Despite all fan concerns that this new, longer Avatar cut would not stand up as well on Blu-ray as its predecessor, the reality is that they are indiscernible. The first release basically set the benchmark for the best video presentation possible for a Blu-ray release, and still probably retains that standard, but – according to Cameron himself – the attempt to provide such quality had one big side-effect: it meant that the disc could store nothing but the film itself. Now if we are to believe him, then there surely isn’t any room to accommodate a further 16 minutes of re-mastered Deleted Footage (each minute apparently cost a million Dollars to render and integrate), as is present on the Extended Cut. So what we have here is not technically exactly the same presentation as on the previous disc, it is a marginally lower bit-rate, now making room for the extra footage. But in reality, however, you can’t tell the difference between them – this looks just as good as the previous release, and is also top demo material.
Of course the aspect ratio is still a bone of contention. On my review of the original release, I noted how Cameron had changed his aspect ratio from the broad 2.35:1 framing of the 2D cinematic release to as ‘fatter’ 1.78:1 presentation. Personally I still think that that he should have stuck with the original formatting – there’s a lot of wasted footage here at the top and bottom of the frame, which the Director never intended for you to actually see – but, alas, we are always at the mercy of the Director’s whims.
The video presentation itself is basically the definition of flawless. There is literally nothing to be critical about with this rendition, it is so good that you get lost in it (visually) as much as any 2D title has ever enabled you to do on image quality alone. It is breathtaking, with increasingly wondrous and imaginative spectacles to behold, and you can definitely tell that they spent something like 47 hours working on each individual frame (24 of which you get per second of viewing time). Detail is amazing throughout – and totally consistent, with not even a hint of softness, and no noticeable digital artefacts whatsoever. Even on the effects zoom sequence – those great moments, reminiscent of the excellent aerial work done in the recent Battlestar Galactica series, where effects scenes showcase a forced zoom on a key component, i.e. a plane or an attacking creature – the detail stands up at every level, looking like you’re zooming in on real-life images, not CG creations (which was obviously the intention behind the technique, to trick the viewer into feeling more like the viewed images are real). The colour scheme is broader than you could possibly imagine in any other live-action movie, the breathtaking landscapes come to life in their array of deep lush greens and vivid, animated wildlife. Blues and fluorescents dominate, and there’s no sign of crush at all. It is simply perfect.
To accompany this collector’s edition release, we get the same superior DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that you found on the original theatrical cut, and it does just as good a job of almost keeping up with the landmark visuals and their immaculate presentation. It’s an immersive offering that presents the material in a nicely nuanced and well-observed way. Sure, even from the menu sequences, you know this is going to be quite a bass-dominant, all-encompassing mix that brings out the best in the movie, but that is not to say that they don’t pay attention to the more subtle aspects of the track, presenting the dialogue and lighter atmospheric effects well across the array, and never allowing them to get drowned out amidst the heavier noises.
Amidst my personal favourite touches are the satisfying low-level hum that the AMP armoured suits make when powered up and stomping around, and the chattering underbrush as Jake and Neytiri explore the Pandoran forests, which will have you sometimes looking over your shoulder to wonder who’s scratching at the window behind you. The surrounds get a full workout and are in constant use, providing a great atmosphere which immerses you in this other-world environment. They also offer up some keen directionality, where appropriate: the gunships making their natural transition across your living room. The bass is, not surprisingly, pervasively active too, adding to the power of the experience, and really coming into its own during the more explosive battle segments. This track still does not quite meet the sheer perfection standard set by the video, but it is a superior, demo-quality offering nonetheless.
Well even if the extended cut wasn’t enough reason to double-dip, Cameron has gone out of his way to present his film here with the best possible selection of extras – not one but two packed extras discs within the package. Any complaints? Well, they could have provided an Audio Commentary (was there any disc space left?) and they could have provided a Maximum Movie Mode PiP option, but it would have taken some re-working and they’d have probably had to include yet another copy of the film on the second disc, this time complete with forced PiP playing across, and optional Audio Commentary. That’s a bit much to ask for, and really, between the main Documentary, and the plethora of Deleted Scenes, there’s nothing else you really need with this extensive package.
Disc 1: Avatar
Direct Access to Deleted/Extended Scenes
On the first disc we still get only the movie (albeit presented in its 3 different flavours) but there is also the nifty option to watch just the extra scenes, presented with a few seconds of final film footage to bookend them and give them some context. If they’d just added the option of an Added Footage Marker to tag the scenes whilst you’re watching the movie then that would have been the cherry on the cake, but I guess that’s expecting too much, and having them accessible separately here is already a great option.
