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Avatar (Blu-ray Review)

23 Apr, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 4/22/10
Box Office $745.4 million
$29.98 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack
Rated 'PG-13' for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.
Stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel Moore, Michelle Rodriguez.

I wasn’t a huge fan of this movie when it came out, and I saw it in Imax 3D. I’ll admit the visuals were impressive, and the 3D enhanced the viewing experience. But the story served little more than an excuse for the visuals, and on its own left a lot to be desired.

But the hype machine that implied this was a new generation of filmmaking, combined with the fact that this was James Cameron’s first film since Titanic, created the perfect storm of audience anticipation. Faced with the notion that the 3D had to be seen to be believed, audiences flocked to theaters and made it the new No. 1 box office hit of all time. The perception of an underlying anti-American message no doubt helped its overseas tally, either.

Avatar works best as a travelogue of an alien world. The creatures, setting and culture of Pandora has been planned out to remarkable detail, which is an impressive feat for a filmmaker. The visuals looked gorgeous in theaters, and they look outstanding on Blu-ray. But how could they not? Fox abandoned any and all frills for the single-disc BD-50 presentation, using all available space to enhance the picture and sound quality, and both are nearly perfect. As a presentation of a movie, Avatar is what Blu-ray was made for.

But Avatar was designed as an experience, to take us to an alien world and marvel at the fantastic sights found there (not unlike French filmmaker Georges Méliès’ 1902 epic A Trip to the Moon, which was the blockbuster spectacle of its day). As a result, the film has been trumpeted as the next coming of Star Wars in terms of its effects on the zeitgeist, touted as changing the way films will be made and distributed (and already we are seeing the rush to release almost everything in 3D).

This initial Blu-ray and DVD release is 2D only, and without the 3D, Avatar really is just another special effects reel, slapped onto a retelling of Pocahontas, with elements of Dances With Wolves, Ferngully, The Matrix and Return of the Jedi to round it out ("South Park" famously referred to it as Dances With Smurfs!). Granted, it’s a pretty good effects reel, so loaded with detail that it’s easy to find something new on each viewing. The Oscar for visual effects was well earned. (Cinematography? Not so much.)

The problem that dogs Avatar is that Cameron has layered in a very cynical view of the American way of life (ironically, an anti-capitalist message in a movie designed to manipulate audiences into spending more money on it) and combines it with trite dialogue and such over-the-top action in the second half it’s practically self-parody on a Michael Bay level. In fact, at one point while watching the final battle of Avatar I created my Optimus Prime standard — that is, would I enjoy a scene better if Optimus Prime randomly arrived for no reason but to fight whatever’s there? And watching humans in exosuits trample through the forest, that’s what I wanted to see.

OK, so the script is lame, but serviceable for the visual effects. The gimmick of 3D might generate some excitement, as it did in theaters, but with such a weak story is it enough to lift Avatar beyond being good for much more than to demonstrate the capabilities of a home entertainment system? Only the hardcore Avatards are likely to relish the entirety of the film in a 2D presentation. For the rest of us looking for stunning vistas of the natural world, we already have Planet Earth, and a fast-forward button.

Maybe I might be more enthused had Fox included a bonus disc with some actual extras on it, instead of copies of the movie on Blu-ray and DVD without any. At the very least, a commentary could have been included on the DVD, since there is no point in maxing out the standard-def format for better picture. But releasing movie-only versions while opening admitting that a deluxe edition is coming later this year, and a 3D version within a few years, reinforces all the complaints home video fans have had about double dipping.

To be fair, though, if the movie-only version ends up breaking sales records, and it looks like it will, those bloggers who usually grumble but snatched this one up anyway are really forfeiting their right to complain, aren’t they?

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