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A hundred and some years into the future humanity, having ruined Earth by over-extending its natural resources, discovers a beautiful, lush jungle planet called Pandora. On Pandora humans discover Unobtanium, a super-valuable mineral they desperately want to mine. Unfortunately, mining Unobtanium requires a whole lot of deforestation, and among the colourful creatures living on Pandora are a race of giant blue humanoids called the Na’vi. The humans on Pandora are divided into three camps—the company men that collect Unobtanium, the mercenaries that protect them, and the scientists that study the planet. The scientists grow Na'vi-human hybrids called ‘avatars’, which are operated via mental link by the genetically matching humans, in order to communicate with the local savages. When one of them dies they send for his twin brother, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine with no scientific background, who, against all odds, is allowed into the Na’vi society and taught their ways.

Avatar
I had a laundry list of critical complaints, and mean spirited nitpicks prepared for this review. It’s a literal list. I’ve been keeping it neatly folded in my wallet since January, and I was ready to unleash it, until I realized bitching about the most popular movie of all time (adjusted for the incredibly inflated price of modern 3D movie tickets, it actually sits below Empire Strikes Back in US ticket sales) would be incredibly narcissistic, especially considering the laundry list of professional critical complaints that have been available to read since the film’s release. I also have to admit that I had very little interest in ever liking [i]Avatar in the first place, and I actively rooted against it at the box office. Why? Besides being generally incensed by how much it cost to make the film (the cost of modern blockbusters has bugged me for years), I was hoping flop status would force Fox to can geek movie earth scorcher Tom Rothman. Anyway, I’m not a fan, but I’m constricting my thoughts to a couple of paragraphs, because I know you don’t care.

On the positive side of the neon lit street is the inescapable sense of awe in Avatar’s visuals, especially when presented on the big screen, and in 3D. The gist of the awe is actually not lost in the transition to Blu-ray, but it’s certainly not the same experience. I wouldn’t dare argue that James Cameron’s world isn’t pretty, but he spends a fetishistic amount of time flying virtual cameras through giant digital trees. The creature designs are certainly a highlight (love those spinning lizard things), and the realistic details of the digital creatures are practically unprecedented (though the Sigourney Weaver Avatar is grotesque uncanny-valley stuff). Avatar is a rich visual meal, and can turn the stomach on occasion, specifically the black light poster-looking night scenes (which I found a bit dippy aesthetically speaking), but the final battle is exciting, and the genuine beauty goes a long way towards ignoring the belly ache. Cameron occasionally bottles a true sense of wonder, and is at his best when reminds us of the tactile possibilities of these virtual environments, especially through Jake in his Avatar form. Jake digging his toes into the soil, and touching all the light up plants are both solid cases for given the film a few passes, even if the character is less compelling than the spinning lizard things.

Avatar
My enduring problem with the film is Cameron’s crap writing. A second viewing, minus the headache inducing 3D, reveals far more problems than a simply derivative basic plot. Yes, everyone not blinded by the sparkling prettiness knows that Cameron is riffing on the Pocahontas myth, with bits of Dances with Wolves, and an embarrassing Ferngully: The Last Rainforest garnish, but it’s only part of a bigger problem. I still enjoy Star Wars, which exists to be derivative, so I can’t get myself too worked up over Avatar’s use of the ‘Jesus of the noble natives’ trope. But I can compare the storytelling to Cameron’s earlier work. Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss are based loosely on other stories ( True Lies is a remake), and are formulaic in terms of structure, but they’re good stories, and well told. Avatar’s script is broken into the exposition spouting first act, the lagging, repetitive second act, and the never ending, battle heavy third act. The first time I saw the film the middle act stood out as the real issue, but it’s the first act that really drove me mad this time around. Cameron’s editing in this section is actually successfully speedy, but his characters speak to each other in the most illogically expositional terms, as if this is the first day of this six-plus year mission these departments have discussed the Na’vi or (sigh) Unobtainium. What makes it worse is that Cameron already sets up Jake’s awkward narration, which should’ve served the same purpose.

