Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on April 26th, 2010
“You’re not in Kansas any more. You’re on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact every second of every day. If there is a Hell, you might want to go there for some R&R after a tour on Pandora. Out there beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for Jujubes…”
I don’t really have to tell you what Avatar is. If you haven’t heard of it by now, I have only one question to ask of you: How was that coma? Ever since he cleaned up at the box office with Titanic, James Cameron has been planning this movie. The only trouble was that the technology to make it did not exist. Most filmmakers would have either tried anyway, or simply waited until the hardware caught up with their imaginations. Not James Cameron. He decided to invent the equipment himself. The result is a new 3D filming process that allows for the most realistic images you likely have ever seen on a movie screen. He combined the new process and equipment with new state-of-the-art computer-generated technology. The result is a movie that is truly the first of its kind. It was a huge risk for Cameron. A lot of money went into not only making the film but the technology development. In many ways Avatar was really an audition film. Cameron wants to make his equipment the stuff other filmmakers use to create their own silver screen dreams. It was a gamble. Judging by the box office take, it paid off big time. With a box office return of nearly $3 billion worldwide, James Cameron now has the number one and number two top-grossing movies in the history of the industry. If you’re keeping count, it’s a total box office take of just under $5 billion for two movies.
“We have an indigenous population of humanoids called the Na’Vi. They’re fond of arrows dipped in a neurotoxin that will stop your heart in one minute. And they have bones reinforced with naturally-occurring carbon fiber. They are very hard to kill…”
There is little doubt that the movie was a technological breakthrough. With the release on Earth Day of Avatar on Blu-ray, the question now shifts a bit. Can this movie dominate in a medium that does not offer the spectacular 3D imagery we all experienced in the theaters? There’s no question that the f/x are still nothing short of magical. But will we have the same feeling about this movie in a two-dimensional world? The answer won’t be in for some time. I can’t speak for the other hundreds of millions of folks who’ve seen the film in the theater. I can only offer you my take on the whole business. So, read on.
“As head of security, it is my job to keep you alive. I will not succeed.”
We all know the story by now. Feel free to skip over this part if you’ve seen the movie already. Is there anyone who hasn’t?
It’s 2154. It’s a future where corporations have the military strength and equipment reserved to only the most powerful nations today. The might helps these companies get what they want no matter what happens to be standing in the way. The planet Pandora is standing in the way. The planet contains rich deposits of an ore called unobtainium (is that unobtainable?). The inhabitants are primitive by even our own 21st century philosophy. They live in perfect communion with their version of Mother Nature, a spirit they call Eywa. They are not only philosophically connected to their planet, but literally as well. The entire world shares a tangible network of connections that allow it act almost as one. Unfortunately, a mining company wants that ore, and they will use whatever means necessary to get it. If they can’t negotiate for it, they will take it by force.
Thus is born the AVTR or Avatar project. Through DNA cloning and gene splicing, beings are created that have the physical appearance and structure of the Na’Vi but share genetic code with a specific human. This genetic matching allows the humans to link with the avatars and control them as if they were their own bodies. One of the members of the team was Tom Sully. When Tom dies before he gets to Pandora, it causes serious complications for the project. Apparently, these avatars cost a bundle to create and can only be operated by their genetic donor. All is not lost, however. Jake Sully happens to be Tom’s identical twin brother. They share the same genome. That means Jake can operate his brother’s avatar. He was wounded in the Marines and lost the movement of his legs. It can be fixed, if you have the dough, and the company is offering a lot of it if Jake takes the job.
On his first expedition, he is separated from the team. The Na’Vi chieftain’s daughter has him in her sights. Just as she’s about to kill him, she receives a sign that stays her hand. That means an invitation to join the tribe and learn their ways. He develops his skills and grows just as a Na’Vi would. He also falls in love with the daughter. His mission is to report whatever he can to get the tribe to move. Barring that, he is to report their weaknesses to get them out of the way. Somewhere along the way, Jake begins to relate to the natives and ends up fighting on their side to save their planet from the invaders from Earth. The result is an all-out brutal attack by the company that destroys much of Pandora’s incredible nature. The Na’Vi are driven from their home tree, only to watch it destroyed. Jake and a few of the Na’Vi sympathizers must unite the entire Na’Vi in order to halt the global devastation.
“When I was lying there in the VA hospital with a big hole blown through the middle of my body, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. Sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up.”
I have to tell you that I didn’t really miss the 3D. The f/x are still spectacular, and I was able to enjoy it just as much as I did in the theater. There is so much going on here that it is literally impossible to get it all in with just a single viewing. Whatever you remember from the movies, there is so much more. The assault on the planet is about as devastating as any alien invader film you’ve ever seen. Of course, here we’re the invaders from outer space. The characters interact with such ease that you will forget they aren’t really there. The level of detail might be, for the first time, something you can dwell on if you wish. It will take several viewings to really appreciate everything that’s going on. That’s why you simply have to own Avatar on Blu-ray.
But that brings me to a potential act of heresy to the Cameron faithful. This is a good movie. It is, in fact, a very good movie. It is not a great movie, f/x aside. If you can separate yourself from the amazing spectacle long enough, you’ll have to admit that the story really isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Films like Dances With Wolves, Braveheart, and even Battlefield Earth come to mind. There’s no question that Cameron spins a compelling story here; it’s just not The Greatest Story Ever Told by a long shot. I think the best thing about the film is the emotional investment the CG characters are able to display. There aren’t any extras on this release. But I would very much like a closer look at the technology. I suspect that it’s coming in a future special edition. There will be a BD3D release by the end of the year.
What you really want to know is how the f/x and picture stand up in this Blu-ray/High Definition release.
Avatar is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. The answer to your question is that this image is truly stunning. From the beginning, you see this rather colorful ship in a black void of space. Here’s where you can evaluate the black levels and contrast. The deepness of space is black as night. The contrast with the field of pinpoint stars and the inky darkness of space. Then there’s the splash of color from the ship. Once you see the planet in space, you will simply be amazed. This is far beyond anything even George Lucas has done. It is absolutely photograph perfection. The planet itself explodes with exotic colors and designs. The computer-animated world rivals anything you have ever laid eyes on. In some ways it reminds me of my diving experiences. The array of odd creatures and unique colors reminds me of visiting coral reefs in the Florida Keys. The print is expected to be absolutely pristine. It is. This is the kind of film high definition was created to display, and Cameron knows it. Now you will, too.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is just as spectacular, particularly in the wilds of the planet. The sound design here is an overlooked element in most of the reviews I saw of the film during its box office run. I have to admit that I never quite got the full sense of it then. This is an element that I believe works better in your theater than it did at the movies. You can’t help but immerse yourself in this world with so many strange and imaginative sounds coming from everywhere around you. I know it’s hard to do, what with all of the amazing pictures, but close your eyes when Jake first finds himself alone at night. Listen without watching for a moment. You really will be transported to another world.
Whatever I or any other critic might say, Avatar has secured itself a place in motion picture history. It’s not only the box office take that assures the position. The film is groundbreaking. I don’t necessarily think it is one of the very best movies made on a whole, but it needs to be in everyone’s library. It’s available on DVD, but why? If you were looking for an excuse to see buy a Blu-ray player, this is it. If Avatar won’t get you on board, nothing will. I watched this on my Oppo BD-83. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better presentation. If you don’t own a Blu-ray player, visit my friends at Oppo (and this is not a paid advertisement; I don’t get a cut). Tell them you want to see Avatar like you’ve never seen a film at home before. Check them out at Oppo Digital. Scrap that old DVD player. “One life ends. Another begins.”