It may have taken writer/director James Cameron over a decade to finally get it into theaters, but Avatar brought the 'King of the Blockbusters' back in grand style smashing box office records and earning oodles and oodles of money. Cameron took it upon himself to tinker with technology, essentially waiting for 3-D and computer animation to get to the point where he was comfortable bringing his vision to life and the results are visually astounding.
When the film begins in the future of 2154, the RDA Corporation has set up a mining operation on a planet called Pandora where they're digging a valuable mineral called Unobtainium out of the ground and selling it for billions of dollars. The man in charge of RDA, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), knows that the natives that call the planet home, a race called the Na'vi, aren't going to take too kindly to having their planet pillaged and so he's hired a team of scientists lead by by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who are in charge of the company's Avatar program. This program allows human drivers to pilot bodies of genetically altered creatures that are a mix of Na'vi and human DNA. The hope is that these Avatars will be able to win over the natives and reduce the amount of problems that they cause.
Enter a former Marine named Corporal Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) whose brother's DNA was used to create one of the aforementioned Avatars. Unfortunately, Jake's brother passed away but since his DNA is close enough, RDA decides to bring Jake on board and train him as an Avatar pilot. Since Jake is paralyzed from the waist down, the opportunity to live vicariously through a brand new and remarkably powerful body is too appealing to resist, and this is something that RDA realizes very early on when he rushes into action before he's fully prepared. The captain of RDA's security team, Miles Quaritch (Stephan Lang), hopes that Jake will turn on the scientists who are a constant thorn in his side and use the information he can gather while in Avatar form to help his team out, and Quaritch's offer to ensure Jake gets the surgery he needs (and can't afford) to repair his damaged spine is certainly tempting, but when he falls in love with a Na'vi female named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) he starts to see things from their point of view and before you know it he's involved in fighting for their cause against an increasingly militant corporation bent on taking the planet for its own needs.
Cameron's film, from a storytelling perspective, is completely unremarkable. There's very little here of any originality and quite honestly, Avatar goes on for a fair bit longer than it needs to. By filling the film with characters who are clichés used over and over again in other action and sci-fi films and by rehashing plot devices that have been used time and again, he's made it very easy to see where the story is heading. You know as soon as Jake starts to run as his Avatar that he's going to wind up going against the evil mega-corporation that's hired him and you know as soon as he meets Nevitiri that they're going to fall for one another and once that happens, you know he's going to side with her and fight for the Na'vi cause. The film basically telegraphs it all to us from during the first half hour, so what happens during the next two hours and fifteen minutes isn't in the least bit surprising. The characters speak in dialogue that seems so familiar that you can almost predict what they're going to say before they say it. Had these very obvious problems with the film been corrected, Avatar would have been considerably more interesting, but as it stands Cameron has evidently tried to hide the story line issues by simply piling on more and more digital effects.
To an extent, his tactic works. Once you get past the fact that so much of the film is computer generated and accept it as basically a really fancy cartoon, the movie is entertaining enough. There's plenty of action, all of it incredibly well choreographed and very impressive from a visual level. The film has enough eye candy in it to distract you from the problems with the storytelling and character development. It doesn't quite succeed in getting us wrapped up in the emotional aspects that it heavy-handedly thrusts at us or in its 'nature good, corporations evil' themes and political allegories, but it's nothing short of amazing in the visuals department. The attention to detail paid not only to the way that the Na'vi look, act and move is surpassed only by what has been afforded the backgrounds. The alien world that Avatar takes place in looks very real indeed, as do the creatures and plants that populate it. Everything from jellyfish-like plant spores that float through the air to beautiful clouds that serve quite literally as islands has been created with perfect detail and is more realistic and believable from a visual standpoint than anything that Hollywood has ever produced. It's this world, this setting that you'll find most interesting about the film - not the characters or the plot.
Fox presents Avatar in a gorgeous 1.78.1 AVC encoded 1080p high definition anamorphic widescreen transfer that is very impressive indeed. Color reproduction is the first thing you'll notice once the movie takes us to Pandora and the Avatars enter the wilds of that planet. The colors are stunning, they pop with wonderful clarity and never look oversaturated or boosted but natural and luminous. Skin tones on the human characters are dead on while black levels are consistently deep. It should come as no surprise to learn that there are no issues with dirt, debris or print damage of any sort and this clean and smooth image is consistently well rendered meaning that you won't notice any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement either. The CGI creations mix almost completely flawlessly with the live action elements of the film and the detail in both the real and the rendered is astounding. You'll notice ever pore on the face of every human but you'll also notice beads of sweat and skin detail on the Avatars and on the Na'vi creatures as well making for a very impressive mix of styles and characters. While some will lament the fact that no 3-D viewing option was included on this release, there's no denying that Avatar is nevertheless one of, if not the, finest looking Blu-ray transfers on the market to date.
The mix you're going to want to listen to on this release is the English language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, though alternate audio tracks are offered in English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0, Spanish language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, French language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Portuguese language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound with subtitles provided in English SDH, Spanish and Portuguese.
The power and detail afford this track is every part as impressive as that afforded the transfer and Avatar sounds amazing. The rear channels are used almost constantly, not only in the aggressive battle scenes but also in the film's quieter moments. So you'll not only want to duck when machine gun bursts fly out of the speakers at you, but you'll almost feel it when creatures fly across the screens as the directionality behind the sound design is just completely dead on. The sound effects are immersive and punchy, but thankfully they don't overpower the performers and everything comes across as perfectly balanced to ensure that we can not only thrill to the action scenes but also appreciate the more subtle aspects that help to build atmosphere and mood. As involving as a surround sound mix can be, Avatar's DTS-HD 5.1 track is truly a thing of beauty.
Aside from a menu screen and chapter selection, this release is completely barebones. You know the special edition is coming later, but this isn't it. This release does come with a standard definition DVD version of the film, however, it's also barebones.
Say what you will about the plotting and the story - there are problems with this aspect of the film and because of this it feels overly long and a little overdone - but Avatar is a remarkable technical achievement. Fox's Blu-ray release has no extra features so some may want to wait until the special edition hits before putting down some money for this release, but the transfer and sound mix that have been conjured up for the film's high definition debut are both pretty much flawless. As was expected, this is one of the best looking and sounding discs out there right now and it's hard not to get taken in by the combination of sound and vision that if offers. As escapism, the picture works quite well. Recommended (with the caveat that you'll probably be double dipping sooner rather than later).
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.