Technology with attitude

Unofficial Blu-Ray Review: Thoughts on the New, Extended Edition of AVATAR

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Between this and the Thin Red Line Blu-ray that Criterion put out earlier this year, 2010 is proving highly illustrative of the power of home video.

To wit:

I disliked The Thin Red Line intensely when I first saw it.  Criterion’s Blu-ray edition was so good technically and so fascinating from a supplemental level that it forced me to reappraise the film.  I will never think it perfect.  It’s too unfocused, too diffuse, often drowning (especially in its last hour) in its visual excesses and vocal pretensions.

Viewed through the prism of its behind-the-scenes journey, I find it a small miracle that the end result is at all watchable, and I noticed great power and beauty that I missed the first time.  I firmly believe the first two hours rank with the greatest of all war films.

This new version of Avatar also has me eating my words.  I never hated Avatar.  I never particularly liked it much, either.  For all its advances in visual effects and 3D filmmaking, the shallow characters and beyond-trite dialogue dropped what could have been an “A+” adventure epic into a “C+,” fitfully amusing blockbuster.

Put it this way: had the acting and writing the same care as the pixels, I’d mention it in the same breath as Close Encounters of the Third Kind rather than just Armageddon.

This new Blu-ray edition bumps that rating up a whole letter grade.

To clarify: the new “Extended Cut” doesn’t add that much to the overall experience.  The highly-touted Earth opening feels like a deleted scene that should’ve stayed deleted, and that’s the most noticeable change.

It’s still Avatar, and like The Thin Red Line, Avatar’s fundamental flaws are permanent no matter how you gussy them up.  James Cameron should really NEVER write dialogue.  Sam Worthington should really NEVER act.  No changing those.

Yet, after jumping into the exhaustive bonus material, I have a new-found respect for the craft.  Special effects are so commonplace today that it’s easy to become anaesthetized towards them.  You accept them as a given, and then move on.  The better an effect, the easier that distancing becomes, and I’m guilty of that with Avatar.

The Blu-ray has two special features that act as a corrective to that school of thought–a 100-minute long documentary and a series of seventeen scenes that enable you to watch different points of the rendering process.

The documentary reinforces that no matter how much CGI ended up in the finished product, the actual shooting schedule proceeded like a normal film.  The actors, or their stunt men, were present for every beat of the film, be it a quiet exposition scene or a dragon attack in the final Na’vi vs. Humans battle.

That’s the reason Pandora feels tactile and less cartoony than it might otherwise feel–director Cameron never got to a complicated action scene and said, “Right, we’ll CG this in post.”  He choreographed the action, rehearsed it, and then set his actors loose the same way, say, Steven Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan.

Zoe Saldana, in particular, gets the biggest boost from this documentary.  Two things are striking: 1) how much of her work was successfully transcribed from the shooting set to her CGI counterpart, and 2) how effective her performance is regardless of the rendering stage.  CGI Zoe is as moving as Half-Rendered Template Zoe is as moving as Human-in-Mocap-Suit Zoe.

The true revelation of this Blu-ray is the seventeen-scene-selection feature.  Each scene can be viewed in three ways.  1) A wholly live-action version of the scene, which resembles avant-garde theater, 2) A half-rendered template, which looks like Playstation graphics, circa 1995, and 3) The final, fully rendered result, with complete CGI modifications/enhancements.

Here’s the kicker: nearly everything gets an enhancement in the final cut.  The shift from human to Na’vi?  No surprise there.  The backdrops of Pandora?  Again, not a shocker.

But what about the acrylic face masks that human characters wear on Pandora?  What about whole indoor sets, as mundane as a locker room or a normal hospital observation theater?  What about humans themselves–there are a bunch of shots with an unnoticeable CGI Stephen Lang.

During Jake’s first awakening into his Avatar body, the live-action version has two actors playing doctors wearing 2000’s-era casual garb.

In the finished version, only their heads remain, the bodies replaced with futuristic surgical scrubs.

And the effect is seamless.

This isn’t just computer programming, it is building life from raw, impersonal technology.  I don’t mean to go all Internet Hyperbole-y, but it’s creation, plain and simple.  I have never seen digital filmmaking this persuasive at conveying a total experience.

Isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place?  We want to experience new worlds, to experience the unexperienceable. Watching Avatar this time drew aesthetic comparisons to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dances with Wolves.  The three films aren’t so dissimilar in format: gorgeous visual experience tempered by some truly ludicrous screenwriting.

We tend to favor live action work because of the skill required to successfully manipulate the physical world, it takes just as much savvy to manipulate the digital world, especially in an arena where everything, from the clouds in the sky, the grass on the ground, to the glass of a window, is modulated through successful computer strokes.

It demands the same kind of respect as the creative team that builds a scale-model city of the future from papier-mâché or travels to remotest Antarctica to study underwater life.  The craft may be different, but it’s craft all the same.

Of course, craft gets dinged here and there by some clunky exposition or tone-deaf acting, but I’m reminded of a famous Pauline Kael quote remarking that a movie’s aggregate effect can be so potent that “even though the film has flaws, the flaws do not matter.”

For its wonders, for its digital magic, for its filmmaking verve, Avatar will last.

But don’t be if it takes a special feature or two to realize that.