Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Avatar: The best Blu-ray presentation to date?

Avatar (action, adventure, fantasy)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana
162 minutes

20th Century Fox | 2009 | 162 min | Rated PG-13 | Released Apr 22, 2010

MPEG-4 AVC | 1080p | 1.78:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English: DTS-HD 2.0
English, French, Portuguese, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
English: Dolby Digital 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH, Portuguese, Spanish

Single 50GB Blu-ray disc, region free
DVD copy

The Film 4.5/5

James Cameron knows how to make movies with mass appeal. After grossing $1.8 billion worldwide with Titanic, Avatar is closing in on $3 billion. Despite its success, many regard it as unoriginal and simply a blend of several stories we already know. While that's true in some ways, it doesn't mean that it isn't groundbreaking or spectacular in its own right.

The trailers didn't impress me at all and I dismissed the hype from people who had seen the movie in theaters. When Avatar earned nine Oscar nominations, winning three, and the Blu-ray was released, it was finally time to see what all the fuss was about. I truly expected to be disappointed, but I was completely wrong.

Within 90 seconds, the movie had me in its grasp.

We see an interior shot of the ship and meet Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the main protagonist. Cameron chooses to use Sully as a narrator and it works effectively. The opening shot of the ship looks impressive and gives an idea of the sheer scale of the movie. A minute later, a shot of Pandora orbiting a gas giant increases the impression of size.

The first 24 minutes takes time to establish the setting. We meet the main human characters and discover some of their background and the purpose of their mission. Sully is an ex-marine who, despite having lost the use of his legs, is able to use the expensive avatar intended for his dead brother. This shows us that the mining company in the story is cynical and only concerned about the bottom line, money.

Sully has no experience with the avatar and no training in the background of the native Na'vi language. He's portrayed as savvy, confident and disrespectful, and we are supposed to like him immediately. After a speech that wouldn't have been out of place in Full Metal Jacket, we learn that Pandora is a dangerous and inhospitable moon and that many will not survive their tour of duty.

The initial setup might drag for some, but it held my interest. The exposition is clumsy, but it really doesn't matter. This is a feast for the eyes and ears and you will enjoy it more if you don't stop to analyze it.

After 24 minutes, everything changes when Sully, as part of an exploration team, is sent on a mission outside the training complex in his avatar body. The initial shot of the surface is breathtaking, full of detail and color. In fact some of the colors seem totally new to science.

Sully's inexperience shows and he is separated from the team by the native animals. That's when the story really begins as we encounter a Na'vi woman in the form of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Sully's eventual love interest.

The hour following Sully's first trip to the surface is the most original and interesting part of the movie. We are shown Pandora and the Na'vi way of life in an extended training sequence as the tribe decides to study Sully. The creatures and plants he encounters are quite different from things we have seen before. The jungle which they inhabit also has unique features. Just look at some of the night scenes for example.

I don't want to ruin the story by revealing too much for the few people who haven't seen Avatar, so let's concentrate on the themes.

As the world is introduced to us, we start to shift focus. Instead of viewing it as something to be exploited for its minerals, it becomes a precious thing of beauty. The inhabitants want nothing more than to live and be left alone. It's an effective sequence and most viewers will empathize with the plight of the Na'vi and start to side with them, just as our protagonist does.

As I have indicated, the script isn't the most important reason to watch Avatar. Some of the dialogue is silly and you are clearly told which characters you are supposed to like or dislike. But that doesn't mean it's totally without depth and you will see a few of the characters develop and change. Sully is an obvious example, as is Grace (Sigourney Weaver), but take a closer look at Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso). His character interested me and I enjoyed seeing his character gradually change throughout the story. I would have liked to have seen him involved even more.

Once we are fully invested in the Na'vi way of life, the events which follow have more meaning. The actions of the military seem like abominations. There are obvious parallels to the way in which the US military is viewed by some. The use of Unobtainium is an obvious reference to oil in today's world. The home tree may even be viewed as the twin towers and the Na'vi represent a race that was exploited on our own world. Cameron isn't afraid to use our modern prejudices to draw us in deeper. There is a strong green message as well and it just seems wrong to destroy the beauty and harm the native population.

I'm a big fan of Orson Scott Card's Ender Wiggin series and it was interesting to see his theme of everything in the world being connected - from Speaker of the Dead - used in Avatar. It was effective because it heightened the feeling that this world and its people should not be exploited.

The final 45 minutes switches to full Hollywood mode. We see non-stop action, explosions, inspirational speeches, death, heroic acts, unlikely outcomes and miraculous escapes. It's full of cliché, but I found that I didn't actually mind. The reason was that the first half of the story made me care about these characters. I was fully invested.

One thing I realized after taking everything in was that Avatar was unique in one very important way:

I'm a fan of science fiction in general and love movies such as Blade Runner and Dune. When I watch those movies, or Star Wars, I know that they are set in different realities and sometimes on different worlds. But part of me always thinks that it's just Earth. It may feature a desert setting or use an unusual location, but it's still something I know. Avatar made me feel like I stepped out onto a completely new world. When I saw where and how the Na'vi lived, I was really seeing it for the first time. The creatures, the fauna and the colors were unique. It almost felt like I was a part of the story.

The overall pacing was excellent. Once you see Pandora's surface for the first time, you'll be hooked. This experience doesn't seem to last over two-and-a-half hours and you will probably wish for more when it ends. Don't despair; there is now an extended cut available with an additional 16 minutes and extensive special features, as well as the likelihood of two sequels over the next few years. The popularity of Avatar almost guarantees that we will be seeing a lot more of Pandora in the future. I for one can't wait.

Avatar is influenced by so many movies that it would be prohibitive to list them all. Dances with Wolves and The Matrix are certainly near the top of the list.

Video Quality 5/5
Avatar looks better than any movie I have ever seen, with the exception of some fully-animated titles. Although the majority was created on a computer rather than filmed with a camera, it seems real and the detail is exceptional. The colors that we know are accurate, while the newly-invented surroundings and inhabitants appear consistent with the less-familiar colors. The image is so good that it adds to the feeling that you are stepping out onto an unknown world. Even the menu and subtitles look impressive. I really can't imagine a better quality presentation in the future.

Audio Quality 5/5
The sound quality matches the picture quality. There is so much detail that it's a completely immersive experience. You can hear creatures all around you on the moon's surface. The latter action sequences carry impressive weight and the explosions seem real. The score matches the mood of the movie well and builds during important sequences, in a similar fashion to Lord of the Rings. I didn't have to strain to hear any dialogue.

It's hard to fault anything in the presentation as a whole. This is why Blu-ray exists.

Overall score 5/5 

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  1. It still baffles me that there are people there who dislike AVATAR and TITANIC surely theses can't be true movie fans, surely they must be CAMERON haters or just want to be different - both your reviews on TITANIC and the superb AVATAR are spot on - both amazing movies for different reasons by one of the BEST movie directors of OUR TIME :)

    1. Well, let's see, I am not a Cameron hater, since The Terminator, Aliens and T2 are among my top 100 favorite films.

      While Titanic and Avatar are not. Yes, they are good and highly entertaining but they lack the dramatic firepower of these three earlier films and thus I cannot consider them masterpieces, but only good films. I would need to watch these two films again some day, though.

  2. Yeah, Cameron has his place and the man knows how to make movies.

    Avatar's script is terrible. I honestly think I could have done a better job. However, the first 90 minutes make me care enough to overlook all the Hollywood posturing in the final act.

    As for Titanic; there's no shame in liking a romance, as long as it is done well. I like that he got the details of the sinking into the script as well.

  3. The Abyss is probably Cameron's best film?