Massively popular and seen by millions, Avatar was James ‘Aliens’ Cameron’s eagerly awaited return to the Big Screen after over a decade. Having already set new standards in terms of special effects with the tremendous Terminator 2, he did much the same with the much lesser film, Titanic. And with Avatar, which he had been preparing for almost 15 years, he sought to push the boundaries once again, almost single-handedly bringing 3D into the mainstream, and paving the way for what seems increasingly likely to be the next level of film entertainment.
Having seen the movie in the cinema, my first review of Avatar, back for its May Blu-ray release, looked at the advantages of seeing the film in 3D, and on the Big Screen, and how well the record-breaking beast stood up on the home cinema format in simple 2D. If you want to read more into those comparisons, then I strongly recommend you check out that review, but in brief summary I concluded that the movie made for one hell of a High Definition title – arguably the best looking title that has ever been released on the format – with demo-quality video and audio. Still, the distinct lack of extras, and the 2D limitations, together with numerous press releases from Cameron himself, led me to believe that this was double, probably triple-dip territory, and that not only were we likely to get an eventual 3D release, but also a 2D special edition, and then, possibly a 3D special edition some way further down the line to tie in with the inevitable sequels.
Here we look at the first of those double-dip releases. Still not a 3D-capable edition, it nevertheless boasts not only the original theatrical 162-minute cut, but also the IMAX reissue 171-minute special edition and the all-new 178-minute collector’s extended cut. But is it actually worth your money, particularly if you’ve already stumped up your cash for the first release, and especially in the knowledge that a 3D release (backwards compatible for 2D playback) will be available in a matter of months – possibly even weeks?
If you’ve somehow missed this movie on its numerous theatrical runs (and, if you have, then you may have missed out on seeing the movie in the best way possible – on the Big Screen and in 3D) and you’ve avoided the first home cinema release of the movie in May (probably quite a clever move, especially for collectors), then I shall offer up a plot recap.
We’re midway into the 22nd Century and mankind has expanded to get a foothold of numerous other planets. Their latest conquest – Pandora – is one of the harshest worlds experienced, but one which is distinctly mineral rich. The big companies and their associated Private Military Corporations have decided to rape Pandora for all its worth, and with their lacklustre outreach program failing to negotiation a peaceful resolution with the locals, a more violent approach is set upon. Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine, is dispatched to join the outreach program, ostensibly to help them with their work, but with the secret agenda of getting an inside look at their camp so that the military attack can be more decisive. What Sully finds, however, is a beautiful tribal group with an amazing connection to Mother Nature – offering so much that mankind could learn from them. After he falls in love with the tribal elder’s daughter, his loyalties start to shift and soon Sully is doing all he can to find a peaceful solution without military intervention. But will he be able to stop the greedy corporations and their over-eager military attachment from proceeding with a full-on invasion?
Before its release, many critics and film fans worried that Avatar might tank at the Box Office. Of course, this was not to be the case, but it is interesting to look at the reasons why the project caused so much concern. The obvious answer was the 3D side of things – audiences still did not know whether this was just another gimmick, a fad reminiscent to Jaws 3D in the eighties, or whether it would be around to stay. Of course, thanks to the immense popularity of Avatar, the new 3D format appears to have a serious shot at becoming the next big step in home cinema technology; some would argue that it is as significant as the graduation from black and white to colour all those decades ago. But 3D was not the only reason why Avatar’s potential success was in doubt.
In animation terms, many worried about the prevalent use of CG characters, and about the Uncanny Valley effect, a hypothesis formed in the field of robotics, which posits that the human emotional response to robots that look like humans dips massively somewhere between ‘barely human’ and ‘fully human’. Many CG animators – like Pixar – took note of this theory, particularly after the initial, negative response of some of their test animations (check out the extra on the Toy Story release – ‘Tin Toy’ – whose ‘realistic’ baby looked just plain creepy). Audiences clearly preferred things either less realistic – or totally photo-realistic – with the valley in-between marking dangerous territory, where the audience connection with CG-created characters would suffer.
