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Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition DVD Review

Avatar (2009) movie poster Avatar

Theatrical Release: December 18, 2009 (Original), August 17, 2010 (Special Edition) / Running Time: 162 Minutes (Original Theatrical Cut), 171 minutes (Special Edition), 178 minutes (Collector's Extended Cut) / Rating: PG-13 (Theatrical & Special Edition), Not Rated (Collector's Extended Cut)

Writer/Director: James Cameron

Cast: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Joel David Moore (Norm Spellman), Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Selfridge), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Laz Alonso (Tsu'tey), Wes Studi (Eytukan), CCH Pounder (Moat), Dileep Rao (Dr. Max Patel), Matt Gerald (Corporal Lyle Wainfleet), Sean Anthony Moran (Private Fike), Jason Whyte (Cryo Vault Med Tech), Scott Lawrence (Venture Star Crew Chief), Kelly Kilgour (Lock Up Trooper), James Pitt (Shuttle Pilot), Sean Patrick Murphy (Shuttle Co-Pilot)

Buy Avatar from Amazon.com:
Extended Collector's Edition DVD • Extended Collector's Edition Blu-ray • Movie-Only Theatrical Cut DVD • Movie-Only Theatrical Cut Blu-ray + DVD


By Kelvin Cedeno

Avatar. That title alone inspires a myriad of reactions from people. It's difficult to find someone who hasn't seen the film, and your chances of finding someone who hasn't at least heard of it are minimal. This public awareness is hardly unexpected. Audiences had been waiting for James Cameron's post-Titanic feature film for twelve years. Now that it's arrived, it's grossed a staggering $2.8 billion worldwide, becoming the number one movie of all time (when the list isn't adjusted for inflation, anyway). Experts have tried to pinpoint just why Avatar became such a runaway success, but that's not such an easy question to answer. There are several reasons to consider.

Jake (Sam Worthington) admires his new avatar body and the ability to once again wiggle his toes.

The story itself has a wide, mainstream sort of appeal. It deals with former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now a paraplegic, who is chosen to participate in a research project. This project examines the foreign moon of Pandora and its tall, blue inhabitants called the Na'vi. As it turns out, the real purpose of the research is to mine Pandora for rocky material rare enough to be worth millions.
Several team members, including Jake, are given avatars with which to gain the trust of the Na'vi and make exploring easier. These avatars, a hybrid of human and Na'vi DNA, are shells that look just like the blue creatures, but are controlled by a sort of transplant of the human mind.

Now able to walk via his avatar, Jake accidentally runs into the Na'vi tribe known as the Omaticayas. A female member called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) reluctantly takes him in partly to see if he can fit in with her people and partly on the advice of the local nature spirits. Jake finds himself torn in several different directions, unsure of who he is and what he should do. Research leader Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) drills him to find out more about the Na'vi culture and Pandoran environment. Meanwhile, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has Jake act as a spy to learn what it will take for the Na'vi to relocate and allow mining of their resources. On top of all this, Jake struggles to fit in with the Omaticayas and learn their ways. The deeper he finds himself in their world, the harder it is for him to carry out his intended mission.

The most common criticism of Avatar is how ordinary its story is. Such thoughts aren't without merit as the plot does feel like a blend of Dances with Wolves, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, and Pocahontas. Because of that, the story quite frankly offers no surprises. Every plot point is anticipated well in advance without a single twist.

It can also be said that there's pretty much no character development outside of Jake. Aside from a few quick expressions of guilt, none of the other humans seems really changed by this experience. As for the Na'vi, only Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso) shows any sort of arc. The rest of the cast remains the same from beginning to end, a result of editing the film down to a suitable running time. The deleted scenes included in this new Extended Collector's Edition set allow several of the supporting characters to grow somewhat in comparison to what was left (or put back) in.

Separated from her fellow Na'vi during the battle, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) readies her bow just before a major interruption comes her way. Colonel Quaritch's (Stephen Lang) stubbornness and evil scowl suggest he's not someone to be taken lightly.

In a more specific story issue, the film toggles back and forth between Jake at the facility with his human colleagues and Jake in his avatar self with the Omaticayas. Whenever one of these personas sleeps, the other awakens. That raises the question of what the Na'vi think when they see Jake the avatar unconscious while Jake the human is awake elsewhere. The logistics are a bit fuzzy since he's shown in all times of the day in either body, sometimes seemingly for days on end.
Additional scenes not found in the theatrical cut reveal Na'vi are aware of how avatars work more or less. If that's the case, though, why do the few instances of the avatars blacking out surprise and confuse them? It seems like this wasn't fully thought out.

