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Avatar on High Definition disc – Blu-folk Belong on Blu-ray

By Jim Bray
April 28, 2010

"Dances with Smurfs." "Pocahontas". "A Liberal Guilt Trip."

Those are just a few of the negative opinions I've heard about James Cameron's latest effort which, like his previous film "Titanic", has become the biggest movie in the known universe. Not really remembering the story of Pocahontas, I can't comment on that reference, but the other two are quite apt: Avatar is much like "Dances with Wolves"  with blue aliens taking the place of the aboriginal Americans, and the movie's overall theme is a heavy-handed left wing one of "Corporations and Military Bad, Scientists and Peaceful Aboriginal Victims Good".

It's too bad, because as an action adventure flick – which is how Cameron made his well-deserved name as a top director – it's a terrific ride and the technology used to make the film has allowed for a creation that is nothing short of wondrous. If it weren't for the script, Avatar would be a movie like nothing you've ever seen before.

It's ironic that, despite all the great animation in Avatar, the only really cartoony characters are human: the evil corporate guy and the evil Marine guy.

I saw the movie in 3D IMAX and thought at the time that Cameron deserved the benefit of the doubt – that instead of disgorging liberal dogma he was perhaps merely trying to recreate the "Star Crossed Lovers" theme he used so successfully in Titanic. Then he opened his mouth.

And then the hyping of the video version began, timed to coincide with "Earth Day," an annual anti-human achievement orgasm designed to make us all feel guilty about being here. I assume Mr. Cameron walked or took a horse to the Oscar ceremony, because if he drove, flew or took a train, then he's got nerve lecturing us.

Oh well. Despite how it beats you over the head, Avatar is still a terrific ride and the Blu-ray is an absolutely marvelous home theater experience, one of the best discs I've ever seen. 

The story, of course, surrounds an ex-Marine who goes rogue (can we say that these days without causing certain heads to explode?) , standing with the natives on the moon Pandora, and against his fellow humans, when evil corporate folk decide to push the perfect and peaceful people of Pandora out of the way so they can get at the subtly-named "unobtanium" they're there to mine.

One can understand why Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) would decide to throw in with the natives. As a human, he's a paraplegic (which must be a bitter pill to swallow) who took his job as "Avatar driver" because he needed to begin again, needed the money and happened to have the right DNA for it. But as a 10 foot tall, blue Na'vi, he can walk, run, ride, fly dinosaur-like critters and make out with a sexy blue chick named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who also plays Henry Higgins to his Eliza Doolittle.

Sully's decision to defect is made easier by those vile humans. They want the Na'vi moved out of their sacred home tree because it sits over a huge deposit of unobtanium, making it unobtainable while the Na'vi are still rooted there. Determined to ensure the natives become restless, those vile humans are bent on destroying their ancient home and forcing them to go elsewhere to be at one with the universe.

The story is peppered with either homages, rip-offs or, depending on how you view Mr. Cameron, coincidences from other stories and media. There are the obvious comparisons to "Dances With Wolves," though perhaps not enough to get Cameron sued (then again, he can undoubtedly afford the lawyers) as well as bits scooped from just about every sci fi tale I can think of from 2001 to Star Wars Episode One. They're too many to list.

Some shots even seemed reminiscent of Frank Frazetta's fantasy paintings.

The movie is also filled with some really neat ideas, including Cameron's usual nifty technological toys and it's coupled with digital locations that are flat out gorgeous, looking at times like a cross between old Roger Dean record album covers (think Yes, etc.), Jurassic Park and the wonderful world of Oz. It's a beautiful and compelling place and if it were real the Na'vi would probably have a pretty decent tourism business going if it weren't for the wide variety of deadly critters who also live there.

The computer generated scenery and the characters Cameron and his gang have created from the actors' motion captured performances are the stuff of dreams. It's said Cameron had to wait for the technology to catch up with his vision and it was definitely worth the wait. Ten years ago the movie would have looked clunky and fake. Now, I found myself forgetting at times that this was basically a state-of-the-art cartoon and not actors in makeup, so realistically rendered it all is.

If Cameron had only parked his agenda in the lot outside the studio he'd have created a wondrous masterpiece for the ages instead of this extremely compelling, entertaining and eminently worth experiencing – but ultimately empty  – roller coaster ride.

The Blu-ray itself is spectacular as well. Yet like the movie itself, it isn't completely satisfying:  it's extremely bare bones – there isn't even a trailer! Now, I'd rather scrap supplements in favor of a great presentation of the movie anytime, so I have little to complain about Fox having used all the disc's storage space for the movie itself. But a major title like this usually includes at least something to add value for customers who want more than just the title. A second disc of extras, perhaps?

Instead, we get a second disc that's a DVD version of the movie.

Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox has a history of releasing substandard video versions of James Cameron movies. There were never good anamorphic widescreen versions of The Abyss and True Lies on DVD, for example, just fake widescreen versions you had to zoom out to fill a widescreen TV.

Still, the lack of extras hasn't stopped this version of Avatar from selling oodles of copies anyway in advance of Fox releasing the inevitable special edition that has been announced for this fall already.

I hate it when studios do that: it's a slap in the face of consumers, who Hollywood regularly seems to consider as nothing more than wallets. Perhaps the worst example of this is the insulting anti-piracy warnings at the start of discs, where there really should be something saying "Thanks; we appreciate your business!"

Anyway, the Avatar Blu-ray's 1080p picture quality (at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1) is simply outstanding. The contrast and the colors are gorgeous, the detail is fantastic and it looks almost as if the picture is going to jump off the screen at you.  I watched it on both a 106 inch front projection screen and a 50 inch plasma and it was definitely the stuff of videophile dreams.

Which brings me to 3D. I didn't miss the 3D at all. When I saw it in IMAX, I though the 3D distracting and instead of the picture leaping out of the screen it was more like looking into a tank, with depth extending behind the screen instead of in front of it for the most part. The 2D Blu-ray on the 106 inch screen (projected by an excellent Epson LCD front projector) gave all the "wow" factor you could want, with excellent apparent "depth" on its own, no glasses required.

Still, with the industry now pushing 3D TV, you'd think this would be the perfect title with which to flog it…

One thing that bugged me about the Blu-ray was the pop-up menu, which pops up even if you're just skipping ahead a chapter. It's annoying and unnecessary.

The audio, presented in dts HD Master Audio, is also spectacular. It's very dynamic, with plenty of oomph and excellent fidelity – just what you want when you're either in magical forests surrounded by fantastic wildlife or in a battle with ammunition whizzing all around you. The surrounds are used well but, unlike the screenplay, they don't beat you over the head with their presence. Yet when a missile is fired in your direction it'll head right through your room to the surround speakers, and as those dino-like things fly around their wings whoosh all over the room.

This is a tough review to end. I was annoyed enough by the cartoonish script (Shut up and direct, James!) to not want to recommend Avatar. But it's so good in every other way – the performances, the look, the technological tour de force, the whiz-bang adventure – that I must look beyond that.

If you want a smart humans versus alien film from 2009, District 9 is much better. But Avatar really must be seen to be believed. It's a Blu-ray that sci-fi and home theater fans will want to own, truly a wondrous achievement in cinema history.

Copyright 2010 Jim Bray
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