Disc 2: Filmmaker’s Journey
First up there is a 3 minute introductory guide which shows us how the scenes would have looked had they been completed (with before and after footage to show the differences), explaining how the vehicles would look, how the breathing masks were added in post, and how all of the graphics and effects were left out, as well as showing us a few levels of motion capture/templates that were done. The Deleted Footage itself runs at a whopping 68 minutes in total, and is broken down into 28 individual additions, although some of the scenes contain footage repeated from the main movie, again in order to give the scenes context. Sitting through them all almost seems like watching a movie in itself, and it’s a shame because it takes a while before we get anything really interesting.
To begin with it’s just a few extra lines during the Army brief at the start, a little more of Norm – both in and out of his Avatar – and Jake interacting with the people back on base. Sigourney Weaver gets a few more lines, and we do get some more Na’vi sequences, complete with subtitles, but these are generally fairly poor animatics, sometimes with inset shots of the corresponding actor’s motion capture footage. Norm learns a little about piloting a helicopter during quite a nice – if incomplete – scene where they travel deeper into the forest, and also in subsequent moment which further develops a removed story arc about Norm getting together with Michelle Rodriguez’s pilot. There’s also a removed subplot where she is revealed to be feeding information back to the Colonel as well. A whole motion-capture-depicted dance scene looks hilarious, just because you get to see all the cast lit up like Christmas trees and behaving like fools (I’m sure there’s more of this in the Documentaries) but it goes on far too long for even comedy value to sustain.
Honestly, it’s tough to see why you would really treasure going through all of this footage – do we really need to see Sam Worthington shave? – but, then again, second half is a little more interesting. Jake’s whole ‘dreamhunt’ subplot might have worked well had it been completed, offering – dare I say it – a bit more depth to the characters; and the further development of the corporate chief storyline shown across a couple of scenes here could have given it that a little more substance too. Wouldn’t it have been nice to know that the corporation boss was under pressure too, rather than just a caricatured archetypal ‘suit’. There’s also some bits of dialogue which get across the whole US allegory in an even more blunt fashion.
Finally the additional bit at the end is a little over-the-top, with all of the Avatars back on the base getting activated and taking over the base itself! All in all I know fans will want to trawl through it all, but you’d be better off skipping and watching the second half, and – even then – be prepared for the fact that there’s nothing amazing here, just a few watchable extra moments. Clearly all of the halfway decent stuff was put back in to the movie proper, and even that would probably have been best left excluded.
Capturing Avatar is a mammoth four-part Documentary which runs – in total – at a whopping 100 minutes in length. It takes you on a James Cameron-led voyage through the entire production, from inception through to the completion of the work in post. In the first section they talk about breaking new ground in technological terms in many of Cameron’s movies, and explain that Avatar was the most complicated project that he had ever undertaken. Cameron says the film’s basis is in his childhood ideas, the fact that they had to wait for technology to be at a level where the film was capable of being shot, and explains the massive undertaking that it was, looking at the concept art, the script variations, the effects progressions and the motion capture work. It’s particularly interesting to see how they used colours and motifs in nature to create the alien life, and of course a great deal of time is spent looking at the Na’vi themselves. There’s input from many of the production crew, including Stan Winston himself.
The second part looks at the script, the Na’vi language, the characters and the cast that bring them to life, with corresponding interviews from all the lead performers. The third part takes a closer look at the work done to bring the concept art to life, the effects, the real creations and the model-work, focussing on the two polar worlds – the military stuff and the tribal elements. Finally we get a last part devoted to cutting, editing, scoring and post-production work, with contributions from the Editors and production crew talking about what was left out, the work they did polishing up the scenes for the extended cut, and the ideas they had to drop to make it a reasonable length for promotion.
A Message from Pandora is a 20 minute Featurette again helmed by Cameron, who talks about the environmental messages in his movie, discussing – at length – his interest in the environment, the talks he has given about the rainforest and about environmental damage, and the work he has done to help. It is actually quite interesting to hear Cameron speak so passionately about this subject, and how he championed the use of alternate energy resources in Brazil, and there isn’t too much talk of the significance of Avatar, which lends the extra feature more credibility.
This section of the second disc is quite expansive, split into numerous Effects Tests, some Screen Tests and various VFX Progressions. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana’s screen tests are the most interesting, but there are plenty of other glimpses on offer here than fans will be keen on checking out, including the interesting live-action Brother Termite animation which tested out the motion-capture technology. The section is split into: 2006 Art Reel, Brother Termite Test, The ILM Prototype, Screen Tests, Zoe’s Life Cast, James Cameron Speech, VFX Progressions (ILM, Framestore, Hy-Drau’lx, Hybride, Prime Focus and Look Effects) and a Crew Film; with a useful Play All function.
Disc 3: Pandora’s Box
First up we get an hour’s worth of visual effects deconstruction, split into 17 different scenes which you can select from. This is a clever addition, allowing you to further see the levels of effects added to key sequences: from the motion capture stage, to the animatic template done, and then the final image with the two combined and further processed. Showcasing these three levels (which can be switched through using the remote) it is easy, and intriguing to see just how much work went into the movie’s effects construction.