Such setbacks are present in a great deal of films today, even highly praised ones. One can only assume that the faults become more noticeable due to all the hype. In fact, that might be Avatar's biggest problem of all. The film has been touted as the second coming of cinema and it broke so many box office records that it's virtually impossible to take it at face value. While this, of course, isn't the film's fault, some of the blame can be laid on director James Cameron. Cameron isn't exactly known for his humility and has no problem creating his own hype and proudly touting his works. He promised an experience unlike anyone's ever seen before, so it stands to reason that audiences will feel slighted to get an often-told story with a new face.

However, what a face it is. If there's one thing people can agree upon, it's that Avatar is gorgeous to look at. The concept of computer-generated backdrops for live actors is nothing new. It's been done before with Episodes II and III of the Star Wars prequels along with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and 300. The differences here are that the land of Pandora is more convincing than the aforementioned films' settings, and the motion-captured Na'vi have more screen time than the live actors. Both the characters and their universe are tremendously rendered. The environment never has the digital sheen of other films' CG backdrops, always looking crisp and natural (even when the sights are anything but). The characters move more fluidly than those found in earlier motion capture films like Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express and Beowulf. It's all pure eye candy unlike anything shown on screen before. Whether or not this, coupled with the 3-D, was the main reason for the film's success is unclear. Cameron may be lofty in his announcements, but one would be hard-pressed to say he didn't deliver on a visual level.

That's not to say the story or characters fail. On the contrary, even with such obvious archetypes and plotting, the film is easy to invest in. Having recently reviewed Armageddon, the comparisons between Michael Bay and James Cameron are interesting. Both are well-known action directors whose films appeal to the masses. The two couldn't be more different, though, in terms of presentation. When Bay runs into a story clichι, he approaches it half-heartedly as if he's unsure of how to work through it, all too eager to get to the next action set piece. With Cameron, even his run-of-the-mill elements are treated in a way that feels right. He knows what the audience wants and expects, and he gives it to them, careful to make that work in the narrative. He also shoots his action more impressively than Bay. Bay relies too heavily on the editing process, overdoing it to the point where one can go into seizure if not prepared. Cameron's handling of action is far more graceful and filled with scope and grandeur.

Having finally tamed his banshee, the usually moody Jake (Sam Worthington) is all smiles.

It's easy to overlook the cast in something so technically-powered, but all do convincing jobs in their roles. The two standouts are Zoe Saldana as Neytiri and Stephen Lang as Quaritch. The two couldn't be more different, which may be why they stand out so much. Saldana's character doesn't have much to her other than to act as Jake's tour guide and love interest, but even with all of the CGI, the actress's nuances come through in the performance. She makes something very alien relatable and believable. Lang, on the other hand, has obvious fun chewing the scenery. His villain is in some ways refreshing in that he's classically evil. Hollywood has been so determined to give villains depth (a commendable practice, to be sure) that they tend to drain the characters of their fun. Here, the one-note characterization of Quaritch allows Lang to go all out in his demeanor, giving the audience someone they love to hate.

Most people have already formed some sort of opinion on Avatar. It's hard not to when it's become such an unavoidable pop culture icon. For this reviewer, the film is neither cinema's savior nor a stale, overrated rehash. The story may be familiar, but finding completely original tales is increasingly challenging, and even the most beloved films of all time follow noticeable patterns. What matters most is how the story is told, and it's here that Avatar succeeds. Even running nearly three hours, it's remarkably well-paced and offers a good balance of different elements. The technology on display is truly groundbreaking, standing on its own even without the much-touted use of 3-D. Few films are as breathtaking as this one. It may not be Cameron's best, but if one can get past the overblown hoopla, there's much to admire and enjoy about this production.

In human paraplegic form, Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) admires the scope of the Hallelujah Mountains and learns how they stay afloat. In this reinserted footage Grace (Sigourney Weaver) remembers tutoring Neytiri and her sister Sylwanin and the tragedy that struck soon afterwards.