Video


This is the part where I actually end up recommending this disc to the hard core videophiles in the house. It’s not in 3D (yet), but Avatar is damn pretty movie experience, features a direct digital HD transfer, and there’s no pesky plotting to get in the way of drooling at the picture perfect digital details (or extra features to steal away valuable disc space). Clearly green is a theme colour, and those hyper-realistic vegetation vistas are perfectly clean, perfectly represented in terms of detail, and perfectly sharpened without any noticeably compression issues. The other major theme colour doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has ever seen a James Cameron film—it’s blue. These Na’vi blues are most impressive against the daylight greens, where the skin textures are illuminated externally, and give off a more realistic light. The night time scenes, with all their florescent highlights and bioluminescence, are the more visual striking, but fair pretty well on the included DVD copy. In HD the edges are well cut, the colours are brighter and pin-pointed, but the SD black levels don’t look too bad.

Avatar
The extreme sharpness does lead to some incredibly minor blooming during the brightest, and most visually packed compositions, but I’m otherwise so enthralled by the depth and consistency of the details I’m assuming it’s somehow intended (either that, or my set’s setting are somehow at fault). There aren’t any artefacts or compression issues to speak of, and the intricacies of the transfer are striking on all fronts, from the pours on the Na’vi’s skin, to the random fleck of waterfall way off in the background. The climatic battle is the transfer’s forty minute high point due to the complexity and diversity of visual elements. The lush, primary elements of Pandora’s flora and fauna should completely overwhelm the steel grays and blacks of the warring Earth forces, but nothing is lost in the chaos. The transfer also verifies the perfection of the special effects, which with minor exceptions in character animation, appears every bit as real and natural as an IMAX nature documentary. I’m curious as to the 1.78:1 framing, as Cameron had said he preferred 2.35:1 for the non-3D version of the film in some interviews, but I’m not going to complain about a little more eye-candy on the top and bottom of the frame.

Audio


Reference level video, may I reacquaint you with your good friend reference level audio. I’m not particularly impressed with Christopher Boyes’ sound design. It’s derivative, and though adequate in terms of editing, and immersive sensation, doesn’t really meet the rest of the film’s obsessive level of construction. It’s a silly criticism, but I distinctly recalled two creature elements that were lifted practically verbatim from the Jurassic Park franchise. The big, predatory creature lets out a T-Rex wail at one point, and the horse creatures sound a whole hell of a lot like a velociraptor demanding assistance. Boyes’ work doesn’t stand up creatively to Gary Rydstrom or Ben Burtt’s best (for the record I think Burtt’s work on Star Trek deserved the Sound Design Oscar this year), but his mixing and editing skills are the issue at hand concerning the quality of this disc’s DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, and they’re next to perfect.

Avatar
There’s nothing I can say about the track without coming off dopey. The immersive qualities are intense, recreating the genuine experience of wondering, or rather running furiously through a tropical environment. The directional elements are startling, the rear and stereo channels are consistently busy, and it’s easy to catch oneself craning one’s neck to make sure there isn’t actually a spinning lizard thing behind them. The dialogue is never lost in the chaos (the ‘Get Some’ guy is loud and clear), but also doesn’t awkwardly overwhelm the track at the wrong time. The airborn battles are the most fun, due clearly to that exciting mix of screeching dragons and high-octane war machines. The unadulterated quantity of aural elements should’ve devolved into a muddy mess, but the clarity of the spread matches almost anything on The Lord of the Rings. And then there’s the LFE presence, which itself cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to carpet bombing home tree. The tree’s crash and burn was intense enough to force me to turn down my subwoofer, though warble isn’t a problem. James Horner’s cheesy, touchy-feely score fairs well as well, but the disc’s producers have neglected to include the option to turn it off if we’re too nauseated.

Extras


This review arrives late enough that I don’t think I have to warn anyone that this release features zero extras on either the Blu-ray or DVD copy. Cameron has promised something more in the future.

Avatar

Overall


The cult of Avatar continues to elude me, but at this point my opinion is more or less irrelevant. The film’s moderate level fans will want to hold off for a while, as a massive special edition has been announced (possibly even with 3D video capabilities), but passing fans might want to pick up a copy for reference purposes, and die-hard fans will probably want to own every release they can get their grubby little blue hands on. I’m not a fan of the film (or it’s sound design), but I can’t argue with the high definition, DTS-HD results. If I didn’t already own copies of Baraka, Wall-E and Speed Racer I’d probably want an Avatar disc all my own, which is probably the most genuinely positive thing I can say about any movie I didn’t enjoy enough to watch again anytime soon.

There’s surely a bright side to the film’s massive popularity, and that’s the possibility of Cameron’s heavy-handed environmental messages didn’t fall on deaf ears. The fact that the guy who wrote Rambo: First Blood Part 2, and directed Aliens and True Lies made Avatar kind of blows my mind.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.


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