Follow us on

Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Avatar

April 29th, 2010

Avatar - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Avatar is the biggest box office hit ever made, both domestically and internationally, by huge margins in both cases. It's also one of the most expensive movies ever made and it earned stellar reviews, not to mention numerous awards. With this success, there's a lot of hype to live up to. There is also a bit of backlash in some areas, so with that it might be hard to keep an open mind on this film, but I will do my best.

The film is set in 2154 on a distant planet called Pandora. We meet Jake Sully, a marine who was wounded in combat and is now left a paraplegic. His twin brother, a scientist, was supposed to go to Pandora to be part of the Avatar project, but he was mugged and killed shortly before he was set to go. Because the Avatars are coded into the genetics of the "pilot", he is recruited to take his brother's place.

Once there he meets up with Dr. Grace Augustine, the head of the program who is not happy to have to deal with yet another marine, and Norm Spellman, one of his fellow pilots who has trained for a long, long time to get here. He also meets Colonel Miles Quaritch, the head of Sec-Ops, the private security firm in charge of protecting RDA corporation, the mining corporation that are on Pandora in order to mine unobtanium. The head of the RDA operation there, Carter Selfridge, explains that the only thing standing in the way of the RDA and the unobtanium are the Na'vi, the indigenous species. That's where the Avatars come into play.

The plan is to send Avatars into the Na'vi in order to find a diplomatic solution. Find a way to convince the Na'vi to leave so that the RDA can destroy their home... that doesn't seem like a very likely scenario. So Colonel Miles Quaritch comes up with a better plan: Get Jake Sully to find out as much about the Na'vi and their home as he can so they can use military force to drive them out and destroy them. I guess "better" depends on your point of view. He makes Jake an offer: give him the information he needs and he'll make sure the corporation pays for the surgery needed to regain the use of his legs.

At first he agrees, but the more he learns of the Na'vi, especially Neytiri, his allegiances start to change.

Like I mentioned, there has been some backlash against this movie with some derisively calling it FernGully in space or Dances with Wolves in space. I can see where these complaints originate, as there are some similarities in the two plots, at least on some superficial level. However, the idea of imperial conquest and one of the attackers developing a cross-culture romance is not new and it dates back further than 1990. In fact, one could argue that the themes of this movie could find their roots in ancient myths. How many myths involve a "God" falling for a "Mortal", for instance? This movie has a number of very recognizable elements combined to create an effective, if not original, story. Sure, the message was a little ham-fisted at times, but at least there was a message to go with the wonder.

What James Cameron does best in this movie is to create a world. Pandora is massive and it feels like something that is real, both in a technical sense and in a living, breathing sense. The creatures in the movie looked real, as did the world they inhabit, even the crazy parts like the floating mountains. Not just floating mountains, but floating mountains with waterfalls. How is water heavier than the mountain? Oh well, it still looked really cool, and I guess that was the point. Although too often the creatures were just analogues to animals on Earth. For instance, the Pa'li, a.k.a. Direhorse, look way too much like a horse to be real. Evolutionarily speaking, I think the odds of two animals on two planets looking that much alike are too small. Again, this is a minor point.

I do have a question... where are the insects? Where are the creepy crawlies? When Eywa sends the fauna to attack, why didn't it send huge number of smaller creatures? Locusts can bring down an aircraft in real life, so why not do the same here? Or hell, attack the base. You think if all the rats in New York City, or any major city, were able to coordinate that there would be any army who could stop them? Hell no. Or something smaller like parasites. Speaking of poor tactics, when Trudy attacked with the Scorpion Gunship, why did she blow the element of surprise on another Gunship? Why not use her first attack to take out the cockpit of the Dragon Assault Ship? Or the big transport ship with all of the explosives? Wouldn't that make more sense? I guess if she did that, we couldn't have that big confrontation in the end.

On the other hand, I appreciate the decision to not use a shaky camera during the major action scenes. Don't get me wrong, a judicious use of that kind of camera work and the use of quick cuts can be effective in making the action scenes seem more real or more personal. (The Bourne Trilogy is an excellent example of this.) However, when overused or used in action scenes that are supposed to feel epic in scale, it hurts the film and just makes the action hard to follow. (Revenge of the Fallen is an example of the latter.)

On a side note, I don't think James Cameron lost the Best Director Oscar to Kathryn Bigelow because she is a woman. I think he lost for two very related reasons. Avatar is a technological wonder that using groundbreaking computer technology to put human actors inside a computer generated world. This has two effects. Firstly, while this is a much more complex film technically, this is a much less complex story and the visual tends to overwhelm. Secondly, because so much of the movie was created inside of a computer and the human element takes a back seat to the visual effects, it's not outrageous to think that more than a few Oscar voters would think, 'But what did he do as director? The computer did all of the work.' It would be unfair to dismiss James Cameron's directing in this movie because of that. After all, fully animated films need directors. But this had a lot larger role in who won the Oscar than his gender did.

Looking in on the two home market releases, we find that the DVD has absolutely no special features. None. Neither does the Blu-ray. There is a reason for this: the film is being re-released in theaters later this year with a few minutes more footage and this Extended Edition will be released on the home market in the fall on a special edition DVD and Blu-ray.

The Blu-ray does look fantastic. It's arguably the best-looking live action film I've ever reviewed. It is also arguably not really live action, which does give it a leg up on the competition. Flat out, this is a movie that needs to be seen in High Definition. The audio is almost as good as the video. This is certainly disc you can pop into your player to show off your home theater system. Finally, the Blu-ray only costs 25% more than the DVD, and it comes with the DVD.

The Verdict

Avatar tells a story that is neither unique nor complex, but it tells it in an effective fashion. The special effects are truly special, even if they can get in the way of the more emotional aspects of storytelling. The wonder that is Pandora is worth visiting, and re-visiting. The DVD and Blu-ray are featureless releases and are only worth renting while you wait for the extended special edition releases that have already been announced. If you are intent on buying the film right now, there is absolutely no reason to not grab the Blu-ray over the DVD.

- Submitted by:

Filed under: Video Review, Avatar