Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition Review

Not even a year has passed since Avatar was released in theaters, and already its luster has started to fade. The fanfare that greeted it when people were finally able to see Cameron’s complete vision (after months of prophecies of box office doom) has been replaced by dismissal, hostility, and accusations of plagiarism of previous films (particularly Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves). Possibly as an effort to reclaim lost ground, James Cameron is now releasing another two versions of the film onto home video, each with eight more minutes of footage than the prior release. It’s unlikely that anyone who has entrenched him or herself in a camp on the film will change any opinions based on the new editions, as the footage added does little to clarify or enhance any of the films already well-stated points. But given the benefit of time, it should be clear that Avatar said more than it was generally given credit for having said, and that while it may have taken inspiration from prior films, it elaborated upon them while staying keeping close to the essential and still relevant truth.

The key to success in Hollywood seems to be finding a way to be just original enough without performing a 180 degree revolution, which is exactly what Avatar does. Jake Sully (the appropriately monotoned Sam Worthington, who evokes a noir protagonist even more now than before in the clearly Blade Runner inspired Earth opening) is reminiscent of any number of prior heroes, but especially Kevin Costner’s John J. Dunbar in Wolves. He’s surly, world-weary, and thoroughly sick of the mad and random qualities of the world that both holds him in place and keeps him down. But unlike Dunbar, he never really pretends to be anything other than a complete bastard, freely evidencing a level of dispassionate racism (more accurately speciessm in this case) that most honest people could probably relate to. When he is given an opportunity for new life and new work (and a fully functioning new body, a steady break from the emaciated and crippled one that he had upon leaving the marine corps) on the alien planet of Pandora, his acceptance is motivated not so much by a need for adventure as a hatred for the life that he has created for himself, and a desire to leave it behind for another one.

And so begins the waltz of the other, an elaborate courting ritual during which time our child of the machine age rediscovers the practical elements of survival, learns to respect the practices of indigenous peoples, and even indoctrinates himself into the culture with the aid of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a skilled hunter and warrior. Though the ensuing battle that comes between their two cultures is anything but a surprise, it’s also hardly unbelievable. Cameron’s politics of engagement are spelled out at length (Sully’s voiceover repeatedly informs us that the strong prey upon the weak), and they are quick to draw parallels between Pandora and more contemporary global conflicts. But in contrast to Wolves (and all sorts of other bleeding-heart actioners that hurled half-baked accusations at the Bush administration), Avatar is fully prepared to extend its insights beyond the people in power and straight to anyone who isn’t quite sure which side of the argument that they want to be on.

The most striking scene in the film is one in which Colonel Quarritch (the super beefed-up Stephen Lang) delivers a motivational speech before his troops, electronically showing the masses of Na’vi aliens creating assault formations outside their compound and explaining the attack that they would soon be making. The scene should be familiar to anyone who remembers the eve of the Iraq invasion, but it is remarkable for another reason: look across the room at the soldiers. They are black, brown, and white, male and female. Over a hundred years into the future, our society seems to have mastered all presently known forms of discrimination, but when presented with an opportunity to exploit a people unable to defend themselves, it is more than able to revert back to a system of oppression. Unlike other, similar films that take place comfortably in the past (thus preserving the feelings of anyone who likes to think of him or herself as one of the good ones), Avatar provides a rather grim warning for our future that discrimination never really vanishes, but only changes form.

As for Sully, the conclusion should be clear. His voice-over spells out every beat of his transformation in obvious detail (though it’s hard to say that normal people trying to be poetic don’t speak in a similar tone), and his ultimate transformation could be anticipated from the first moment that he lands on Pandora. But it comes at a price that Cameron does not ignore. The charges of racism (rooted primarily the ‘white guy saves the natives’ motif) leveled against the film aren’t totally without merit, but they aren’t completely fair to the detail that Cameron has imbued both the Na’vi culture and Sully’s arc with. The braver film would have been one told entirely from the perspective of the Na’vi, but Sully chooses to stay on Pandora not because he has in any way mastered its inhabitants (the number of times they prevent him from getting killed gives lie to that assertion). Instead, he is there because he has found a culture that could assimilate him better than his own could, and he has helped in their liberation with the advanced knowledge that he has of the colonial forces, without which they could probably not realistically have arrested their progress. He, when given the option (as we all are) to either move forward or to stay put, chooses to move forward, presenting the flip side to James Cameron’s challenge. Rather than playing a simple game of dominance, he manages to integrate his culture with theirs (several other humans remain behind on Pandora as well). It all happens a little bit easier than it should, but it’s still never unaware of its own ironies. For his part, Sully never seems to forget the fact that had his life gone only a little differently, he would have been fighting right alongside the marines.

DVD Bonus Features

This three-disc set has three versions of the film (all of them split in half across the first two discs). The third disc contains a four-part documentary called Capturing Avatar, which is primarily concerned with the technology that was used to create the film. There is also direct access to the additional scenes that were added for these editions, most of which are interesting without being essential. This DVD set is handsomely produced, but if there was ever a film to convince you that you need a Blu-ray player, this would have to be it. It’s a big commitment for one film, but it is clearly the way that Avatar should be seen.


"Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition" is on sale November 16, 2010 and is rated PG13. Sci-Fi. Written and directed by James Cameron. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Zoë Saldana.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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