Sunday, November 14, 2010

Video review: "Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition"

When "Avatar" was initially released on video in April, I praised James Cameron's visionary film even as I harshly criticized him for giving us such a bare-bones disc -- lacking any kind of commentary track, making-of documentary, anything. It was a major disappointment, and an abandonment of the film's fans to give the top-grossing movie of all time such a meager and, frankly, lazy video release. I stand by those words.

But I also predicted that Cameron would eventually issue a special director's cut or special edition, as he has done with his other seminal films like "Aliens," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "The Abyss" -- though not, notably, with 1997's "Titanic." These special collections boasted all the behind-the-scenes goodies one could ask for, as well as an extended cut of the film.

What I really liked about these previous discs was that they also came with the theatrical version, so you could switch back and forth to the director's cut with the touch of a button.

It wasn't any sort of sorcerous act of prognostication, but I've been proven right: "Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition" follows in the wake of Cameron's other terrific special video editions -- and even puts them to shame.

I can't even begin to describe the amount of extras contained in the three-disc Blu-ray edition. There's hours -- no, make that days worth of material to go through. I've only had time to experience a small portion of them, and they have left me deeply impressed.

Start with the fact there are three versions of the film: The original version; the theatrical re-release edition containing eight additional minutes of footage; and the Collector's Extended Cut that adds another 16 minutes -- bringing the total run time to just a hair under three hours.

The additional footage is seamlessly edited into the existing version, but one great feature allows you to immediately jump to the bonus material for those too anxious to wait to see what's new. (I know I was.)

The extended version includes a haunting new opening sequence of Jake Sully's life on Earth, which has a hard-boiled dystopian flavor reminiscent of "Blade Runner." There's also quite a bit more backstory on Sigourney Weaver's character.

After watching the film, it's time to flip over to the other two discs crammed full of stuff. Start with even more movie to watch: 45 deleted/extended scenes totaling 67 minutes of screen time. If for no other reason, they're interesting to watch for the various levels of completion of the special effects combining live action, motion capture performances and CGI.

A making-of documentary runs 98 minutes, tracking Cameron's first thoughts about making "Avatar" even before he started shooting "Titanic." Cameron says the idea for the fantastic world of Pandora didn't come from any single spark of creation, but an entire childhood filled with a fascination with nature, coupled with an adult's fondness for art and science fiction.

Then there are production videos: Animatics, conceptual videos and early versions of the story told in comic-book style. That's another 84 minutes right there. There's also a 20-minute long feature "A Message from Pandora," which is essentially Cameron's personal plea for conservation of the environment.

The centerpiece of disc three is "Opening Pandora's Box," which includes 68 minutes worth of the most CG-heavy scenes. By clicking buttons on your player's remote, you can instantly shift the view to see how the scenes were put together one layer of animation at a time.

Seventeen production shorts running a few minutes each touch on every topic imaginable, from stunts to music to costumes. I was astonished to learn that Cameron had actual copies of every piece of clothing worn by the Na'vi manufactured for real, and even dressed actors tinted blue for video capture. (The skimpy Na'vi outfits somehow look even more daring on real humans.)

There are also hundreds of production still photographs, a copy of Cameron's original screenplay, and even "Pandorapedia" -- an encyclopedic description of Pandora, its inhabitants and interconnected ecosystem. It's 449 pages long!

I might quibble about the lack of a commentary track, but frankly with this astonishing amount of material I'm not sure what else Cameron would have to add.

One genuine criticism: For some reason, the Extended Collector's Edition does not include a digital copy of the film for loading on portable devices. This was actually the only extra included on the original video release of "Avatar," so to exclude it here is puzzling indeed.

Perhaps we'll have to wait for the Super Special Limited Director's Cut to get that thrown in.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 4 stars

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