In the months leading up to Avatar’s theatrical release, I remember seeing the Bruce Willis sci-fi thriller, The Surrogates, where Willis himself had been made to look more youthful (in his ‘surrogate’ body) through lavish CG use. Honestly, it was clearly an example of the ‘next step’ in CG use, the potential being that actors could continue to play (sometimes considerably) younger characters well into the twilight era of their careers. The trouble is that it did not look perfect – the behaviour was still a little stilted. And so we have Avatar, which boasted fully CG humanoid characters supposedly displaying more ‘natural’ characteristics through extensive motion capture work. Cleverly adopting ten foot tall blue alien humanoids as the central species within the movie, it appears that – unlike many of its very-real-but-not-quite-real-enough counterparts – Avatar succeeded in basically introducing us to an all-new CG alien species, complete with detailed humanoid body structure and many similar human behavioural characteristics. Surely it marks the next stepping-stone in the evolution of CG characters? One of the first successful renditions of realistic CG characters in a live-action movie?
Still, despite overcoming expectations, overstepping the chasm that is the ‘Uncanny Valley’ to create one of the first fully-integrated CG/human live-action movies, and single-handedly catapulting 3D technology into the mainstream, what about the movie itself? Beyond the amazing visual presentation, which some would say is little more than a glorified gimmick, is there really anything of substance in this movie?
Well, one thing is for certain: watching Avatar at home, in 2D, without all of the bells and whistles of the ‘3D Big Screen experience’ definitely highlights its flaws even further. The movie itself is decidedly unoriginal. In terms of story it borrows that somewhat clichéd ‘soldier gone native after he falls in love and finds a new way of life’ theme (done before in far better movies, like Dances with Wolves and The New World, and or even popular classics like Point Break or indeed Pocahontas), throws in the ‘controlling other bodies’ idea that you may remember from a little-known film called The Matrix (and numerous other films), and ties it all up with a cheap allegory to the US invading the Middle East. It’s a blunt and grating approach to passing social commentary on the US and its ‘Team America’-style approach to policing the world, and, this somewhat pretentious preaching, coupled with the Braveheart-styled clichéd dialogue and ‘rousing’ speeches did not work on any level. And in terms of characters, it was far less three-dimensional, and more one-dimensional (every stereotype is accounted for, and can be paralleled with the aforementioned films), whether in terms of the CG alien race, or even their human counterparts.
I always blamed a lot of the acting issues on the talent, namely, Sam Worthington. The 2009/2010 go-to guy for action hero leads, he is generic as hell, and, whilst a stronger lead may not have completely saved the movie’s clichéd approach, it would certainly have made this a more interesting ride. Supporting him we had everybody from Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel Moore, Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang (on the human front); with Zoe Saldana, Wes Studi and CCH Pounder as the Na’vi aliens. Both Weaver and Joel Moore had Avatar counterparts as well (the vessels used to integrate with the Na’vi) but I have to say that some of the best performances – I’m looking at you Zoe – came from the Na’vi CG creatures. Unfortunately, whether largely because of the lead actor, or whether due to the distinct mediocrity of the performances in general, the cast/characters simply do not come together to make a group of people who you truly care about.
Of course, much of the blame had to also be pointed in the direction of character development, and it is interesting with these newly available extended cuts to finally find out just how much can be changed through 16 minutes of extra material. (Some spoilers ahead)
Avatar originally ran at a length of 162 minutes, and this was the cut that was first released back in May 2010. Already a bum-numbing runtime, particularly for a movie that was ostensibly held together by visuals alone, we now get a movie that teeters on the brink of the three hour mark, a length which I think even die-hard filmgoers would not have appreciated having to sit through. Personally, I’ve only seen the movie twice, once in the cinema (in 3D), and once on Blu-ray. I had no particular inclination to see it again in the near future, but I am intrigued as to whether the Extended Edition could prove worthy of a recommendation to revisit this already over-long monolith.
Changes are not always easy to notice in Extended Cuts of movies, but this one makes them fairly blatantly obvious right from the get-go, kicking off with an entire set of scenes that take place on future Earth. Here the Blade Runner-esque environment is all neon advertisements and hover-trains, but bars are still much the same, as are bar-fights, which is exactly what Jake gets into right at the start. Whilst I appreciate the effort that they put into portraying a believable future Earth, it is far too Blade Runner, and – in some ways – detracts from the events on Pandora later. There’s no need to show life back home, at least not visually. On the other hand, these few scenes lend a tiny bit more dimension to Sam Worthington’s character. It doesn’t make a huge difference, don’t get me wrong, but it actually offers a different side to the dumb grunt.
