Na'vi body, meaning he'd have to give up any chance at Neytiri? What if the humans were on Pandora for survival, as Unobtainium had actual value to their survival, rather than their economy, as we're never quite sure what that rock does, other than cost a lot! Why doesn't he have to sacrifice his human body while in the final battle, to ensure victory and make himself the ultimate sacrifice? Because then the ridiculously predictable ending wouldn't be able to happen!!! It's almost like the film were written backwards, and the ridiculous, half-baked rationale for anything is just the first thing that came to mind.
The story of 'Avatar' has been told a hundred times before, we all know this. But, funnily enough, what takes James Cameron three hours and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to portray has been done so much cheaper, efficiently, and effectively, that perhaps none compare to the efficiency or analogical prowess of a piece of narration done by the late, great Dennis Hopper, along with a bunch of cartoon musicians in Fire Coming Out of a Monkey's Head. Call me biased, if you will, but I'd rather this story be told better, in about one sixtieth of the amount of time, leaving the visuals up to imagination, which still can be even more colorful than anything computers can make these days.
Fans of this film will decry this review. That's fine and dandy. 'Avatar' is a fad, an "it" film that lacks in substance, force-feeds its messages ham-handedly, and revels in its single mindedness. Everything is in your face and exaggerated, leaving little room for question or thought. It's impossible to draw the wrong conclusions from this film, as there may as well be a subliminal track playing "industrialization bad, nature good" the entire time. This is not a film. It's a ride, an experience, with ridiculous characters and distracting visuals. As an experience, it's something else, but there's no way I'd ever call this a good movie.
The Disc: Vital Stats
The Blu-ray 3D release of 'Avatar' is available two ways: to past Panasonic 3DTV purchasers through their loyalty program, available through their website, or in the new Panasonic starter kit, which includes the film (in its full packaging, a non-eco (ironic considering the film!) one disc case with the front and the back reminding consumers that it is not a retail release) and two pairs of rechargeable glasses only usable on Panasonic 3DTVs. Past Panasonic starter kits only contained the battery powered versions, which have an entirely different build, so this is a great option for those who already own Panasonic gear.
The BD50 disc contains both the 2D and 3D versions of the film. It will automatically detect what type of television it is being played on, as on 3D sets, the pre-menu screens are in 3D. The main menu also allows you to choose which version you want to watch, after pressing the play film tab. The menu itself, on 3DTV sets, has 3D option tabs, but no 3D background video. I suppose they don't want to spoil the surprise.
'Avatar' is only given one cut on this release: the standard theatrical version, that was found on the original Blu-ray. Do not expect either extended cut. That's not to say to not expect them when 2012 rolls around and Cameron again wants your money, but don't expect the longer cuts in 3D until then, or maybe even later, on the 17th Blu-ray release, which, by my estimates, will be sometime in 2013.
'Avatar' in 3D is quite the achievement, an amazingly immersive experience that transcends its cinematic origin. This is the first landmark in 3D, and may go down in history the same way 'King Kong' did, aging disgracefully but being remembered with awe and wonder as the film that truly took the film experience to a whole new level. Of course, if you didn't buy a Panasonic 3DTV, you're not deemed worthy of seeing said experience until early 2012, but that's beside the point.
'Avatar' is Fox's second Blu-ray 3D title, after 'Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,' which was also released exclusively in Panasonic bundles. It's pretty evident watching the film that almost any studio could have turned this one into a winner, and Fox surely does hit a home run on just their second try with this new sub-format. The thing is, it should have been a grand slam.
The 'Avatar' 3D experience is unrivaled among all other Blu-ray 3D releases. It has an amazing, borderline mind numbing amount of 3D content, with very few scenes showing no added dimensionality to them. In this regard, it is easily the demo disc for the format. We get our first taste when the hibernation pod ejects, as we see the floating characters in a seemingly infinitely deep chamber being awakened from their nine year vacation in suspended animation. It's fitting this be our first "pop" moment, as we're seeing things for the first time, just as they are. The 3D is amazing here, so superbly sharp, with even the furthest, deepest pocket of the picture showing superb detail and distinction, without any blur, which has been the problem for more than a few discs on this format. The front layers are gorgeous, in a word, so rich and lifelike that from that moment on, it's hard to not be in love with the picture. Of course, there's about two and a half hours to go, but it's still a damn fine hook.
