'Avatar': There's Always a Bigger Fish

If you add up the unabashed color and light shows, the crazy special effects that aren't quite photorealistic but blend convincingly into their own environments, the clumsy dialogue and the undeniable showmanship, you get something a lot closer to the Star Wars prequels than some of the angrier nerds would care to admit.


Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang, Joel Moore
Distributor: Fox
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2010-11-16

After a bare-bones DVD released while the film was still in theaters and a short late-summer special-edition theatrical reissue, Avatar has come to DVD and Blu-Ray in a format better fitting its biggest-movie-ever status. The language on the cover dispenses with (direct) box office claims, simply referring to the film as the "greatest adventure of all time", suggesting that writer-director-producer-visionary James Cameron may also have final ad-copy approval.

Hyperbolic or not, bigness is clearly what Cameron is chasing, over a dozen years after his last biggest-movie-ever, Titanic. Though its central sci-fi concept of a human operating a non-human body from afar has been explored before (twice, even, during the year leading up to Avatar's release, with the less successful Gamer and Surrogates), Cameron wants out-sci-fi-epic other sci-fi-epics and bring the audience along with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) on his voyage through the wild jungles and mountains of the alien planet Pandora.

At home, Jake's journey is less of a sensory experience -- not so much because it must be presented in 2-D rather than Cameron's preferred 3-D, but rather due to the inevitable decrease in screen size. Cameron is a big-canvas filmmaker, and his broad storytelling strokes tend to play better on a gigantic screen with a rumbling sound system; shrunk down, you may pay more attention to the dialogue and characterization, and noticing, if you didn't before, how perfunctory it is.

The trade-off, in this case, is access to two additional versions of Avatar: the "special edition" re-release with eight additional minutes, and a disc-only version with 16 additional minutes, running just about three hours. The three-hour version includes an Earth-set prologue, which means extra vivid Cameron visuals of our polluted future as well as extra tin-eared Cameron tough-guy dialogue (did you really think that there wasn't a single draft of Avatar lacking the word "candy-ass"?).

There are more exotic alien creatures, too, as well as a barely perceptible smidge more of alien sex. If you like Avatar at 165minutes, you'll probably dig it at 180, too; Cameron seems as if he could easily spend four or five hours, maybe weeks, just taking everyone on a tour of Pandora, like a fantastical version of his Aliens of the Deep documentary (you can see the influence of his fascination with underwater biology in some of the flora and fauna designs).

However, for all of the extra footage, we don't get much more of a read on Jake's mystical specialness -- the vague quality that allows him to transcend his human body and become one with the Na'vi (those are the gigantic cat-Smurf hybrids who Jake has been sent in to study and possibly displace). Without a commentary on any of the cuts, Cameron scholars will puzzle for years over what the hell he's getting at by calling the sought-after Pandora natural resource "unobtainium". Is it a joke on the substance's McGuffin status? An indicator of the callowness of the corporate humans? Or was that really just the stupid, stupid name that Cameron decided he liked best?

Avatar may be silly, but it's not cynical; Cameron has the rare ability to merge efficient storytelling with otherworldly luxuriating. For a 160- to-180-minute movie, the screenplay still gets Jake into his Na'vi body well ahead of the 30-minute mark; and yet for a megabudget action spectacular, it's careful in doling out full-on action, compacting much of it into a bravura 20-minutes or so towards the end. For some reason, sci-fi/fantasy directors tend to go softer and more day-glo as they age; in contrast to the relentless onslaught of Cameron pictures like Terminator 2 or Aliens, the luminous colors and environmental themes of Avatar have a hippie-ish tint. But the director's comfort in going all dorky is sort of admirable.

Come to think of it, if you add up the unabashed color and light shows, the crazy special effects that aren't quite photorealistic but blend convincingly into their own environments, the clumsy dialogue and the undeniable showmanship, you get something a lot closer to the Star Wars prequels than some of the angrier nerds would care to admit. Like George Lucas, Cameron turns the crass art of blockbusting into an imaginative adventure in filmmaking logistics.

In addition to the 16 minutes of finished footage, another disc contains 45-minutes of additional deleted scenes in various stages of completion. There are plenty of the usual minor snips and tucks, but also entire sequences and even subplots: we learn more about the scientists, including the ill-fated Pandoran school run by scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver). The other humans get more screen time in general, an antidote to the workmanlike Sam Worthington performance that can't match the iron-willed heroines of Cameron's best work (though Zoe Saldana comes closer as the warrior-princess Na'vi Neytiri).

Despite its attempts at humanity, Avatar lacks the emotional kick of Titanic or, for that matter, Aliens; it's more of an expertly constructed thrill ride. Maybe there's some more resonance kicking around on Cameron's editing bay. If his career of biggest ever, special editions, and multiple home-video releases is any indication, there will always be a longer cut; there will always be something bigger coming.


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