With the release of the new 'Avatar Extended Collector's Edition,' I personally have now reviewed James Cameron's record-breaking blockbuster three times, and by now, there's not a whole lot left to say. My critiques notwithstanding, you either like the film or you don't, and quite frankly no amount of analysis or deconstruction of its themes will convince you to abandon your current position and take up with the opposite camp. But regardless of its merits of a piece of entertainment, 'Avatar' is an undeniable benchmark in the technological history of moviemaking. And if you have any interest in or appreciation for the many technical or artistic challenges that filmmakers face in order to complete your favorite films, the 'Avatar' Extended Collector's Edition offers an exhaustive look at that process, whether or not Cameron's ranks among your favorites.
Disc One: The Film
As ridiculous as it may sound, the main thing I'm grateful for on Disc One is the inclusion of all three existing cuts of 'Avatar,' which means that this release trumps its predecessor, and requires fans to buy – gasp! – only one release in order to have every iteration of the film itself. By comparison, the recent 'Grindhouse' Blu-ray only featured the theatrical cuts of 'Planet Terror' and 'Death Proof,' so anyone who might have held out for an all-inclusive collection featuring the extended editions of either of them is pretty much S.O.L. Cameron, business-minded as he is, is thankfully not a complete shill.
In terms of the three cuts, I'd argue that the film doesn't need to be one second longer than its theatrical cut, and generally think that Cameron's extended or director's cut versions are a whole lot of more with only a little bit of better. That said, there are several interesting moments among the new scenes and sequences, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with the original cut will be able to find them in the chapter search to check out on an individual basis. But the new opening sequence on Earth is by far the highest-profile addition to the film, not only because it reveals what Cameron imagines our domestic future will look like, but because it further explores Jake's personality, suggesting how and why he might be susceptible to helping and/or joining the Na'vi cause.
Otherwise, there's also a newly-reinserted subplot about Neytiri's sister, who died at the hands of Colonel Quaritch' soldiers, and prompted the military to shut down the school (and essentially put into motion the Na'vi rebellion). While this is interesting, it's sort of similar to the information added to the 'Aliens' extended cut about Ripley's daughter: it provides motivation and additional substance, but it isn't necessary to understand or appreciate the story as it is. Meanwhile, the original theatrical release and Special Edition re-release both feature an option for a "family audio track" which removes any objectionable language from the film – which I appreciate primarily because Sam Worthington sounds anything but tough every time he calls someone (or 'thing) "bitch."
Disc Two: The Extras, Part One
I'm not entirely sure how the Blu-ray producers decided to divide the 'Avatar' bonus content, but it seems like they decided to provide an overview of the film (via an all-encompassing documentary) and collect supplemental content on Disc Two, while Disc Three offers sort of the "for true fans" material that goes so far inside the film that you feel like there's nothing about it you don't know. Admittedly, I'm more of a casual fan of the film, so while I'm genuinely interested in watching 80 + minutes of a single-serving making-of documentary, that third disc tests the boundaries of my appetite for behind-the-scenes footage.
Regardless, "Capturing 'Avatar'" is a thorough and entertaining look at the process of not only making the movie, but literally inventing much of the technology required for it to be made. Broken down into four chapters, the documentary starts more than five years ago when Cameron decided that he was ready to take on a follow-up to 'Titanic,' and realized that he would have to either push forward existing technology or create it outright in order to make a film that was more than 50 percent CGI, featuring characters born from performance capture, and all of it would be shot using the most smooth and advanced 3D technology ever seen. From there, interviews with Cameron, producer Jon Landau and various members of the cast and crew reveal how the production team designed, developed, engineered, built, and used countless forms of filmmaking technology to create the film that went on to smash box office records worldwide.
While I realize that I'm glossing over a lot of the content of the documentary, much of it exists as a separate clip or reel in the "Production Materials" section. Among the gems included here are early tests of the performance-capture technology using 'Lost' actress Yunjin Kim in the Neytiri role, audition footage of both Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, an early Lightstorm test short that convinced Cameron that performance capture could work, and finally, a crew film titled "The Volume" featuring a performance capture artist named "Devin Korman" as he blusters his way through production. As the goofily charming Korman, Kevin Dorman offers his best impersonation of Steve Zahn, exuding oblivious confidence as he courts his co-star, and later, Zoe Saldana, before falling into a rivalry with a fellow artist (played by 'Avatar' actor Joel David Moore) over a role in the sequels.
And finally, Disc Two also includes 45 minutes of deleted scenes. The most interesting part of this is the demo segment (which plays once each time you start to explore the section) that shows the variety of CGI completions, fill-ins and changes that the filmmakers used to complete the film, but like most deleted footage, the scenes are superfluous at best. There's stuff in here like a hook-up between Moore's character and the pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez, but the most interesting material highlights the evolution of the storytelling through the course of shooting, which refined and, if you believe it, made more subtle a lot of the plot points and details that wound up in the finished film.
Disc Three: The Extras, Part Two
As indicated above, Disc Three features more in-depth and specific looks at more specific parts of the film, from the creation of certain characters and devices, to the camera technology and techniques used to capture the action. For example, the "robot walkers" used by human soldiers were actually called AMP suits, which itself is an acronym for "Amplified Mobility Platform," and Cameron and co. talk about how they not only created a plausible blueprint for the device's construction, but built a scale version that could be moved around and used for various shots where humans are using it.
In total, 17 featurettes provide an exhaustive overview of every aspect of the moviemaking process, and while some of the content duplicates footage or information shown in other featurettes or documentaries, here it's selectable and specific to exactly what a curious fan may want to know about. For example, on the recently-released 'Alien' box set, which is otherwise absolutely amazing, there's no dedicated feature that explores the design and construction of the power loader, but here that device would get its very own featurette. Basically there's nothing in the film that goes unexamined, unexplained or unexplored, whether it is in the featurettes, or the "Pandorapedia," which is an interactive bible for the film that describes the origin and purpose of every aspect of the world of Pandora.
Finally, there's the "Interactive Scene Deconstruction," which assembles several of the film's key scenes and offers a multi-angle perspective on how they were shot, enhanced and assembled. The first scene in which Jake explores his avatar body was probably my favorite, but it was also one of the most logistically complicated, as it involved several different locations, and required Worthington to act in to a different physical scale than many of the other performers in the scene.
Should You Buy It?
The presentation of the film and all of the materials in the 'Avatar Extended Collector's Edition' is top-notch, and doesn't sacrifice quality for quantity (there will be no noticeable change in picture or sound quality between the presentation of all three versions of 'Avatar' here and the presentation on the April bare-bones release). But like I said, I'm not sure that even the elaborateness of this set will convince the film's critics to get on board, even if they do admire the work that went into creating it. But indisputably, this set is one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year, and one of the most revealing and insightful portraits of the moviemaking process ever presented to audiences. So, yes, it definitely belongs on your shelf.