Colors, they're just as bold and strong (and perfect) as the original 2D release (I did not purchase the double-dip edition), and brightness levels are absolutely perfect. There's no banding, and better yet, perhaps some of the best textures put on a Blu-ray 3D disc. The distinction between fabrics and skin and metal and plants, and how very alive they are, they really do look photorealistic, like you could touch them. Black levels are accurate, whites are pristine, and those tiny color variations and distinctions all pop. 3D items and characters don't suffer from altered thickness, and all appear to be proper and realistic. As the film progresses, and you reach the floating mountains, get prepared for some amazingly awesome depth, as the film truly grows and grows. And it will set off your vertigo, even if the 2D version of the film didn't.
The disc isn't perfect, though, and I will fight to the bone against anyone who says it is. There's some minor ghosting, though it is very infrequent, occasionally in characters but mostly in background items, and on the robotic walker suits. Aliasing is also a slight issue, particularly on the thinner effects that are shown in 3D, giving off horrible jagged edges. Aliasing isn't so much a problem on moments that are solely two dimensional. The combination of these two minor errors, and their combined frequency, is enough to hope that the retail release of this film looks even better.
While there is a 2D version of the film on this disc, no one wanting to know about or buy this version of the film give a damn about it. As such, there will not be any comparisons between releases, as it's somewhat pointless. All it is is a nice back up for those times when you don't want to wear glasses, and that's about it.
How does it sound? You mean there's audio on this one, too? Sorry, sarcasm...anyways, it sounds about the same as the original 2D release does. There is no significant difference between the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. In fact, the only big change is the fact that the English Dolby Digital 2.0 and Descriptive tracks are not found on this release.
All that hootenanny about maximizing disc space on the original release sure did turn out to be a big load of bullshit, didn't it? I mean, the extended cut added footage and commentaries, and it still sounded all the same, and this release instead adds the 3D video onto the disc, taking up valuable space for optimizing presentation elements, and it still sounds the same as it ever did. While Mr. Zyber was a bit tough on the audio for 'Avatar' (and his opinions are not being minimized by saying this, as he makes some very valid points), I've been impressed, for the most part, with all of my experiences listening to this film.
Anyways, this release is very close to being demo material for the ears. The soundstage is constantly engaged from all angles, with pitch perfect pans, constant localization, and beautiful dynamics that are only limited to what we can humanly hear. Bass levels are powerful, but never freakishly disproportionate compared to the rest of the film. I still feel that the dialogue, while always clear, has some lines that come across very poorly, like they were recorded on the fly, with different pitch and volume, that just don't seem to mesh or fit with the rest of the film. The only real limitation this track has is its own source, and, as Josh pointed out, it doesn't quite compare with other demo tracks, that upper echelon of awesome that has always earned the highest of scores here. It's just missing the raw power that numerous other films pack in spades. Do not mistake my scoring, which is different from Josh's, as any sign that this release sounds better than the other 'Avatar' releases. It doesn't.
The subtitle and dub options on this release remain the same as the original edition: English (SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
There is no added content on this release, unlike the double-dip version that is loaded to the gills. There is also no DVD disc, which was the original release's sole bit of added value.
'Avatar' made worldwide records at the box office, and the 3D presentation of the film played a very large part in its total gross. As such, the first 3D version of the film available for home video is a very hot property, one which Fox and Panasonic have locked in as a retail exclusive for some time. As supplies on this disc become more available, through the loyalty program, and through all the Panasonic sets purchased in its run, the price will stabilize. If you're impatient and need it right now, 3D early adapters, you're still going to pay, even if it isn't as much as it was when the disc first hit.
I don't have many kind words to say about the film itself, and will not further alienate readers who are fanatical about their Smurfs (and 'Avatar' fanboys and fangirls are groups I really don't want to upset, since they're highly likely to send hate mail), but I did absolutely love the 3D presentation of the film, even if it isn't what I'd consider worthy of the highest score out there. It is a landmark achievement, to be sure. This Blu-ray 3D release is the must own release until the retail version comes out and hopefully uses the time between releases to perfect the image and create the perfect release. Fingers crossed.