Release Date(s)2009 (April 22, 2010)
Studio(s)Lightstorm/Fox (20th Century Fox)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: N/A
[Editor’s Note: This review was written in 2010, before Fox had widely released the film on Blu-ray 3D format. The Amazon purchase link (at right) links to the theatrical Blu-ray 3D/2D Combo, which is now available.]
James Cameron’s Avatar is a fascinating film. Some consider it the most magical release in the history of the cinema. Others consider it a bloated, over-hyped, Liberal “message” film with a derivative, paper-thin plot.
No matter what your opinion, there can be no denying that it’s pushed the art of CG into new territory, and that its innovative 3D production and presentation has altered the visual landscape of film, probably forever. I suspect, when we look back a decade or two from now, Avatar will be considered as influential on the cinema as Star Wars was in its day, both technically and in the sheer number of young people it will inspire to become filmmakers and effects artists themselves. And you also can’t deny that the film has made obscene amounts of money, so it’s certain to trigger a ton of copycat 3D-fantasy epics, and possibly even its own sub-genre.
Part of Avatar’s success is that it’s a simple, visual story and its message appeals to a wide variety of audiences - perhaps less so here in the States but certainly around the world. And its IMAX 3D theatrical presentation is nothing less than a near irresistible roller coaster ride. Even if you dislike the story, it’s hard not to want to take the ride at least a couple times. My own take is more straightforward: I saw Avatar twice in IMAX 3D and enjoyed it both times. The story is fine for what it is, and holds up a couple times, but this is not a film I’m likely to watch again very often – especially in 2D only.
At this point in my review, I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to re-post my reaction to Avatar after having just seen it for the first time in IMAX 3D, from back in December:
“Now the film’s story, while well meaning and honestly told, is paper thin and fairly silly. It’s equal parts Dances with Wolves and The Lion King. But in the experience of this film – and it is an experience – story doesn’t really matter. What’s important is the filmmaking technology on display here, much of it (by no surprise) the work of the effects team at WETA Digital – the same people who dazzled us all with The Lord of the Rings films. Whatever else you think of Avatar, I believe it represents a watershed moment in the cinema. In fact, I think it’s going to have a larger ultimate impact on the business than the original Star Wars. This film represents the first time I have ever seen fully-digital characters that actually seem to have genuine life in them, and a soul behind their eyes. Gollum from the Rings film came close, but here the filmmakers just 110% nailed it – their new motion-(and even facial expression)-capture technology is just extraordinary. And once you can create all-digital characters that seem “real”, I think you can do virtually anything. I’m guessing it will be just a few years before we see a major “human” digital character on screen that is virtually indistinguishable from the actual human actors around them. Sooner or later, I’m betting that some well-known current actor or actress will have their likeness and voice digitally transcribed so they can continue to star in films for decades looking virtually unchanged. You may even see deceased actors brought back to life on the big screen, with the permission of their estates.
The other achievement here is, of course, the convincing use of the 3D process. This is not a cheesy, “spears poking at your eyes” kind of effect, but the creation of a fully believable and immersive 3D viewing space. The net effect of this is two-fold: It draws you as a viewer more fully into the story, and I think it restores the idea of big-screen, theatre-going as a special and unique experience. This is the thing that people are forgetting: Once all theatres are equipped to present films like this, 3D will not be simply used for roller-coaster action, sci-fi and fantasy films. This process can (and I think ultimately will) be applied to anything and everything, from big action films to small, intimate kitchen table dramas. It will ultimately be just like the transition from black and white filmmaking to color. And when that happens, people will have a reason to go back out to the cinema in larger numbers. Because while the industry is working hard to deliver a 3D experience at home with new HDTVs and Blu-ray players, I find it hard to believe that they can truly capture the full sensory experience I enjoyed this weekend while viewing Avatar in 3D IMAX. And the funny thing about it is, I went into this film feeling really very skeptical about it. I mean, I’d seen all the commercials on TV and though, “Really? Twelve-foot tall blue people on dragons? Right.” But the 2D commercials – even in HD – just don’t begin to capture the experience. And as I left the theatre, I had two distinct thoughts. First, James Cameron may just have saved (or at least breathed much new life into) the film business. And second, (and no offense to Cameron meant) imagine what a truly subtle and more sophisticated filmmaker might do with this technology! I can’t wait to find out.
In any case, forget its glaring script deficiencies: Avatar in 3D is a ride well worth taking. The best critic quote I’ve heard so far about the film comes from J. R. Jones of the Chicago Reader: “Watching it, I began to understand how people in 1933 must have felt when they saw King Kong.” Yes – exactly. As an exercise in storytelling, Avatar is fairly mundane. But I think you’ll be surprised, because the film’s dazzling technological showcase means you won’t care. Thus much at least is absolutely certain: Virtually anything is now possible on the big screen.”
Okay, so that was my take from 12/22 of last year. Have my feelings changed since then? Yes... a little. In this way: Having just watched the Blu-ray, my feeling is that Avatar was produced in 3D, it was meant for 3D and it should be seen in 3D. And without 3D... well, it definitely loses something. Except...
