AVATAR Blu-ray Review

     May 3, 2010

Avatar is the most successful film of all time. So it should be no surprise that people went crazy for it. Like really crazy, like becoming suicidal over Pandora not existing crazy. The story of how Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) went to Pandora as a crippled marine, and became a Na’vi (a twelve-foot tall blue catlike creature), then a leader and warrior got to the core of some people, possibly because of how director James Cameron approached his 3-D world. Unfortunately, the home viewing experience has yet to be able to replicate that, and they didn’t bother with a red-blue 3-D home version (supposedly 3-D TV will be on the marketplace by the end of the year), nor did they offer a special edition version. Essentially the current release is a stop-gap until the special extended edition hits theaters, and then a bells and whistles version is likely. My review of the Avatar Blu-ray comes after the jump.

What you do get here is a stunning 1080p Transfer with the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. The surround sound is excellent, and the picture quality is immaculate. More on this: seeing the film in the theater, I was not one of the film’s champions. The story is very familiar, and I guess I was expecting the film to have sex with me, or something along those lines by the amount of hyperbole the film was attracting. Ultimately, the narrative is a vessel. Knowing how plodding the structure is (and the film is no more or less than the quips about it being Dances with Blu Cats, etc., though my old friend Mike Clark made another good comparison to The Emerald Forrest), on second viewing, and removed from the 3-D, I was able to marvel at James Cameron’s world.

And that’s where the film triumphs over its familiar narrative. Yes, it’s a six-legged horse, and many of the creatures are variations on things familiar, but there is so much to marvel at when you’re not really watching the film for a story. And the film succeeds best as a travelogue for a planet that doesn’t exist. The effect of the motion capture, how they got eyes, and the design work is truly the game changer that was asserted on release. Removed from the 3-D, just watching the film, I was truly impressed with how much it all just works. In the theater, I was slightly bored because I was waiting for the film to hit all its familiar beats (and those beats are familiar as all get out), but at home I could just marvel at the design. And how Cameron uses space was more vertiginous at home than theatrically. I guess – for better or worse – I’m just not a fan of 3-D in cinema for anything more than films that understand it’s a gimmick (My Bloody Valentine is a perfect 3-D film).

The narrative is familiar: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a marine who fills in for his recently deceased brother, and goes to Pandora. It’s supposedly a vicious planet, or at least that’s what Colonel Miles Quatrich (Stephen Lang) tells us, and the air is toxic to humans. Jake works with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), and Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) at becoming a Na’vi, as they port into their Avatars, a DNA hybrid of themselves with the giant blue cats. Running their operation is Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) who is a mercenary when it comes to what they’re there for: unobtanium – a rare mineral that sells for millions of dollars. After a day where Jake is attacked by the residents of Pandora, he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and they fall in love after Jake becomes a part of their tribe, and she teaches him their ways. There’s a jealous boyfriend, and disapproving parent figures (Wes Studi and CCH Pounder), but Jake becomes accepted, then – of course – the military come in and destroy their tribe’s home tree, which leads to Jake rallying the Na’vi troops for a huge fight.

What I find most interesting about this narrative is that at the end of it (spoilers) Jake becomes a Na’vi. In other narratives like this, generally the main character may get to lead or whatever, but they can’t be totally assimilated into the culture because of their inherent otherness. Kevin Costner is still white. In that way Avatar is the ultimate fantasy fulfillment because in this world you can become the other you wanted to be. That’s kind of genius, but it also raises questions. I also think the film is slightly more critical of this world and this fantasy than was given credit for at the time. Cameron wrote Strange Days, where people who port into old memories come to realize that’s a dead end. Becoming an Avatar is like playing World of Warcraft in its way, and in the end that Jake gets his wish to be one of them is like the ultimate nerd fantasy, and he is told that he’s turned his back on his people, only to assert his Na’vi-ness. That the narrative is so route may suggest that Cameron is critical of this fantasy, though I don’t know how much it interested him. I know people who’ve read earlier drafts and they were more nuanced, and though we may see some of that in the extended cut, Cameron streamlined here. Obviously it worked.

What is interesting, and what makes the film is that Cameron built a world. And on Blu-ray there so much to appreciate about it. It really is next level when it comes to the layout and design, and the work done to create it does feel like something has been transcended – if studios are willing to spend the money to get it right. When you compare this to what Robert Zemeckis has been doing with his last three films, it makes his attempts at motion capture look like Nintendo 64 level graphics. The Blu-ray version is a film-only edition (there’s a THX bumper at the end), and also comes with a DVD copy. Walking out of the theater I never thought I’d see the film again, watching it on Blu-ray, I now sort of want to watch it for a third time. I get it now.

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