This is a rather odd addition, as it should really accompany the 4-part Capturing Avatar Documentary to be found on the second disc. Basically here we have the 16 full-length Featurettes which were edited together to comprise the bulk of the main Documentary. Some of these Featurettes are worth dipping into, but most will prefer to just watch the Documentary, and will be disappointed that this doesn’t offer anything massively new. The title listings are as follows: Sculpting Avatar, Creating the Banshee, Creating the Thanator, The AMP Suit, Flying Vehicles, Na’vi Costumes, Speaking Na’vi, Pandora Flora, Stunts, Performance Capture, The 3D Fusion Camera, The Simul-Cam, Editing Avatar, Scoring Avatar, Sound Design, and The Haka: The Spirit of New Zealand. All of the individual Featurettes run at between about 5 and 10 minutes in length, the longer ones going into enough detail to make them worth checking out.
Avatar: The Original Scriptment is a text copy of the script treatment that James Cameron did which is referred to in the main Documentary.
Avatar: Screenplay by James Cameron gives you the text for his screenplay. Again, you’d have to be a die-hard fan to read through all of this, but it is referred to in the main Documentary, and is worth dipping in and out of for comparison value.
Pandorapedia is a comprehensive interactive encyclopaedic guide to the fictional world of Pandora, complete with creature listings, Na’vi translations and basically everything you could possibly want to know about Cameron’s sci-fi world. The presentation is at times a little limited, mainly text-based, but considering that it’s some 450 pages long, props for the all-encompassing nature of this extra.
Avatar: The Songs offers us all of the lyrics to the Na’vi songs, translated into English.
Trailers: We get the Theatrical and Teaser Trailers to round off the Archive section.
The Art of Avatar: Last but not least we get a selection of over six hundred images relating to the world of Pandora, split into the following categories – Pandora: the World, the Creatures, the Flora, and The Bioluminescence; The Na’vi: their Weapons, Props, and Musical Instruments; The Avatars; Maquettes; RDA Designs; Flying Vehicles; AMP Suit; Human Weapons; and Land Vehicles.
BD-Live:It should also be noted that there is an ever-increasing wealth of material to download using BD-Live, including Screen Tests and Na’vi language tutorials, but there’s nothing particularly worthy of your time.
James Cameron’s Avatar is a marvellous, visionary effort, literally picking you up and dropping you off on a whole new planet. The story is hackneyed, the dialogue clichéd, and the characters encompass just about every stereotype in the book (the cast trying their best with paper-thin roles that are occasionally, and pretty ironically, quite one-dimensional), but the visuals – particularly in 3D – go a long way to keeping you enthralled and entertained nonetheless. However, the cheap shot at the US’s warmongering tactics is thinly veiled, and ultimately this is a production that will never stand up alongside the likes of Cameron’s Aliens or Terminator 2, except in one respect: effects. The sci-fi blockbuster Director has once again pushed the boundaries with his use of technology, and the 3D ‘novelty’ of Avatar (literally) adds a whole new dimension to the movie, and – frankly – makes it infinitely more watchable.
Unfortunately we’re now on its second Blu-ray release of the year and it still has not been presented in 3D, the way it was meant to be seen. A 3D Blu-ray version is already being prepped to ship with certain 3D home cinema equipment, but all the majority of us have access to in the meantime is a Collector’s Edition boasting the same stellar video and audio presentation as May’s release – true demo-quality, so no complaints here – as well as two brand new cuts to play with, and two whole Blu-ray discs of extra features. On the negative side, the cuts add little to the overall production, and fans will enjoy watching them once for curiosity value, but will probably stick with the original Theatrical Cut in the long run. On the positive side, the extra features cover just about all the bases that fans would like covered, presenting a wealth of Behind the Scenes and Interview Footage, as well as VFX Featurettes, Galleries and yet even more Deleted Footage. The sensible – and patient – ones out there would have waited for this release, which makes the original May release totally defunct. And the really clever forward-planners will just wait until they are fully 3D equipped and watch Avatar the only way that it should be seen – in 3D.
But in the meantime, if you haven’t got Avatar already, and are a few years away from full 3D conversion, you could do worse than picking up this near-definitive release and gorging on the extra material. Whether or not you like it is another thing, but at least you will have the option to look at it all. Those who already bought Avatar back in May have a tough decision ahead of them – do you really want to have access to two alternative cuts to the movie if they aren’t actually all that good, and are certainly no better than the Theatrical Version? If the answer is no, then you have to look at whether or not you can survive without the extra features. All in all, it’s a great package, but you have to question how many copies of a movie like Avatar you want in your collection. It may be great demo material, but a timeless classic it will never be, and it will not even stand up like The Matrix to repeat viewings. I still think the only way to really rate this movie is by seeing it in 3D – Avatar will go down in film history only because of its success pioneering the format – but if you can’t wait, then this is now the new definitive edition to own.
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