Most of the rest of the additions come in the form of added story arcs, rather than stand-alone scenes. Across the movie we get more background into what happened to the school that Sigourney Weaver’s doctor set up, and a revelation about Neytiri’s personal involvement in the slaughter. It’s nice to finally understand a plot which is only hinted at in the final cut, but it does not necessarily enhance the characters in any significant way. Similarly we get some flashy new Na’vi/Avatar effects sequences, all relating to them hunting the Pandoran equivalent to cattle. The species are introduced, discussed, and eventually hunted, as an extra initiation for Jake’s character. Honestly, it was an unnecessary, at times over-the-top sequence. Although the CG effects are largely indiscernible from those in the final film, it does not quite suit the mood of the piece, amounting to nothing less than overkill. It also happens to be a scene ripped straight out of Dances with Wolves, a movie which already has had too many elements plagiarised from it to make this story.
The remainder of extra material comes peppered throughout the 3 hour runtime: a line about the mag-lev effect that keeps the floating mountains, erm, afloat; a few seconds of ‘bonding’ between Jake and Neytiri (really, for all the furore surrounding this ‘sex scene’ there is absolutely nothing worth watching here); and an extra scene where the Na’vi are shown fighting back against the bulldozers, and effectively provoking the all-out attack at the end (understandable why this was cut, although it makes the story more logical, and less clichéd). Finally we get a new death scene for one of the supporting characters, a supposedly poignant moment where Jake honours his fallen companion. It’s pointless and, worse still, it is horrendously crowbarred-in immediately after the brutal climax between Jake, Neytiri and the Colonel. I can’t see how it makes any sense, how did Jake get back in his Avatar with the camp destroyed?
When all is said and done, there is nothing here to justify the double-dip of this title – the original Theatrical Cut is easily the best cut, the marginally longer Special Edition marking the next best version (it does not have the distracting Earth opening) and the Collector’s Edition is just too much. But few will listen to me – Avatar is such an unstoppable juggernaut that its fans and followers will want any edition that comes out. It doesn’t matter if the new footage isn’t really any good, all that matters is that it is new footage. More Avatar. And, I guess, in this respect, you can’t fault the longer version. It certainly offers you more, and if more = better for you, then you won’t be disappointed here.
Well, I still stand by my original impressions of Avatar. It is still a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But, and it’s a big, quality, J-Lo, but we’re talking about here – Avatar works as a 3D experience. Seriously, you can’t deny the visual impact, and the opulence of the new world that has been created and fully realised in such a believable, realistic way, and in 3D it will blow you away. Literally take you to another world, where you get lost running across the floating rocks and diving on the building-sized fluorescent palm leaves; lost amidst the beautiful, disturbingly skinny blue Na’vi, and – in many cases – even wonder what you might look like if you had your own Avatar (there are enough apps to find out these days!). As the biggest (and arguably, only significant) pioneer of 3D, Avatar will always be remembered, and will go down in film history. I think it will quite some time (if ever) before this movie gets topped for sheer spectacle, and if we were marking the 3D version, I suspect this film would get a much higher rating.
“Look you're supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. Isn't that the whole point of your little puppet show? If you walk like them, talk like them, they'll trust you.”
Unfortunately, without the full 3D effect, however good the movie looks in 2D, it still stands out as a walking, talking cliché. Every idea, every character and story arc, has been ripped from another movie – hell from half a dozen other movies, most of them much better. And the core story, which bluntly attempts to allegorise the whole Middle East conflict, is just trite and pretentious.
Avatar is still solid, colourful, and engaging – basically one of the best-looking movies ever – but it is also, ultimately, less immersive without its third dimension. Even the CG scenes – however breathtaking – just do not appear as convincing. We just don’t get sucked into the wonderfully rendered world as much as we should. Irrespective of cut (and, for what it’s worth, I’ll reiterate the fact you probably all already own the best cut) Avatar is little more than an entertaining blockbuster without its extra dimension, and, honestly, 16 minutes’ longer probably now just makes the movie an even hour too long, rather than just 45 minutes. If you have the stamina, do yourselves a favour and wait a while; first build up your 3D equipment slowly, then pick up the imminent 3D cut and see this movie the way that it was made to be seen.
3D Movie Score 9/10
2D Theatrical Score 7/10
2D Special Edition Score 6/10
2D Collector’s Edition Score 6/10
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