Alternate Cuts

Not content with a $749.8 million domestic gross that he felt was cut short by Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, James Cameron had Avatar re-released to theaters on August 27th, 2010 in a Special Edition that added eight minutes of footage. Those segments include:

* Jake seeing a herd of Sturmbeest at an earlier point.
* Jake, Grace, and Norm visiting the old schoolhouse Grace used to teach the Na'vi children at.
* Jake marveling at some purple moss after first meeting Neytiri.
* Neytiri teaching her name to Jake.
* Jake learning how the Hallelujah Mountains stay afloat.
* An extended montage of Neytiri teaching Jake the Omaticayan ways.
* Neytiri playfully flying her banshee around the others.
* An extended love scene between Jake and Neytiri.
* The Omaticayas attacking a post of human soldiers.
*
An extended fight between Tsu'tey and the soldiers.
* An extended fight between Neytiri on her Thanator and Quaritch
* An on-screen death for a supporting character.

Going even further, Cameron added another seven minutes of footage for this Extended Collector's Edition, the film's second home video release. That cut contains everything that was reinstated for the Special Edition along with the following bits:

* An alternate opening of Jake's life on Earth before his brother's death.
* Grace revealing to Jake that she used to teach Neytiri and her deceased sister.
* Grace later explaining how Neytiri's sister died and why the school closed down.
* Jake clarifying the military's thought process behind the bulldozer incident to Grace.

The added bits are interesting to see, though they don't drastically change the feel of the film. That doesn't mean they're not beneficial, however. The scenes with Grace and her teaching history give further insight to her character and somewhat clear up a vague plot point. The new opening with Jake makes for a smoother introduction to both the character and picture, and the new death scene ties up an arc nicely. Of the three cuts, the Collector's Extended Cut seems the strongest due to the Grace backstory, but it's not by a wide margin. Thankfully, Fox has included all three versions in this new edition, splitting each across the first two discs.

Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition DVD cover art -- click for larger view and to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (English, Spanish, French)
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 16, 2010
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)
Suggested Retail Price: $34.98
Book-Style Packaging with Pull-Out Trays and Reflective Slipcover
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($54.99 SRP)
Still available in Movie-Only DVD ($29.98 SRP) and Blu-ray + DVD ($39.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Avatar again appears in Cameron's preferred open matte 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The video quality here is comparable to that of the original DVD release, and that's not a good thing. The results are surprisingly subpar. The image is soft by DVD standards and plagued by compression artifacts. Considering the film is spread across two discs, there shouldn't be a reason for this. Colors appear fairly accurate and vivid, but they're the sole positive on this botched transfer. It's obvious that as little care as possible went into this to make the leap to Blu-ray seem all the more drastic; an underhanded method, to be sure.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is far more satisfying. This is a consistently lively track with varying degrees of sound effects ranging from choppers and Sturmbeest roars to lab and jungle ambience. No matter what the sequence, the sound field is utilized to a convincing degree. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and Jake's omnipresent narration fills the room when implemented. James Horner's layered musical score is given scope and richness without having to compete with the other elements. Unlike the video, the audio is quite strong for the format.

"A Message from Pandora" shows director James Cameron receiving special world king face paint upon arrival in South America. In a scene that didn't make it as far as animation, Jake (Sam Worthington) and Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso) engage in a drinking contest, here shown in motion capture performance.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Following last April's barebones initial release, this Extended Collector's Edition deals Avatar the bonus features it begs for. The only extra accompanying the two movie discs is Disc Two's "A Message from Pandora" (20:10). Here we see James Cameron's goodwill visit to an Amazonian tribe. The tribe's home is in danger of being torn down by a government-built dam,
and Cameron acts as a sort of mediator for them. Witnessing the tribe's customs and daily activities is interesting, but in the end, this is basically a public service announcement in which Cameron basks in the limelight.

The rest of the supplements lie on Disc Three. In a nice move, viewers can access the new Special Edition and Collector's Extended Cut footage in isolation with footage bookending them to show where they fit.

Next come a whopping 28 deleted scenes (1:06:43). These are presented in various states of completion, some with rough animation, others with merely the actors on the motion capture soundstage. Interestingly, most of this is presented in the 2.40:1 ratio of the general theatrical release. Scenes include Norm's jealousy of Jake's Omaticayan interaction, a festival celebrating a successful hunt, Jake looking into the eye of Eywa as part of his initiation, Parker's last-minute protests over the home tree invasion, the scientists taking part in the battle, and an alternate death scene for a supporting character. The moments with Norm (Joel David Moore) and Parker (Giovanni Ribisi) are the strongest as they flesh out the characters significantly, and Max (Dileep Rao) is given more to do, as well. Out of context, most of the scenes seem quite good, but their inclusion likely would've dragged down an already long film. The scenes are preceded by an introduction (3:10) that explains the various stages of development shown in the footage.

