We've reviewed 'Avatar' before. And then again...and again. When the original 2D Blu-ray came out in April of 2010, the demo disc was an obvious stopgap, a barebones combo pack with the theatrical cut of the film showing how truly beautiful a movie can be at home. Later that year, the Extended Collector's Edition came out, with sixteen additional minutes added to the already lengthy film, and for the first time, supplements were added, and they were as extensive as any fan could have dreamed for, but something was missing. That something was the theatrical version of the film on Blu-ray 3D, as a triple dip of the film would come by way of a Panasonic exclusive disc that would keep the 3D edition of the film off store shelves for almost two years, and would supply bootleggers with all the ammunition they'd need for years worth of counterfeiting.
After three releases in twelve months, 2011 was a quiet year for James Cameron's box office dominating film. Pandora, the Na'vi, they all but disappeared. Store shelves have been emptied and not restocked of the theatrical version of the film, with the DVD and Blu-ray editions of that version of the film going out of print. The Extended Cut would see its value dwindle, as newer films like 'The Avengers' would catch the public's eye away. So, it's hard not to question 20th Century Fox and James Cameron's decision to delay the first wide-release of 'Avatar' on Blu-ray 3D so as to further line their coffers from exclusivity payola, while skeptical fans shrug off the newest release for a number of reasons, the least of which is the obviousness of a quintuple dip of the film when the lengthier cut of the film is offered on Blu-ray 3D.
This edition of 'Avatar' will sell, and sell quite well. That said, it's a day late and a dollar short. Fans who bought Panasonic equipment to get the disc, or coughed up the money scalpers were demanding for the exclusive edition on sites like eBay have had the Blu-ray 3D release for some time now, and they have no reason to purchase the film yet again, as this retail edition offers nothing that wasn't already on the exclusive version; in fact, since this new release is the same damn disc that was offered by Panasonic, they've had it for some time now. There are no deleted scenes, or lengthy documentaries. There are no 3D supplements. In fact, the only thing different about this wide release compared to the previous 3D edition is the inclusion of a DVD copy of the film.
Portions of this review have appeared in our previous coverage of 'Avatar.'
Portions of this review have appeared in our previous coverage of 'Avatar.'
Joshua Zyber nailed 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's 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 single-handedly 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
'Avatar' comes to Blu-ray 3D for the first...er...second time on a Region A/B/C (though marked Region A) BD50 disc that contains both the 2D and 3D versions of the film. This "Limited 3D Edition" of the theatrical version of the film is identical to the version released by Panasonic. There is no supplement tab on the menu, and after pressing play, users are prompted to pick which dimensionality they wish to watch the film in. The packaging for this release is a cut-out eco-case with discs on opposite sides of the case, under a lenticular piece of paper that replicates the cover art. Irony points for the way this tree-hugger film killed another forest or two for packaging most throw away?
Last time we checked in on 'Avatar' in 3D, I commented that it was "quite the accomplishment, an amazingly immersive experience that transcends its cinematic origin." I also refused to give it the highest possible score. After all the Blu-ray 3D releases we've seen in the time since that review, I'm going to stand by both my statement of praise and my four and a half star score. This 3D encode is identical in every way to the one we reviewed previously, and the visuals impress today in the same way they did in early 2011.
The 3D experience offered on this disc is still a fantastic, immersive one. It features 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. Textures remain some of the most brilliantly vivid and beautiful committed to disc, and color boldness earns the same distinction. The amount of detail in the fore and background is astounding, and the way it surrounds you as layers stack towards and away from the viewer make for something truly magical on this release. Heck, the amount of character on Stephen Lang's skin, and the way the camera pronounces the scars on his face and the hair around them is reason enough to buy this disc. Magic, unadulterated brute magic.
The 3D effects are amazing, proving that the work put into the creation of Cameron's camera system was worth its weight in gold. There's nothing out of place, nothing floating awkwardly, and a constant depth that doesn't make viewers lift their glasses to verify if there's anything popping at all. Only a tiny handful of effects that move towards the camera have that awkward "too close!" feeling where you lose detail. The effects that prove to be ghosting pratfalls in most other films are astoundingly crisp here, as fire (especially in the distance) comes through without any failed effect. Effects that move through layers, or motion from cameras that do the same are all flawless, adding to the realism of the "not quite real" environment of Pandora. The 3D sells the effects, making a computer-made planet as believable as anything on this Earth.
Now, there's a reason why this disc didn't earn a perfect score back then, or now, and it has to do with this little thing called aliasing. It's hard to ignore how sharp diagonal lines, like the shot of the ship approaching Pandora, or the glowing roots of the soul tree, regularly invade the picture with a less than smooth appearance, stuttering when the rest of the picture is as smooth as silk. Sure, the Na'vi subtitles bring a ghosted appearance to them, and a few rarer moments in the film bring shades of the characters or background to their immediate lefts and/or rights, but for the most part the issue is contained. Still, I can't help but slap my head every time the "Welcome to Pandora" sign in the briefing area is shown, as it's as illegible as anything I've seen on film, the bright neon blue overlapping on its letters, causing the need to squint profusely to try to read it, distracting from the scene.
If you want to show off your 3DTV, 'Avatar' is one of the best discs to do it with. Heck, it's the disc newcomers to the format want most for a reason, as the film is synonymous with the effect. Fox's Blu-ray 3D release of the film holds up quite well compared to the discs we've seen in the time between its bows, and should continue to do so as the format spreads its wings.
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.
This release includes a DVD copy of the film, and nothing else.
We've all argued until we were as blue in the face as the Na'vi are about this film. Some love it, some don't. Personally, I don't, but I will admit it is a technological marvel that was a few years ahead of its time, even if it's a shameless rip off of numerous other flicks...in space! This release finally brings the 3D version of the film to stores nationwide, after almost two years spent in exclusivity limbo, and does so quite literally, dropping the same disc some people spent a few hundred bucks on. At this point, the biggest question on my mind isn't so much how far audiences have moved on past this film as when the Extended Cut of the film will be released in a "Super Limited Extended 3D Edition." My money's on Q4 2013 to Q1 2014.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.