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Bigger Than Life: 'Avatar' on Blu-ray

Avatar is one of the most versatile entertainments ever conceived, a big idea epic that also excels in the smaller, more detailed moments. It's eye candy of a type so amazing and monumental that you rarely get tired of consuming it.


Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso
Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-12-18 (General release)
UK date: 2010-12-17 (General release)

There is a famous clip of David Lynch lambasting anyone who believes that watching a movie at home (or even worse, on their phone) is somehow similar to seeing it in a theater. Of course, the American auteur is 100% right - with caveats. Roger Ebert often argues that the living room experience can far surpass the local Cineplex, given an owner's desire to dial down the projector lamp and amp up the profit/discomfort margin. He too is 100% right - with caveats. Indeed, what both men fail to realize is that, in rare instances, a movie can be a must see big screen given as well as a highly effective small screen curiosity. They are not necessarily incompatible ideas, just ones that are as infrequent as they are fascinating. Such an exception is James Cameron's megabuck masterpiece, Avatar.

With it's arrival on Blu-ray this past week (22 April, 2010), now is as good a time as any to discuss the movie's make-up, it obvious flaws, how easily it overcomes and even corrects them, and why experiencing the movie in IMAX 3D - or any other theatrical version - does not mean you can't enjoy the film on the high-def format, and visa versa. Indeed, Avatar is one of the most versatile entertainments ever conceived, a big idea epic that also excels in the smaller, more detailed moments. It's eye candy of a type so amazing and monumental that you rarely get tired of consuming it, and yet it is also overflowing with enough valid food for thought value that you're not only satiated on the sugary visual treats.

For those still unfamiliar with the film, Avatar follows wounded (and now paralyzed) Marine Jake Scully as he takes his late scientist brother's place on the planet Pandora. His sibling was part of a project by which genetic "clones" - part human, part extraterrestrial native known as Na'Vi - are linked to actual individuals, allowing them to move around the alien world and interact with the indigenous population. On the one side of the situation is mission leader Grace Augustine. She wants to bring peace to Pandora through diplomatic means. On the other end are the military and corporate scoundrels who want to rape the planet's resources. Rich with a much coveted mineral known as Unobtainium, they will do anything to get to the massive deposits. In time, Jake finds himself torn between his duty as a soldier and his desire to protect the Na'Vi, thanks in part to his affective for a lithe warrior named Neytiri. A major battle for Pandora ensues.

As a film, Avatar is astonishing. It's a feat of filmmaking audacity so bold and so brazen that such creative chutzpah alone carries a lot of artistic weight. For those who constantly dismiss the movie as something other than an inspired landmark, there's something they fail to address. Almost everything you see was generated in a computer. Sure, there are a few physical sets, but for the vast majority of the movie - Cameron estimates somewhere in the range of 85 to 95% - the actors were linked to sophisticated motion capture rigs and were interacting with blank, greenscreen realities. All else was drafted in the mind of the F/X geniuses: every blade of grass; every stunning Pandoran vista; every eccentric space creature; every death-dealing military machine.

Take Jake's initial introduction to the planet surface. He does some minimal exploring before coming across a hammer-headed beast. As he stands his ground, acting touch, another more monstrous creature comes out of the jungle. The chase is on. As the ten foot tall blue being which is our hero runs through thickets and sails under tree roots, it's easy to imagine a stuntman securing such a marvelous physical dynamic. But then it dawns on you - this was all done on a desktop. Someone sat down, took Cameron's focused direction, and realized the electrifying action sequence as a series of carefully constructed frames and flights of fancy. While we have become blasé in our appreciation of CGI, the work on Avatar is so outside the basic blockbuster box that it's easy to overlook it. In fact, the film is so lifelike and realistic in its depiction of a far off world that we tend to forget it’s the purest form of fiction.

More importantly, character is not sacrificed for a desire to be more eye-popping. Cameron has always been brilliant at bringing believability to even the most insane storytelling concept (killer machines from the future? Please…) and he does so again with Avatar. Sure, his basic plot is readily recycled, borrowing heavily from a dozen other sci-fi tales (perhaps Jake is the 'Kwisatz Haderach' while "Na'Vi" is just another name for "Fremen") and leans heavily on a uber-liberal 'nature first' ecological viewpoint. But everyone here sells the situation - from the evil humans like corporate goon Parker Selfridge or the reaction Colonel Miles Quaritch to the various members of Neytiri's tribe. While the narrative remains large in scope, the way in which Cameron keeps his players personable and real draws the viewer in and keeps them interested and involved.

So the question becomes - can the Blu-ray recreate or even compete with an in-theater Avatar experience? Well, the first factor you have to take into consideration is that Cameron and the distributing studio Fox have decided to make this first, quick turnaround take on the film as barebones as possible. In either format there are no bonus features. For the most part, this is understandable, since a movie running nearly three hours needs all the disc space it can get to handle its audio and video needs. Of course, this means some sort of massive, overly comprehensive special edition package is bound to make an appearance come Christmas time (there are rumors that Cameron is prepping a cut sex scene for inclusion in the predetermined double dip), but for now, we are locked into a limited context look at the film.

For its part, the Blu-ray far surpasses expectations. The incredible collection of colors, the brilliant compositions that find new and inventive ways of presenting a completely foreign world leap out of the flat screen and instantly remind you of sitting in a darkened auditorium, eyes transfixed on the optical wonders playing out. Even better, unlike other CG-ccentric presentations that become choppy or obviously "animated" on the small screen, the high definition version of Avatar maintains every ounce of its organic flow. The 1080p image swirls and soars across the format, providing just as much exciting and intensity as in the theater. About the only thing missing here is a 3D option and until technology (and affordability) can replace the two-color crap of the old with the vibrant "Real" of the now, viewers will have to forgo such an option.

Without the au current industry gimmick in place, Avatar misses being a 100% successful home video transition. Its proportion of success, however, is higher than almost any other modern movie made in the last twenty years. Cameron much-maligned perfectionism pays off, even for those who would marvel at the imagination and crow over the content. Sure, David Lynch is still right. Nothing can truly beat that initial rush of sitting down in a darkened room and experiencing a movie in 70 foot celluloid. Similarly, Roger Ebert accurately points out that, even at the best arthouses, the technology (and how it is treated) can take away from the occasion. For both, there is Avatar on Blu-ray. It's not quite the local Bijou, but it's damn close…and in some ways, better.


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