Widely hyped, Avatar was supposed to be one of the biggest films ever seen, a groundbreaking technical achievement that would shake the industry to its core. It was also immeasurably expensive with no formal figure put on its finished budget, though most people estimate is it went way above the original $300 million and is probably nearer $500 million, with James Cameron putting in plenty of his own money, so personal was the film. Cameron was no stranger to big movies as there was a certain film about a boat released in 1997 that was a massive hit and became, even judging for inflation, the most financially successful film of all time. Even going by Titanic's well, Titanic success, Avatar was something else altogether, raking in over $2.7 billion, nearly $1 billion more than Titanic achieved. The box office is where it fared the best and only won three Oscars (for Art Direction, Cinematography and Visual Effects).
Set in the year 2154, Avatar follows Jake Sully, a paralysed Marine, who is given a second shot at helping out the military and proving his worth when his twin brother, a Ph.D. and highly respected scientist, is killed. As his brother was working on a project in which artificial bodies are grown to match your DNA so that you can be 'ported' into them, the team is left with a spare, and rather expensive, body. Reluctantly, they take Jake on board and allow him following his brother's footsteps, so to speak. Finding that in this other body, his Avatar, Jake is able to do everything he can't in real life, he grabs the opportunity with both hands and proves to be extremely adept at using his Avatar and an extremely quick learner.
The whole idea behind the Avatar program is to grow bodies that are identical to the indigenous population on the planet Pandora which has huge resources of the rich mineral Unobtanium which Earth, now extremely poor, desperately needs. The largest deposit is directly beneath the nearest Na'avi settlement and, having tried negotiating with them, taught them English and built them schools to no avail, the latest plan is to ingratiate themselves with the Na'avi and find out what they want to relocate. If this fails, then the troops will be sent in and force will be used to raise the area to the ground so they can mine for the minerals.
What you basically have in Avatar is the classic scientists versus the military scenario, with the scientists, led by Dr Grace Augustine, who want to learn from and understand the Na'avi and keep the trigger-happy military, who are fairly wary of the Na'avi's fighting ability, at bay.
When Jake first goes to Pandora, he is only there as security for Grace and another scientist but, on his first outing, finds himself threatened by one creature and then chased headlong through the jungle and over a waterfall by another. Lost deep within the forest, Jake is left alone as the transport must return back to base as people are not permitted in the forest after dark. Jake eventually stumbles into the path of one of the Na'avi, Neytiri, who is the local chief's daughter but thanks to a sign from Eywa, their deity, she doesn't kill him and instead takes him back to her home where she is ordered to study him as he is the first 'warrior' that they have encountered. When darkness falls and Jake drifts off to sleep in a rolled up leaf high up in the trees, he wakes up back on the base. When he recounts what has happened, the scientists can't believe that someone with such a lack of education has been so fortunate and the military decide to use him as a spy so, just as Jake is being studied by the Na'avi, he learns from them and is covertly relaying his findings back to the military to help them in any future conflict.
Predictably enough, it isn't long before Jake and Neytiri, who really clashed at the beginning, begin to fall in love even though she is promised to another. Jake also proves rather adept at 'getting back on the horse' and is a quick learner, picking up how to ride the wild beasts in the jungle, fly on the winged creatures and learned the Na'avi way of life, which is very similar to the Gaia concept in which everyone, and everything, is linked and part of one single life system. Eventually, Jake becomes almost addicted to his time inside the Avatar to the point where he feels more at home on Pandora with the Na'avi than on the base inside his human body. This also puts his loyalty in jeopardy as he is supposed to be finding a way to defeat the very people with whom he feels at home.
Avatar was a labour of love for James Cameron who spent about five years developing a new way of shooting in order to make the whole film in 3-D, developing the vast environments of Pandora and even, with a little help from eminent linguistic experts, creating a language for the Na'avi. The film runs at over 150 minutes and there are times when you can really see where all the effort went, with some quite breathtaking sections and landscapes, such as the Hallelujah Mountains, and the fight sequences when Jake, new to the experience, is joined by Neytiri and some of the other young tribal members swoops around cliff faces, valleys and through the jungle.
During the five years, James Cameron clearly did a great deal of writing as there are long sections of Avatar that feel extremely overwritten, when Cameron doesn't believe that the audience can keep up with events (conventional film wisdom dictates that the audience is usually a step or two ahead of the film) and so felt compelled to not only show events, but have Jake explain what is happening in voiceover. Some of the dialogue, characters and character arcs are also extremely clichéd; there is nothing revolutionary or particularly mind blowing about the screenplay or characterisation. There are other sections that feel extremely baggy and Cameron really needed an editor to point out where the flab is, and probably could have cut the best part of half an hour from the film. There are elements here that are clearly designed to evoke the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan with one exchange including 'shock and awe', 'daisy cutters' and 'martyrdom'! There's also some bizarre inclusions such as the giant Mech-suits carrying knives and the precious mineral called Unobtanium! I felt that Cameron was probably writing and used Unobtanium as he couldn't think of a better name at the time, left it as something to get back to but just never found the time.
