Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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Avatar made an astounding $750 million at the U.S. box office. A simple, completely unscientific calculation indicates approximately 75 million people saw the movie in theatres, based on a $10 average ticket price. That’s roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population.

What follows was written by one person in the three-quarters of the populace who did not see it in a theatre.

Green Is Good

The Na'vi look good in Blu
The Na’vi look good in Blu

It’s the summer of 2154. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Terminator: Salvation), a paraplegic marine, has been sent to a moon called Pandora to fill in for his recently murdered brother on a high-profile six-year science project. Jake’s brother was a genius with a PhD who had been working on the project for three years. Jake’s a jarhead marine with no science experience aside from frog dissection. But, since they share the same genetic makeup, Jake should fit right in with the project, which puts people at the helm of a doppelganger based on the DNA blending of a human and Pandora’s indigenous beings, the giant, blue Na’vi.

It’s a nifty idea: virtually embody a genetic likeness of a Na’vi as the ultimate solution to “blend in, disappear.” It’d help if Jake and his hard-ass science lead, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, Aliens), skipped the cargo pants and Stanford T-shirts and maybe wore some of the local attire, but that’s apparently beside the point.

Jake’s mission, once he gets familiar with his Na’vi self, is to win over the locals so they’ll pack up their hammocks and move off their sacred land so the Earthlings can come in and mine a coal-like energy source. The evil company behind the expedition puts a priority on shareholder value and a strong quarterly statement, even if it means annihilating the “blue monkeys” and having to tamp down some bad press.

Yes. This is writer/director James Cameron’s idea of a message movie. Forget the fact that he was a truck driver before he made his millions.

G.I. Jerk

Avatar’s first 90 minutes are fairly decent, but the last hour is a bunch of hooey. That’s when the big, bad military, led by one of Cameron’s typical 1D grunts, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang, Public Enemies), acts completely irrationally and razes sacred Na’vi land in order to set up a contrived confrontation between man and Na’vi. That six-year science project? It’s been chopped down to three months. Feel free to groan out loud when a 22nd century redneck, complete with trucker’s cap, makes his cameo while driving a drone bulldozer.

What follows can best be described as Dances With Ewoks. Storywise, it’s all been done before: the simple, natural beings stick it to the man in the end.

Or maybe call it How to Train Your Dragon. Ooops. That one’s taken. How about The Na’vi King? The tacked on pop song during the end credits certainly completes the vibe that this high-tech experiment is little more than a Disney cartoon.

There’s loads of mystical talk surrounding the Na’vi and their natural lifestyle. At times, it sounds like Cameron is quoting from the Star Wars saga while the dialogue yammers about the forest being a network of energy that flows through all living things. It’s the Force. There are even electrochemical connections between the tree roots that act as an organic hard drive, wherein memories and experiences are downloaded into the very fabric of the planet.

With all the attention paid to the details in creating Pandora and its colorful creatures, the story holes become all the more glaring. For one, there are a couple times when the humans drop the connection with their avatars while surrounded by Na’vi, who surmise there are demons in the false bodies. But when the connections are restored and the avatars return to life, not a word is said. It’s as if nothing scary or mystical or evil happened.

Second Life

Avatar takes the motion capture technology Robert Zemeckis has been playing with in movies such as The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol to a whole new level. Here’s the problem: Avatar isn’t supposed to be an animated movie like Beowulf, it’s supposed to be the next generation of “live action” filmmaking.

The end result plays like a massive air-brushed spread by Frank Frazetta (rest his soul). But, even with all of the colorful imagery, the sensation of watching Avatar at home is akin to spending 160 minutes watching somebody else play a PlayStation 3 game. People are clearly getting used to the look of computer-generated special effects, but there’s barely a shred of photorealism in Avatar’s imagery. No doubt the whole experience was enhanced in theatres by Cameron’s “game-changing” 3D technology. But if a movie is so heavily reliant on a specific presentation style, is it really a great movie or a great example of technology? The best movies feature a great story and great characters that transcend the technology behind the presentation.

There’s something tangible about watching physical, built sets with natural lighting and spaceships betrayed by matte lines. It all provides a sense of the human element and the understanding that the objects on the screen were built with human hands rather than HAL’s pixel machine.

Now, on Blu-ray, it’s once again all about the presentation: pristine picture and audio. In some respects, the picture is too pristine. It has an air of complete artifice. The real piece of movie magic, sans 3D, is watching Sully’s emaciated legs; whether in shorts or pants, the effect one-ups Capt. Dan in Forrest Gump.

Blu-ray Extras

This is a bare bones combo pack with both the Blu-ray and DVD discs presenting only the movie. There is, however, a paper insert in the case with a registration code providing access to a desktop application download. The app (which already has compatibility issues on the Mac version) serves as an interactive, customizable desktop with loads of fluffy coverage of Avatar as well as other material that would work better as part of a BD-Live package.

No doubt loads of supplement features were all done before the movie was released. But, yeah, Cameron let people know ahead of time an ultimate edition is coming in time for Christmas gift giving, possibly in the form of an extended director’s cut. And a likely third release would focus on Blu-ray 3D technology. It is duly noted Cameron is every bit as inclined to milk his creations as George Lucas.

Sit through the end credits and THX certification, then read the disclaimer that the views expressed in the interviews and commentary are not necessarily those of Fox. It’s a sloppy, misleading inclusion that gives a good hint that commentaries will be added on to the same Blu-ray cut in a future edition.

Blu-ray Exclusives

There are none.

Picture and Sound

There’s no denying the picture and sound are immaculate. But, given Cameron and Fox trumpet this barebones release as the equivalent of a Super-Bit DVD, focusing strictly on the best possible feature presentation at the expense of any supplemental material (which could’ve been put on a separate disc), anything less than immaculate would’ve been a disappointment.

The picture is presented in 1.78:1, filling out the entire HDTV screen and essentially representing the composition of the movie’s IMAX presentation.

The Blu-ray’s primary audio track, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, is well formed and does an excellent job with the surround effects. Also available are a surprising number of audio options: English Dolby Surround, English 5.1 Descriptive Audio, and Spanish, French, and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Optional subtitles are available in English for the deaf and hard of hearing, Spanish, and Portuguese.

How to Use This Disc

There’s not much to say. Watch the movie for the pretty pictures, not the story.