A 2001 test of a motion capture alien against a live background was used to see how convincing the process could be for a project like "Avatar." Zoe Saldana practices her archery during a performance-enhancing forest expedition.

The last feature on the DVD version is "Capturing Avatar" (1:38:19), a four-part documentary that covers the entire creation of the film from its early development all the way to its video release. Part 1 (the first 27 minutes) and focuses on pre-production. We hear about how the concept first came about while Titanic was still being made. Early designs and examples of the motion capture technology are shown, and we also learn about the one-year time period Cameron had to show Fox how this all would work.

Part 2's 28 minutes focus on the actors. Small snippets of screen tests are interspersed by reflections on the casting process. Preparatory work -- including a weekend hiking trip, military boot camp, and Na'vi movement training -- are all touched upon. The end of the section looks at the motion capture shoot and the both the pros and cons of the process.

A CG model for Jake allows the animators to tweak his facial characteristics via a dropdown menu. As a means of promoting Earth Day (and, not so coincidentally, the original Avatar DVD and Blu-ray release), a "home tree" was planted for dozens of students to witness.

Part 3 runs 24 minutes, this time looking at the science fiction aspect of the story. The live-action portions of the shoot are covered here, showing how much of the sets were constructed and how much were computer-generated. The designing process of the different technological weapons and crafts is also given some attention.

In Part 4, the piece's final 19 minutes gloss through post-production. A bit of the digital effects work, editing, and score are touched upon, but this segment centers mostly on the hype coming before and after the release. The crew mentions online reactions to the teaser trailer and the different public appearances and screenings that helped spread better word of mouth. Overall, the documentary is a strong look at the production and moves faster than expected.

That wraps up the DVD content, but the Blu-ray version of this title adds a great deal more. That version comes with 84 minutes' worth of production materials like screen tests and visual effects progressions. There's also 90 minutes of extended segments from the main documentary, galleries totaling 633 stills, trailers, Cameron's original treatment, an and an encyclopedia for Pandora. None of that appears on the DVD presumably for the same reason that the DVD's video quality disappoints: to make the Blu-ray more enticing.
Avatar Costumes
None of those exclusive features make special use of the BD format and all could've easily been included on a fourth disc here. It's a shameless and unnecessary tactic that leaves DVD buyers feeling isolated and ripped off.

The main menu for each disc is the same. A lightly animated forest in Pandora plays host to a montage of film clips while the selections are placed over vines. The submenus feature still images basically look like screen caps. These are joined by score as is the main menu.

The packaging for the set is rather unique. The three discs come housed in what looks like a hardcover book. Instead of normal pages, though, there are thick cardboard sleeves in which the discs slide in and out of like drawers. Artwork (focusing on the nature aspect of the tale rather than the science fiction) and quotes adorn every side of these panels as well as the cover. The book slides sideways into a sturdy case which itself slips into a cardboard slipcover. Pamphlets featuring a disc breakdown as well as an ad for a book tie-in are also included.

Jake (Sam Worthington, right) tries to convince the suspicious Tsu'tey (Laz Alonso), Moat (CCH Pounder), and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) to follow his lead and rally against the "sky people."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

By now, it's virtually impossible to separate Avatar from the all the massive hype surrounding it. Familiar but engaging, the film does enough right to be a winning experience, even if it's only the visuals that really push new ground. This Extended Collector's Edition presents two alternate cuts of the picture that offer minor improvements. Unfortunately, the image quality is subpar and two-thirds of the supplements have become Blu-ray exclusives. Considering the original DVD presentation was less than satisfactory, this version of Avatar is the one to get. The audio is strong, and the deleted scenes and documentary are both enlightening. Those with Blu-ray capabilities are certainly better off getting that set to which a lot more love has obviously gone into.

Support this site and buy Avatar from Amazon.com:
Extended Collector's Edition DVD / Extended Collector's Edition Blu-ray / Movie-Only DVD / Movie-Only Blu-ray + DVD

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Reviewed December 4, 2010.



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