The first rule of Hollywood should be “don’t bet against James Cameron.” The second rule should simply support the first rule as a redundancy and reminder that Cameron achieves his successes where others fear to tread.Like George Lucas, his go it alone approach often pays off in new technological advances that present cinema in a way no one has ever considered before. Like Lucas, Cameron’s main weaknesses are plot and dialogue, but like Lucas he could be counted as rather crafty for borrowing character motivations and desires from basic Hollywood stock, adding a dash of Campbellian mythology, mixed with hoary old Jungian archetypes, to achieve characters audiences instantly know and respond to, even when of a bizarrely alien or android nature.
For story leads he often tends to cherry-pick some of the best in speculative fiction (for which he was once rightly sued by Harlan Ellison) or simply take generic Hollywood templates and graft them onto something resembling a “guys-on-a-mission” war scenario. He’s a good enough student of Roger Corman to know to pare the story down to the basics, though his budgets are hardly those of his frugal mentor, but he still understands that elaborate plotting is sometimes no match for well-executed spectacle that thrusts the audience into a different world and puts them on the edge of their seats. By keeping it simple, for the most part, he’s able to keep the story moving forward, keep the characters on their well-established arcs and leave enough room for spectacular, nail-biting action, thrilling escapes, and the jaw-dropping use of superior firepower (or deceptively big icebergs).
So, it’s easy to say that for the lengthy production of Avatar he cribbed from films like Dances With Wolves or (ahem) Ferngully: The Last Rainforest in order to concentrate on the effects and revolutionary 3D techniques he developed for the film. Nevertheless, Cameron is only doing what artists often do… and by taking a sad song and making it better he’s able to lay a familiar foundation for the audience upon which he builds an entirely new vision. Call it clichéd eye-candy if you will, but it certainly worked on millions of people around the world, despite the hype blowback, early fanboy dismissal, and mixed reviews from critics. No matter your feeling toward the King of the World, when push comes to shove and the bets are called, Cameron comes out the winner with a cinematic achievement that is quickly changing how movies are made. By dint of his aggressive, passionate production style (which results in the kind of action movie that is the polar opposite of what Michael Bay churns out), his exacting standards, love of engineering and technical know-how, Avatar lived up to Cameron’s own promises, telling an old-fashioned science-fiction adventure yarn with effects that are seamless and completely fool the eye. Cameron has pushed digital filmmaking technology to new levels while still managing to entertain the hell out of the audience no matter how twice-told the story might be. On these merits alone, Avatar succeeds enormously.
Without a complete rehash of the plot synopsis and production background, it’s safe to say the theatrical experience in 3D, as filmed by the Pace/Cameron Fusion Camera System, was a knockout… a true mainstream blockbuster that had enough action, emotional investment and spectacle to entertain a wide-variety of audiences. For many Cameron’s new 3D process was essential to what made Avatar work for them, and it’s also currently responsible for the move by studio executives to film their major releases in 3D regardless of how it might look. Considering Avatar took years to produce and attain the quality Cameron desired, most of the other 3D efforts have been sub-standard thus far. Having seen Avatar in IMAX 3D, I can attest to the power the film had. Truly unlike any other 3D effort, it was a highly immersive experience, whether during the live action sequences featuring minimal effects, the digital environment sequences with only digital creatures present, or mixed scenes of flesh and blood humans interacting with digital environments and creatures, the effect was breathtaking. The most astonishing thing was how Cameron had vastly improved upon an augmented reality that had been pioneered and pushed forward by a history of digital filmmaking of which the last great achievement may have been WETA’s Gollum/Smeagol creature for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Cameron had seemingly solved a whole slew of problems that kept digital creatures from looking “real,” even when placed within digital environments. Best of all, it seemed he had finally nailed the problem of the “uncanny valley” which creates a creepy effect of quasi-lifelike movement and physicality that often lack finer details like facial tics, flesh movement, body weight and skin tone. Due to this lack of convincing nuance, digital creations can come off as zombie-like and unbelievable, with a dead-eyed manner that makes audiences uncomfortable. Cameron moves beyond the dead-eyed effect, stiff movements and facial features of prior human or human-like digital creations by incorporating new motion- (or performance-) capture techniques that take in more facial/body data from the actors. The result is spot on… and the way Cameron’s hardware and technicians crafted those Na’vi eyes, it’s hard to believe they are not fellow mammals like us.
