Avatar - the Extended Blu-ray Collector's Edition

By Jim Bray

When James Cameron's Avatar first came out on Blu-ray, it was in a bare bones release that eschewed any extras, supposedly so all that storage space on the single disc could be used for optimal audio and video quality.

It was a good release, too, with stunning audio and video quality. And if you don't care about extras - or extended editions - it's still a more than adequate release. Far more than merely adequate.

But if you want to delve behind the movie making magic, or see Cameron's "Dances with Smurfs" vision expanded to cover even more territory, it wasn't enough. This version, however, should be.

Unless you want 3D.

Though the movie was heavy-handed in its simplistic "capitalists/military versus peaceful natives" treatment of its characters and situations, it really did raise the bar as far as movie making is concerned. And even as an action adventure flick – which is how Cameron made his well-deserved name as a top director – it's a terrific ride that's nothing short of wondrous.

Indeed, it's ironic that, with all of the fantastically animated work in Avatar, the only really cartoony characters are the evil corporate guy and the evil Marine guy.

Anyway, like its politics or eco-zealotry or not, Avatar is a heckuva ride. This three disc Blu-ray shows you how it became such, as well as offering two alternate versions of its universe via three versions of the film.

I like some of Cameron's extended editions. In fact, I think his retooled Aliens and The Abyss are the definitive versions, though I didn't think the longer Terminator 2 was as good as the theatrical release. But I was dying to see what parts of Avatar had been left on the cutting room floor.

Each extended edition offers about eight minutes of new stuff. I dove into the "Collector's Extended Cut" that gives you all 16 minutes so I could experience them in one swell foop, as it were - there only being so much time in the day to review a nearly three hour movie in one incarnation, let alone three. So are the longer versions of this groundbreaking film the definitive ones?

Alas, no. We get a new opening, set on the Earth of Jake Sully before he embarked on his adventure, and it's interesting enough but hardly as important to the overall film - nor as effective - as Newt's family discovering the alien ship in the extended Aliens. Most of the rest of the changes are either extensions of existing scenes or short additions that, like the opening, are interesting but not necessary. I'm glad I saw them, but I think I'll go back to the theatrical version for future viewings - and with the quality of this movie and its Blu-ray presentation, there are sure to be many of them.

As I wrote in my initial Avatar review, the story surrounds an ex-Marine who "goes rogue" (can we say that these days without causing certain heads explode?), standing with the natives on the moon Pandora, and against his fellow humans, when evil corporate folk decide to push the perfect and peaceful people of Pandora out of the way so they can get at the subtly-named "unobtanium" they're there to mine.

One can understand why Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) would decide to throw in with the natives. As a human, he's a paraplegic (which must be a bitter pill to swallow) who only took his job as "Avatar driver" because he needed to begin again, needed the money and happened to have the right DNA for it. But as a 10 foot tall, blue Na'vi, he can walk, run, ride, fly dinosaur-like critters and make out with a sexy blue chick named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who also plays Henry Higgins to his Eliza Doolittle. And if you're particularly prurient, you can enjoy the extended love scene between the two, but if you're looking for a "blue" movie, you're out of luck. If there's footage like that, it's undoubtedly still on Cameron's or Weta's hard drives.

Anyway, Sully's decision to defect is made easier by the fact that those vile humans want the Na'vi moved out of their sacred home tree because it sits over a huge deposit of unobtanium, making it unobtainable while the Na'vi are still rooted there. Determined to ensure the natives become restless, those vile humans are bent on destroying the Na'vis' ancient home and forcing them to go elsewhere to be at one with the universe.

The story is peppered with either homages, rip-offs or, depending on how you view Mr. Cameron, coincidences from other stories and media. There are the obvious comparisons to "Dances With Wolves," though perhaps not enough to get Cameron sued (then again, he can undoubtedly afford the lawyers) as well as bits scooped from just about every sci fi tale I can think of from 2001 to Star Wars Episode One and, via the mechanical suits, even Heinlein's real Starship Troopers (not the Verhoeven bastardization). They're too many to list.

Some shots even seemed reminiscent of Frank Frazetta's fantasy paintings. This is very cool.

The movie is also filled with some really neat ideas, including Cameron's usual nifty technological toys and it's coupled with digital locations that are flat out gorgeous, looking at times like a cross between old Roger Dean record album covers (think Yes, etc.), Jurassic Park and the wonderful world of Oz. It's a beautiful and compelling place and if it were real the Na'vi would probably have a pretty decent tourism business going if it weren't for the wide variety of deadly critters who also live there.

