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. Fox originally released the movie as a single disc barebones affair earlier this year, but have no given the film's substantial fanbase what they want with this new three-disc Blu-ray set. Let's talk about the movie first...
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.
As has been highly advertised and, for some, highly anticipated, this new release contains not only the original theatrical cut of the film but also The Collector's Extended Cut which contains an additional sixteen minutes of footage and the Special Edition Re-Release (which was released to select theaters for a limited time earlier this year) which contains an additional eight minutes of footage. All three versions are included on the first disc in the set, spliced together through some very well programmed seamless branching. The lengthier versions of the film do flesh things out a bit more and expand on some of the characters rather well but don't ultimately change what works and what doesn't work about the film all that much. The 'Earth Opening' is probably the most interesting scene put back into the picture, as it shows us a possible future Earth where the whole planet is a seething cyber-metropolis, but the film also adds to the love scene (though not all that much, don't get too excited) and adds an impressive Na'vi hunting scene that is visually amazing even if it doesn't serve much purpose. Colonel Quaritch and Dr. Grace Augstine both wind up getting some more screen time as well, and in this lengthier cut their characters are successfully made more interesting.
The extra scenes from the Special Edition Re-Release are as follows:
Herd / The Schoolhouse / Purple Moss / I Don't Even Know Your Name / What Does Hold Them Up? / Extended Montage / Neytiri's Flyby / Sturmbeest Hunt / Extended Love Scene / Drums Of War / Tsu'tey's Fall / Sturmbeest Attack / Extended Thanator Fight / The Last Shadow
The extra scenes from the Collector's Extended Cut are as follows:
Earth / Herd / The Schoolhouse / Purple Moss / I Don't Even Know Your Name / Sylwanin / What Does Hold Them Up? / Alternate Montage With Grace's Story / Neytiri's Flyby / Sturmbeest Hunt / Extended Love Scene / Drums Of War / They Bulldozed A Sacred Site / Tsu'tey's Fall / Sturmbeest Attack / Extended Thanator Fight / The Last Shadow
Those who were understandably taken with the film will appreciate the longer version here. It further pulls us into the world that Cameron and company have created for the film and shows off even more of the amazing set and character design that many found so enthralling. But will it convince those who weren't initially wowed by the picture? No, probably not. The film remains derivative and a fair bit of style over substance.The Blu-ray:
Fox presents all three versions of Avatar on the same disc in a gorgeous 1.78.1 AVC encoded 1080p high definition anamorphic widescreen transfer that is very impressive indeed and which looks very much the same as the single disc release did. 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, as with the single disc release, 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. You might have expected the film to look just slightly less impressive than it did on the single disc release due to the fact that the disc has a fair bit more information on it, but there really isn't any discernable difference to this reviewer's eyes and the picture quality here remains reference grade.Sound:
Again, as it was with the video, so too is it with the audio - it doesn't sound any different than the single disc releases. That's not a bad thing, mind you, as that disc sounded amazing and so does this one. Once again, 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, Portuguese, Cantonese and Mandarin.
The power and detail afford this lossless 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.
Where this release differs from the single disc release in the audio department is with the inclusion of an Optional Family Audio Track which is provided for the theatrical and special edition re-release versions of the film, though not the Collector's Extended Cut. Basically what this does is omit all of the objectionable language from the film. There wasn't a whole lot of cursing in the movie to begin with but should you want to watch the film with young kids and want to censor it for them, you've now got an easy way to do just that (though none of the violence is removed, go figure).Extras:
Obviously, since this is a three-disc set, here is where this re-release is going to really differ from the first single disc release. Let's cruise through the set, one disc at a time, and see what there is to see...
DISC ONE: AVATAR
As mentioned, the first disc in the set contains the three different cuts of the film and the Family Friendly Audio Track, but not really much else. That said, if you want to watch the added scenes from the lengthier cuts on their own, this disc does give you the option to do just that and all of the additional material is presented in the same HD quality solo as it is when it's incorporated into the film itself. The Special Edition Re-Release of the film offers fourteen additional scenes, and the Collector's Extended Cut offers seventeen additional scenes. You can watch any one scene individually through the menu or select a 'play all' option. The added scenes are presented in between existing bits so that they at least have some context when you play them. Aside from that, the obvious menus and chapter spots are also included.
If your player is Blu-ray Live enabled, the first disc also includes a menu link that will pull up some additional online content including a Screen Test - Sam Worthington & Zoe Saldana (Raw Footage) clip, a Screen Test - Stephen Lang (Raw Footage) clip, a Screen Test - Giovanni Ribisi (Raw Footage) clip, a Screen Test - Joel David Moore (Raw Footage) clip, a Screen Test - CCH Pounder (Raw Footage) clip, a Screen Test - Laz Alonso (Raw Footage) clip, a Speaking Na'vi (Rehearsal/Raw Footage clip, a WETA Workshop: Walk & Talk Presentation (Raw Footage) clip, a Crew Short: The Night Before Avatar animated short film and the film's Original Theatrical Trailer. There's a lot of content here and if you're an Avatar junkie you'll probably find most of it quite interesting. This content is also accessible off of the Blu-ray Live link on disc two and disc three as well.