However, all this being said, there is at least an hour of Avatar that is a genuine 'wow' material, with incredible vistas, breathtakingly colourful and amazingly designed landscapes and creatures that are beautifully designed and it is in these sections that the film really comes to life becoming the big visual spectacle that you expected and wanted it to be: the sort of thing that really does give you 'your bang for your buck'. It is just a shame that, in between these sequences, as some sections that's really do drag, making you itch to get back to Pandora when you are riding on flying monsters and swinging from vines. I hated Titanic, thinking it was an over-sentimentalised, badly written and predictable piece of tosh that dragged, clunked and clichéd itself towards the final credits. It was a film with amazing visual spectacles and I still remember sitting in the cinema when the ship pitches forward, hurling people from the back of the boat into the sea and feeling as if I, too, was physically moving. That is what James Cameron can do well and, when he does that stuff in Avatar, you really are transported to another world.
The disc is absolutely nothing in the way of supplementary material and, as James Cameron has already announced that he intends to re-release the film into cinemas with several additional minutes that he cut out from the initial theatrical release, it is quite obvious that all of the special features are being held back for that release which will be marketed as the 'Ultimate Director's Cut Edition' (or some such tagline). The fact that this vanilla disc has sold so well it's a testament to how much people enjoyed the film in cinemas (if they went, some may have chosen to stay away and wait for the Blu-ray Disc) and how little we seem to care about having 3-D at home, something I've suspected for a very long time.
For a film that is as reliant on the visual aspect as Avatar is, it really needs a disc with a top drawer transfer that makes the colours pop out and the digital landscapes really impress. The disc does not disappoint as the BD-50 has a quite mammoth-sized video file which, when shown on a Full HD screen, is visually stunning and, even on a 42" plasma, is extremely immersive. You will never get the full IMAX experience at home but, with a film as well designed as this shown on a big enough screen at home, you are still thrown into Pandora.
Cameron used a variety of different techniques to bring Avatar to life, including motion capture, CG animation and green screen work and these blend together virtually seamlessly. I have always had a problem with motion capture films such as The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol as the animation is perfectly fine but the characters have eyes that are completely dead and mouths that don't quite move properly. In order to avoid this, Cameron did a lot of the action with cameras on the actors' faces, filming their eyes and the inside of their mouths so that the animated eyes could look lifelike and the lips worked in conjunction with their teeth and tongues. This pays dividends when creating the Na'avi who move and speak like real people and interact with each other in a realistic fashion.
The only bug is Sigourney Weaver's Avatar face as it doesn't have the same features as the other Avatars and Na'avi, with her nose too small, thin and 'human'.
I was hoping for a 7.1 track, whether LPCM, DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD but, although you don't get that, you do get a rather splendid DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that is incredibly well mixed, presenting the all-encompassing soundstage quite brilliantly. The dialogue is crystal clear and the action sequences really bring yourself system to life, with ambient sounds all around you, as wind blows, leaves rustle and people chatter around you.
The action sequences brings the best out of the soundtrack with plenty of LFE rumbling and bass from the surround speakers which is filtered out perfectly to allow for clear dialogue. The film is also quite well scored by James Horner, whose music helps to amplify the emotions and really underscore the most poignant moments. It really walks a tightrope between complementing the visuals and over sentimentalising things and, for my money, was just on the right side of sentimental guff.
Avatar is a colossal film, the biggest of all time, and a movie that will be looked back on in years to come because of the technical innovations brought. It didn't convince me that 3-D is the way forward at the cinema, the one place where 3-D should have come into its element, and seemingly failed to convince the members of the Academy too, as it missed out on the Best Picture Oscar, though did pick up awards for its cinematography, art design and visual effects. I think the Academy got this just about right as The Hurt Locker was a much better film as it was more engaging without all the visual hoopla that Avatar boasted. It is almost beyond debate that the visual effects in Avatar are better than in any other film that year and the cinematography was quite superb.
The best thing to do with Avatar for the moment is to rent it as you know that if you buy a copy now, it will be almost redundant when the 'new and improved' disc hits the shelves later this year. The fact that James Cameron chose to reveal that he intended to add more footage into the film coincided with this vanilla release so you just know that the 'director's cut' would be incorporated into and 'all singing, all dancing' release with a commentary (or two) and all the behind-the-scenes footage that they inevitably shot during the lengthy making of process. This is a film that is definitely worth renting as it does work in 2-D on the home cinema and is a great way to spend a night in with your beverage of choice.