Seeing the Na’vi and believing in them as characters certainly makes Cameron’s ham-fisted dialogue a little easier to take. Cameron allows his actors to deliver serviceable performances, and those playing the Na’vi (primarily Zoe Saldana as “Neytiri,” Laz Alonso as “Tsu-tey,” the great CCH Pounder as “Mo’at” and the venerable Native American actor, Wes Studi, as “Eytucan”) do exceptional work even though their performances were captured for digital rendering later. It could be said that these performers might be more impressive had they emoted under a layer of traditional makeup*; however, I’ve now seen two films where believable motion capture created a near-real character that audiences felt emotionally invested in (LOTR and Avatar respectively). In digital animation, the geniuses at Pixar (and to a lesser extent, Dreamworks) have been doing this kind of thing for some time, but in live-action filmmaking, though the worlds are quickly being blurred, full digital creations have often been a tougher sell for audiences. One has only to go back to Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express or even his more recent Beowulf to see how the technology to augment human performance has improved to the point where actors have more freedom to imprint their personality—the thing that makes them uniquely human –into these characters, in a sense collaborating with the digital animators to bring a true spark of life to digital creations. Cameron’s direction overall is solid, and fulfills the promise of the technology… harnessing it to tell a ripping good story with characters we care about.
The Blu-ray 2-Disc Set released on Earth Day (of course!) has already become obsolete in minds of some, once it was also announced that this November an “ultimate edition” reportedly featuring six minutes of additional footage (with other discs containing all the EPK featurettes, production diaries and other bonus items missing from the current set, and a forth disc that may be a digital copy) will be ready for retail. As it isn’t often that this kind of cinematic unobtanium comes along, it would be naïve to think that Fox won’t exploit Avatar’s potential for multiple releases— they’ve already planned a theatrical re-release of the film in 3D during late summer to capitalize on the film’s initial success, and the 3D version won’t be too far off; however, fans expecting that the November Blu-ray release will be in 3D should be aware that Fox has decided to delay the extra-dimension at home for the immediate future (to late 2011). Cameron probably has his own reasons for agreeing to Fox’s stance but, again, this is a movie ripe for double-dips and it behooves the Fox accountants to put out as many releases as they think the marketplace can bear.
So, be forewarned that the current Blu-ray release, which is already one of the biggest selling home-video releases ever, is a completely bare bones affair, with the 50GB Blu-ray disc devoted to the entire film sans all but the tiniest bit of menu navigation. Of course, this means that every bit of disc space is dedicated to the film itself and this is a very good thing, allowing for minimal compression for this transfer. In fact, it might be safe to say that this initial Blu-ray offering of Avatar may be the only copy of this film you’ll need at home, and as it has been heavily discounted online and at traditional retail outlets, it’s a terrific deal if you don’t mind missing features and a digital copy. Strangely enough, this set contains a second disc but it’s a standard DVD that isn’t compatible as a digital copy for iTunes or Windows Media Player. Not sure why this is, when a digital copy would have been more appropriate in this day and age, but there it is… a DVD. Perhaps it’s for the minivan on those long car trips with the kids, or for the spare bedroom’s upscaling DVD player, but whatever, it seems odd and a little out of touch with the popularity of digital delivery and portable devices on the rise. Good luck getting this on your iPad except through the iTunes store.
As I said, this may be the only version of the movie that you’ll ever need as it is identical in presentation save for the 3D effect. In only two measly dimensions, the movie will still rock your ass off… do not doubt that for a second. If 3D were the only reason this movie succeeded, I don’t think it would have had nearly the impact it did on audiences, critics and Academy members alike. It’s not a love it or hate it movie, unless you’re a cinema snob or fan-troll… I generally like more experimental fare where the drama is the special effect, and I liked it enormously. While I thought Neill Blomkamp’s fantastic District 9 was a superior science-fiction film in every way from script to screen**, rivaling even Avatar’s effects work, I still enjoyed the heck out of Cameron’s movie and came away wanting a second viewing immediately. That was not to happen, however. I only saw it once in theaters, but it had enough impact on me for that experience to be fondly remembered when comparing the Blu-ray experience. Nevertheless, though I missed the full, immersive quality of the 3D theatrical experience (which in IMAX was an even bigger treat), I have to say that this Blu-release is visually stunning: reference quality all the way, with only a few minor quibbles that could be due to the transfer from 3D to 2D (please read the comments section below, as this statement has been disputed and clarified). As I did not see this in 2D theatrically, I can only guess if the issues are due to the Blu-ray transfer or were actually evident in the 2D version screened in theaters.