The computer generated scenery and the characters Cameron and his gang have created from the actors' motion captured performances are the stuff of dreams. It's said Cameron had to wait for the technology to catch up with his vision and it was definitely worth the wait. Ten years ago the movie would have looked clunky and fake. Now, I found myself forgetting at times that this was basically a state-of-the-art cartoon and not actors in makeup, so realistically rendered it all is.

If Cameron had only parked his agenda in the lot outside the studio he'd have created a wondrous masterpiece for the ages instead of this extremely compelling, entertaining and eminently worth experiencing – but ultimately empty  – roller coaster ride.

The new Blu-ray is as spectacular as the first, and more so. The Blu-ray's 1080p picture quality (at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1) is simply outstanding. The contrast and the colors are gorgeous, the detail is fantastic and it looks almost as if the picture is going to jump off the screen at you.  I watched it on both a 106 inch front projection screen and a 50 inch plasma and it was definitely the stuff of videophile dreams.

I didn't miss the 3D at all. When I saw it in 3D IMAX, I thought the 3D distracting and instead of the picture leaping out of the screen it was more like looking through a window onto a world beyond, with depth extending behind the screen instead of in front of it for the most part. The 2D Blu-ray on the 106 inch screen (projected by an excellent Epson LCD front projector) gave all the "wow" factor you could want, with excellent apparent "depth" on its own, no glasses required.

Still, with the industry now pushing 3D TV, you'd think this would be the perfect title with which to flog it…

Perhaps there's a third Blu-ray version in the pipeline? I would expect so.

The audio, presented in dts HD Master Audio, is as spectacular as the video, very dynamic, with plenty of oomph and excellent fidelity – just what you want when you're either in magical forests surrounded by fantastic wildlife or in a battle with ordnance and hardware whizzing all around you. The surrounds are used well but, unlike the screenplay, they don't beat you over the head with their presence. They're just there - yet when a missile is fired in your direction it'll head right through your room to the surround speakers, and as those dino-like things fly around their wings whoosh all over the place.

Then there are the extras - more than two extra discs' worth. It includes some of the best and most in-depth "making of" stuff I've seen.

Disc one offers you direct Access to the new stuff, either via the Special Edition Re-Release that played in theaters in the summer of 2010 or the Collector's Extended Cut I watched. You can select the individual scenes or "play all."

Disc Two: Filmmakers' Journey kicks off with a bunch - more than an hour's worth - of deleted Scenes, in 1080p. As with the deleted stuff they undeleted for the extended editions, they probably won't change your impression of Avatar, but they're pretty neat to see anyway. Be warned: the stuff isn't all completed and ready to go; some is just raw motion capture or animatics footage, and some appears to be only missing the matted elements.

Capturing Avatar is about an hour and a half of meat, though. It's a very good four part feature that looks at the production from when it was a gleam in Cameron's imagination through to its release. It's great!

Less great if you don't buy into his eco-zealotry is "A Message from Pandora," which at least is a relatively short look at Cameron's eco-zealotry, as if you didn't get the idea from watching the movie.

And there's about another hour and a half of other production stuff, including art reels, raw motion capture footage, visual effects work in progress, and stuff like that. Some of it is extremely interesting, some is just silly.

Disc three, "Pandora's Box", starts with about an hour's worth of scene deconstructions, which lets you use your Blu-ray player's remote's colored buttons (which chances are you've never used before!), to through visual effects stuff from motion capture, to template and to the final image, picture-in-picture.

There are also more than a dozen featurettes, though some of them are excerpted in "Capturing Avatar" on disc two. If you liked them there, you may like them even better here.

Avatar Archives gives you stuff like trailers, the original script treatment and screenplay, and a "Pandorapedia" that's exactly what it sounds like. There are also hundreds of HD images under the heading of "The Art of Avatar", as well as BD-Live capability.

In short, there's probably something here for even the most die-hard Avatar fan.

This is a tough review to end. I was annoyed enough by the movie's cartoonish script (Shut up and direct, James!) to not want to recommend Avatar, but I can't. The movie is so good in every other way – the performances, the look, the technological tour de force, the whiz-bang adventure – that I must look beyond that. And this Blu-ray is a spectacular version that does the movie justice.

On the other hand, as I said in my first review of the movie, if you're looking for a smart humans-versus-alien film from 2009, District 9 is much better. But Avatar, especially in this Blu-ray version, really must be seen to be believed. It's a Blu-ray that sci-fi and home theater fans will want to own, truly a wondrous achievement in cinema history.

Copyright 2010 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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