...the quality of Fox’s new Blu-ray does help retain a little bit of that original roller coaster experience. Not all of it by any measure, but some. Judged on its own for Blu-ray high-definition quality, this AVC/1080p presentation – framed at the original 1.78:1 IMAX 3D aspect ratio – is very, very, VERY good. It is NOT perfect, however, despite the fact that the film is presented on a BD-50 with no other extras. But it is pretty damn stunning. Let me qualify that: I think this transfer is going to divide opinions, and what your own opinion is will depend on how large your HD display is. I think on a 40-inch flat panel, this disc will look spectacular, with vibrant color and abundant detail. When you get up to the size of the 110-inch front projection screen I’m using... the image does start to break down just a little bit. Let me say it plainly: I think this is the best looking presentation of Avatar you could ask for on a single BD disc. The bit rates are cranked and every bit of disc space is used to max out the presentation quality. But for anyone out there during the format war who claimed that a studio would never need all the added room a BD-50 disc can provide, here’s the proof you were incorrect. Seen on a very large display, the image does occasionally look a little soft, with very minor visible compression artifacting. Not a lot, but just enough to occasionally distract. The problem is, the film is long... and there is just so much detail! I can’t imagine how hard the compression techs must have worked to squeeze every little bit of quality out here – and they have, by and large, succeeded wonderfully.
Visually, the colors are accurate to the theatrical presentation, and range from muted to stunningly bold and vibrant. Black levels are neigh-perfect, but shadows ranges from deep black to grayish. Neither of those things are defects – they’re artistic choices. Cameron and his CG team used a ton of atmospheric effects (think smoke, haze, mist and fog - both on set and in their virtual shots) to create a sense of 3D space and greatly enhance the image depth and scale. That works beautifully in an actual 3D presentation, but in 2D it does keep the image from really popping off the screen, the way (for example) a more “cartoonish” CG-animated film like Cars or Toy Story would. Still, there’s abundant fine image detail, with very little to no DNR or haloing. And the atmospheric effects, combined with the dynamic cinematography, do work to give the image a surprisingly good 3D-dimensional feel, for a 2D-only presentation. What I would say is this: The film looks fantastic on Blu-ray and I think most of you will be really blown away. But when the more elaborate Blu-ray special edition of Avatar comes out later this year (and when the 3D version appears on the format a couple years from now), I hope Cameron splits the film onto two BD-50 discs. That’s probably going to sound like sacrilege to some of you younger readers, but I really don’t mind a big epic film split over two discs, as was the case with the 4-disc LOTR: Extended Edition DVDs. A lot of classic films (think Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind) were split in two with an Intermission. Given that it’s reported that Cameron may add scenes for next BD version to create an extended cut, and that there will be substantial extras included, I think splitting the film over two BD-50s will really give the compression the chance to breathe even more than it does here... so the images will really pop off the screen. Just my feeling, anyway.
Audio-wise, Avatar on Blu-ray is very close to perfect. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless mix doesn’t so much dazzle you with surround sound gimmickry as it does with just how completely natural it sounds. The mix creates a smooth, big and enveloping soundstage. As I was watching this, I was never tempted to twist my neck around in reaction to some cheesy surround audio effect whispering past my ear. Instead, I simply felt like I was there – completely sonically immersed in the visual space. And given that the visual space is a uniquely fantastical (and somewhat outrageous) environment, that is a truly impressive achievement. Clarity is outstanding and there’s great low-end reinforcement in the LFE channel. In addition to DTS-HD track, audio is available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, and there’s an English Descriptive Audio mix as well. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, as well as English SDH. I’m very pleased to see the generous options for the deaf and visually impaired – that’s a nice and appreciated touch.
The disc’s menus are full-motion film clips in full HD, with music. There are no extras and no BD-Live options. The packaging is a standard 2-disc BD case, with a metallic cardboard slipcase. The package also includes a DVD version of the film (16x9/1.78:1 with Dolby Digital 5.1) that you can give to the kids.
So is Fox’s movie-only Avatar worth buying on Blu-ray? Well... that depends. I’d certainly be interested in an elaborate special edition that takes you behind the scenes on the making of the film, and illustrates all the groundbreaking 3D/CG technology used to make it. But without any of that content, and without 3D, there just isn’t enough here to hold my interest. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of this film and you really love it, your answer could easily be yes... and there’s not a thing wrong with that. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I would just suggest two things. First, don’t even bother with the DVD. Seriously, if you don’t own a Blu-ray player or HDTV yet, just trust me... wait to buy and/or rent Avatar until you do. You couldn’t pay me to watch this film in 2D standard-definition. It’s just not worth it, and you’re just not going to really appreciate this film in 2D/SD. Second, if you DO choose to buy Avatar on Blu-ray, look for a really good sale price. Nobody should pay full retail price for a movie-only Blu-ray these days, I don’t care what the film is. But those two caveats aside, I think if you’re motivated enough to buy this film on BD now, as it’s presented in this first edition, I suspect you won’t be disappointed with it.
- Bill Hunt