For my very own Avatar Blu-ray screening I had our Dear Leader Editor over to the casa with another friend of mine, Paul… a big cinema geek and lifelong fan of genre films, especially science fiction. Almost immediately upon popping the disc in we noticed lots of video noise, compression artifacts and huge lack of image detail, especially in the opening flyover and Jake Sully’s extreme close-up, but—OH, wait!! Turns out we had the wrong frickin’ disc in the PlayStation3. The DVD version looks as expected, I guess, even upscaled it’s hardly anything to get excited about… Well, we all laughed and I had egg on my face for grabbing the wrong disc (The Sully disc contains the Blu-ray version while the DVD pictures Neytiri). Whew! I thought we really had a big Blu-ray stinker there for a few minutes. On popping in the Blu-ray, well… what a world of difference! The opening flyover of Pandora is spectacular, even without the dimensionality of stereoscopic 3D, but then an obvious 3D moment follows: that extreme close-up of Sully’s face as perspiration droplets float above him, going in and out of focus. In the 3D theater, those drops seemed to floating above us and Jake, giving the audience the illusion of weightlessness, but without that extra dimension it’s just a nice image that gives us an indication that Jake Sully is in cryogenic sleep for a long spaceflight… we know he’s weightless in space, but we don’t really feel we’re right there with him as he’s coming out of cryo-sleep. While it’s a noticeable difference, it does not distract from story or character, and rather than visual suture with Jake’s environment, we close the gap with psychological suture as audiences do with any good movie. There’s plenty of those types of moments where, if you think back to the 3D version, you’re likely to feel you are missing something, but as I’ve said… if this film were all about 3D spectacle akin to a themepark ride, then it probably would not have done nearly the business that it did. People responded to Cameron’s story and characters, both human and alien, and I felt that I was more in touch with that story sans the razzle-dazzle of 3D. After only a few scenes, I didn’t really miss it at all.
Nevertheless, it’s quite obvious that Avatar was made specifically for 3D presentation. As Jake walks through the jungle of Pandora, the home theater’s normal visual distance replaces the sense of total dimensional immersion found in the theater, but that is not to say that Avatar on Blu-ray lacks visual depth. On the contrary, the BD version offers a stunning reference quality picture with deep blacks, saturated color that accentuates the unusual iridescent palette of Pandoran life, sharp detail during the effects sequences, and nary a blemish to the image-quality. Some of the full digital sequences (those where every inch of the screen is an animated pixel from set to character) offer a depth of focus that could easily rival 3D for spatial effect. The full digital flying sequences are nearly as vertigo inducing at home as they were in the theater. The transition of the full digital scenes, and they do make up the bulk of the film, is spectacular. The hybrid sequences wherein human actors are integrated into the digital environments and interact with the Na’Vi are just as impressive. Always a big military hardware fan, Cameron gives us another in a line of cool looking powered exo-suits. His power-loader from Aliens will always be well-loved, but the AMP (Armored Mobility Platform) suits from Avatar are just as interesting, with a practicality that makes them plausible. When the hard-assed Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang, in a bulked-up performance that sweats bullets and shits grenades***) dons an AMP suit, he looks so well integrated in the CG rendered suit as to seem completely natural… and on Blu-ray that effect loses none of that believability, with the AMP suit looking for all the world like it was built as an actual working piece of lethal hardware.
My biggest quibble with the Blu-ray’s video quality is that the actual scenes of flesh and blood humans, especially in the close ups (whether behind translucent heads-up computer displays or not), tend to be softly focused… and I think this might have to do with the dimensional downscaling (disputed in comments section). I recall the human faces of Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, Giovanni Ribisi and the rest of the organic cast to be far sharper in detail during the theatrical experience than I see on the Blu-ray. It could be my mind playing tricks on me, but I don’t think so. In close-ups during Jake Sully’s video interviews this softness is very noticeable, but perhaps that’s due to Jake sitting behind a heads-up display with an effect that’s intended to purposefully soften his features. Yet, I also noticed this happening when he’s not supposed to be obstructed by a translucent screen, and there are times, except in the most static of shots, that the stubble on Sully’s cheeks and chin lack sharpness and facial moles and wrinkles seem smudged. It’s the only issue I saw that made me question the transfer from 3D-to-2D for Blu-ray (see comments for more on this disputed and clarified statement). Long shots displaying the interior sets, where the only effects might be hardware or computer displays, also give off a slightly soft, muted quality that is not apparent in the full digital scenes. For comparison, check out the scene of the ISV Venture Star floating in space… it literally pops off the screen it’s so sharp, showing depth and detail from bow to stern.