DISC TWO: FILMMAKER'S JOURNEY
First up, as far as the second disc goes, is the Deleted Scenes section which includes sixty-eight minutes of never before seen footage, some of which isn't quite finished and some of which is. There are twenty-eight clips here, presented in the following order:
Stingbat Attack / Pandora Rules / Jake Meets Norm / Jake Sees Decanted Avatars / Norm Is A Living God / Breakfast With The Scientists / You're In My World Now / Grandma's Teylu / Pied Piper / Going To The Mountains / Interspecies Booty Call / Norm's Attitude Improves / Learning Montage Section (Early Cut) / We're Buying Time / Hunt Festival / Driving Range / The Dreamhunt / The Challenge / The Drums Of War (Full Version) / Escape / The Eye Of Eywa / You're A Long Way From Earth / Battle Camp / Kick Some Blue Ass / Wainfleet Kill's Norm / Neytiri Kills Wainfleet (Alternate Wainfleet Death) / The Avatars Attack / New Life
While, like the material put into the film, none of this is really going to change your opinion of the movie, some of it is fun. Some of the action sequences are interesting and a scene in which a certain character goes on a drug trip is also worth seeing and the Interspecies Booty Call clip is amusing. Each clip is presented with a bit of the feature before and after it, providing some context as to where Cameron would have had it included in the movie if he had chose to go that route. Unlike the feature, however, this material is presented in 2.35.1, not 1.78.1. A three and a half minute introduction/user's guide sets up some of this material and explains the various stages of completion that it's in.
Up next is the massive ninety-nine minute documentary, Capturing Avatar, which you can view as one of three smaller sections or as one longer, more cohesive piece depending on your preference. This piece, which is quite interesting, traces Cameron's project over a few years from its conceptual and design stages through to its shooting process and then on to its massive post production process. We learn about the writing process, the casting, the editing, the challenges that the cast and crew faced while working with the advanced technology employed on the film and much more. This is pretty intense stuff and it's very comprehensive. There's a lot of focus given to the technological side of the production, which isn't surprising, but we're also given a chance to see Cameron working with his actors, setting up various shots and bringing his very specific vision to life.
A Message From Pandora is a twenty-minute documentary that focuses on Cameron's environmental message and his activism work in that area as we learn how he got involved with a project in South America to help prevent a dam being built on tribal land in a rain forest. It's an interesting segment that relates well to the film's environmental themes, but it's not likely something you'll want to watch more than once.
Rounding out the extras on the second disc is the Production Materials section which includes a load of shorter, more concise supplements:
a three minute 2006 Art Reel, a two minute Brother Termite Test, a one minute ILM Prototype clip (available with or without motion capture reference), a seven minute Sam Worthington Screen Test, a four minute Zoe Saldana Screen Test, a two minute Zoe Saldana Life Cast clip, a six minute clip of a James Cameron Speech made on the first day of filming, a two minute ILM VFX Progression clip, a three minute Framestore VFX Progression clip, a two minute Hy-Draul-X VFX Progression, a three minute Prime Focus VFX Progression clips, a one minute Look Effects Inc. VFX Progression clip and a half hour crew short film entitled The Volume that was obviously made just to have some fun.
DISC THREE: PANDORA'S BOX
The third disc in the set kicks off with a really interesting section called Scene Deconstruction in which, through the magic of your Blu-ray remote control, you can check out three different phases of seventeen different scenes. Here you'll get to see the difference between the motion capture scenes, the template scenes and the final, finished scenes using picture-in-picture technology. This featurette works really well and it's quite interesting to see just how much detail and work was put into the backgrounds and finished versions of these scenes when you compare them to their skeletal motion capture origins.
From there, delve into the massive array of Production Featurettes starting with the four minute Sculpting Avatar and moving along through the ten minute Creating The Banshee, the three minute Creating The Thanator, the five minute The Amp Suit, The five minute Flying Vehicles, the four minute Na'vi Costumes, the six minute Pandora Flora, the five minute Stunts, the six minute Performance Capture, the three minute Virtual Camera, the four minute 3-D Fusion Camera, the two minute Simul-Cam, the seven minute Editing Avatar, the six minute Scoring Avatar, the nine minute Sound Design, and finally the five minute The Haka: The Spirit Of New Zealand featurette. While a fair bit of this material showed up in the Capturing Avatar documentary on the second disc, enough of it is new that you'll want to check it out. Again, the emphasis here is on the technology behind the film and the cameras and computer technology used to put it all together, but it's also quite interesting to see how the sound design elements were worked in and how much care and work was put into the vehicles and costumes seen in the movie.
Disc three also includes the Avatar Archives section. In here you'll find the film's original theatrical trailer, the teaser trailer, a collection of Avatar Songs and three text based extras - The Original Script, James Cameron's Original Screenplay, and the Pandorapedia (basically an encyclopedia of all things Pandora related and an interesting reference).
Closing out the third disc is a still gallery called The Art Of Avatar. In here you'll find hundreds of images from the following categories:
The World Of Pandora / The Creatures / Pandora Flora / Pandora Bioluminesence / The Na'vi / The Avatars / Maquettes / Na'vi Weapons / Na'vi Props / Na'vi Musical Instruments / RDA Designs / Flying Vehicles / AMP Suit / Human Vehicles / Land Vehicles
Special note should also be made about the packaging. All three discs fit inside a hardcover book that holds them in place quite well. Each disc slides out of the book by way of what can only be described as a sort of cardboard tray. This makes it easy to get the discs out without scratching them. The book, in turn, fits inside a nice, sturdy slipcase, and the o-ring/cover fits over top of that. It's a classy looking package that not only looks good but takes good care of the discs as well.
Even if you don't think that the film is the be all, end all of science fiction, action and adventure, it's still quite a remarkable achievement and entertaining enough that it's worth checking out. Stunning to watch and filled with amazing sound design, Avatar is quite remarkable on Blu-ray and this three disc set not only offers up three different versions of the film in perfect quality but loads of interesting and informative extra features too. Overall, this package is a tough one to beat and deserving of the DVD Talk Collector's Series stamp of approval. There's hours of content here, enough to please event the most die hard fan of the film, and even if you weren't floored by the movie itself, the story behind it is one worth investigating.