Given the fact that "modern" 3-D has really only become a full-fledged phenomenon since the release of Avatar, I was surprised that my first reaction to the new Blu-ray was that it felt weirder to watch the film in a traditional 2-D format than when wearing a pair of polarized glasses. Because James Cameron's game-changer really did redefine the possibilities for high-quality theatrical exhibition overnight, and I admit I still find it difficult to think about the film in less than three dimensions. And yet, the fact that its story is resolutely two-dimensional makes that particular transition significantly easier, turning a blockbuster of historic proportions into something slightly more manageable as it arrives on home video.
Newly released in a bare-bones set that offers spectacular presentation of Cameron and company's groundbreaking technical virtuosity but no details how those selfsame visuals were achieved, the Avatar Blu-ray feels mostly like a chance to reconnect with, or even reconsider the film itself while whetting appetites for the eventual bells-and-whistles multi-disc release that is due later this year.
In terms of the video and audio transfers, this is easily reference-quality material: the clarity and vividness is almost shocking – I daresay three-dimensional, even without the glasses – while the audio presentation is both well-defined in each channel and collectively immersive. What stands out most in the 2-D format is how deliberately the film was conceived visually to serve 3-D presentation: Cameron's shots maximize the depth of field without becoming self-conscious or obtrusive, while his composition of series of shots or sequences creates an overall spatial cohesiveness. As opposed to the 3-D of yesteryear which constantly pointed out its relationship to an audience, this film invites the viewer in but doesn't force him or her to dodge flying objects or otherwise remember that he or she is watching a multidimensional universe.
Other than the film, however, there's literally nothing else in this set, unless a chapter search counts. (It doesn't.) All of which leaves only the viewer's (both intellectually and spatially) closer examination of the film, which by now they may have seen several times, but one suspects without the ability to pause and pore over its many parts at their convenience. But what's interesting is that as opposed to showing the myriad ways in which the film doesn't break ground narratively, this home viewing experience actually allows viewers and especially critics the chance to see what does work, or at least what works better without the onus of every single component of the film needing to change or challenge audience expectations.
For example, during my initial viewing I was disappointed by a number of narrative choices in the film, most notably the "I must confess my betrayal to the people I love scene" that provides a fulcrum for Avatar's final act. (This is a device that I'd be happy never to see in another movie, ever.) Sadly, that moment didn't work especially better the second time, but during a scene in which Jake and Neytiri seem to "see" one another as she teaches him how to shoot a bow, I admit I connected with the warm pang of intimacy that the characters were beginning to share. And later, when Neytiri weeps from afar as the Tree of Souls is casually bulldozed over, there's an emotional authenticity to her feelings of devastation that cannot be denied simply because it accesses universal feelings of sadness and betrayal that need not have to do with whether or not you've actually seen local wildlife decimated before your eyes.
It's this relatability, be it subliminal or acknowledged, that is key to the film's effectiveness, and what drove Avatar to become such a massive hit. As one of my colleagues observed, "it certainly didn't hurt that the film didn't suck," but even beyond that, Cameron's script taps into storytelling formulas that have become almost second nature to filmgoers of all generations. Moreover, it then refreshes them not with new twists and turns, but a technical excellence that feels exhilarating all by itself, giving audiences an experience that feels new and exciting but doesn't challenge them to venture too far beyond their comfort zone. (If such iconoclasm was a hallmark of blockbusters, Synecdoche, New York would have been the biggest movie of all time.)
In which case, Avatar's arrival on Blu-ray, quite frankly, is welcome, because rather than holding up the high end of low expectations as its critics may suggest, it reminds audiences burnt out by months of technical band-wagoners and just plain mediocre movies that you really only need one or two new elements to transform a conventional story into something special. Mind you, that of course doesn't mean that literally any new or odd addition will elevate otherwise awful films, especially since these days that generally means doing the same "new" thing as a previous movie (Clash of the Titans, we're looking in your direction).
But the film's success comes down to more than capturing lightning in a bottle, or some serendipitous convergence of filmmaking ambition with audience appetites. Cameron carefully and deliberately combined his own next-gen creativity with classic movie formulas, creating a work of art that is not only wonderful to look at – yes, even in 2-D - but wildly entertaining as well. – all of which is why Avatar will continue to surprise you, no mater how well you already know it.