Aside from very minor sharpness and clarity issues, I’d say this disc is perfect for showing off a high-definition system, with the planet Pandora presented in all its wondrous glory. Of particular note, those nighttime sequences in the Pandoran jungle stand out for vivid, glowing color while the fauna of Pandora appears just as rich and delicate as it did on the theater screen (Cameron’s undersea documentary filmmaking certainly paid off in regards to the life-form design and movements). Cameron’s films always contain expertly directed action sequences that are pretty easy to follow. Working with fewer editing cuts than most of his contemporaries, he presents coherent action no matter how much commotion happens within the frame. The Hometree shock-and-awe sequence, the fiery tragedy on the Na-vi trail of tears (as my buddy Paul quipped), the scenes of Sully taming and flying the Toruk, the battle to protect the Tree of Souls and turn the tide for the Na’vi are all rendered in exquisite detail and crystal clear perfection. To see these sequences in HD at home is to realize just how far we’ve come from standard-def being the high-watermark for home video.
HD audio has also come a long way, and Avatar sports a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that is becoming the norm among BD releases (though perhaps future releases will harness 7.1 channels with an even cleaner sound for dedicated home-theater rooms). The audio provides a roomful of dynamic range with dialogue that’s clear and nicely separated from music and ambient sounds. The surround channels LFE and sub-speaker provide loads of aural enjoyment with gunfire/bomb-blasts, machine/engine/propeller noise (at one point the repetitive and familiar beep of construction equipment backing up had us all laughing and looking around the room) and the natural sounds of Pandora all coming through with a directional clarity that will have you ducking for cover at times, and just plain astonished during quieter moments. On the whole, Avatar sounds intense on a home theater system and offers an experience very close to the theatrical presentation. The BD also sports French, Spanish and Portuguese language mixes that are in DD 5.1, with an English descriptive audio mix added for the sight impaired. Subtitles are in English SDH, Spanish and Portuguese.
So… when you come right down to it, should this be the Avatar disc for you? If you care only for the film and don’t mind missing out on features, then it is perfect… but as we have yet to find out what features will be coming our way for the Ultimate Edition, this disc makes a good rental for die-hard Cameron/Avatar fans wishing to understand the details of the film’s production (Netflix and Redbox should offer it around mid-May of this year). I do not suggest buying it if you think you’d be upgrading to the feature-packed edition, as resellers can only take in so many rejected sets and upgrading will contribute to landfill waste… which kinda flies in the face of Avatar’s green eco-theme. However, it also remains to be seen if compression issues will compromise image quality of the Ultimate Edition disc due to the inclusion of more robust menu navigation and bonus items. Speaking of which, the Blu-ray 2-Disc Set offers a way to join the “Avatar Program” which features sneak peeks, additional content and updates (don’t know what kind, but you can find out by registering… I chose not to). You can also join the Hometree Initiative which aims to plant one million trees, which is always a nice thing… Eywa would be proud.
* To see how a performance can transform full, traditional prosthetics into believable flesh, check out F. Murray Abraham’s vigorously wry performance as old Salieri in Amadeus, make up courtesy of the legendary Dick Smith. Note also that one of Avatar’s most subtle and clever effects is easy to miss– check out the withered atrophied legs of the paralyzed Jake Sully’s human form. Those aren’t Sam Worthingon’s real gams. Lt. Dan wept.
** Our HD Report spotlight review of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is coming (soon?), but in the meantime it is a highly recommended Blu-ray release with plenty of great features. As for comparing it to Avatar, Blomkamp’s film offers exactly the type of science fiction most fans of the genre (read: total geeks) clamor for most of their movie-going lives. D9 presents intelligent, thought-provoking social commentary cloaked in the guise of a blockbuster actioneer, with cutting-edge special effects that push the limits of the technology and the technicians. Yet, for many, the same can be said of Avatar. It really depends on your taste. Cameron tells his story in a way that Captain Obvious appreciates, while Blomkamp, in a film no less mainstream, offers the kind of nuance that rewards careful observation. In addition, rather than playing up the special effects and creature rendering for all their worth, Blomkamp dials it down a bit, making the incredible looking creatures almost mundane in harsh daylight, which allows the audience to further suspend disbelief and focus on the social critiques at the heart of the film. Pound for pound (or exo-suit for exo-suit), I think District 9 is the better movie, even though Avatar is a landmark technical achievement destined to change the film industry. D9 feels fresher and less hackneyed than Cameron’s epic (I mean, really, do we need another take on Cameron’s stock cold-hearted corporate asshole?) while still providing plenty of action. My feeling is that D9 is the Close Encounters of the Third Kind for this generation’s youth, while Avatar is its Star Wars.
*** I find it hard to believe that this is the same Stephen Lang that once played the sniveling Freddy Lounds in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, but my friend Paul assured me as we watched his ultra-commando performance in Avatar that it is indeed him… and yes, the Internets confirm it!