Avatar: The Special Edition review

Avatar Special Edition banshees
A new hunting scene for the Special Edition

As you all know, AVATAR is back on the big screen, showing exclusively in Digital 3-D and IMAX 3-D engagements. As you also know, this release is billed as the “Special Edition,” because writer-director James Cameron has restored nearly nine minutes of footage, expanding the already lengthy film’s running time to nearly 170 minutes (the maximum capacity for analog IMAX 3D screenings). Is the new special edition truly all that special, or is this just a cynical money-grab?

The answer is: neither. Despite the new scenes, AVATAR remains much the film it was before: a blockbuster entertainment of magnificent proportions, lacking subtlety while proudly wearing its heart on its sleeve – when it’s not blasting away bad guys with all the over-heated enthusiasm of THE EXPENDABLES. Yes, 20th Century Fox’s decision to re-issue the film was based on bottom line considerations, but in this home video era, we should appreciate the opportunity to re-experience the film on the big screen: AVATAR had still been doing good business when it was pushed out of 3D venues by ALICE IN WONDERLAND last March, and since then, ticket buyers have been ripped off by a succession of 3-D post-production conversions (CLASH OF THE TITANS, THE LAST AIRBENDER, PIRANHA 3 D) that were almost enough to permanently sour discerning viewers on the process. A return trip to Pandora is enough to eclipse those bad faux-3D memories

The special edition offers another opportunity to savor the 3D beauties of Pandora.
The special edition offers another opportunity to savor the 3D beauties of Pandora.

The real reason to see AVATAR again is to remind yourself what 3D looks like when done right. Although Cameron avoids gimmicky images of objects projecting out of the screen, he uses the process to great effect in flying scenes: separate from the background, all those copters, banshees, and floating jellyfish truly seem to be suspended in mid-air. Also, the clear separation of objects in the foreground from objects in the background allows Cameron to load the frame with details that would seem cluttered in a 2D rendition (all those virtual monitors, view screens, and lab equipment start to look like a jumble if you close one eye and watch the film flat).
The additional footage, which represents just about 5% of the total running time, is not enough to make a substantial difference in the film overall. Some of the extra minutes fill in expository details that only sharp-eyed fans would notice:

  • A trip to a school house, riddle with bullets, gives a good clue why Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver)’s Na’Vi outreach program is not going so well.
  • Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) reveals her full name to Jake (Sam Worthington) in the scene wherein she introduces him to her tribe (so now we know how he knows her name).
  • Jake’s narration explains why the legendary floating mountains of Pandora stay airborn.
  • We see the aftermath of a Na’Vi attack on some bulldozers that were smashing down trees. It’s obvious that the Earth forces can use this “provocation” as an excuse to justify action they wanted to take anyway: namely, attacking the Na’Vi’s tree-home.

avatar_special_edition_movie_image_01Other footage adds more action or simply expands on scenes that already existed:

  • Early on we glimpse some dino-size creatures we had not seen in the previous cut. Later, Jake in his avatar-body joins the Na’Vi’ as they fly on their banshees, hunting down these large creatures.
  • The “mating” scene between Jake and Neytiri is a bit longer but not at all explicit – unless you count the shot of their braid tendrils intertwining which is a bit suggestive of…something or other.
  • In this version Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) does not die from his fall during battle. He lives long enough to pass the leadership baton to Jake, who then, according to Na’Vi ritual, puts Tsu’tey out of his misery with a stroke of his blade.

This new footage does little to expand on the plot or themes, nor does it address any of the reservations I expressed about AVATAR during its initial release (such as the absurd use of the word “unobtanium,” which should have been explained away as a joke). It’s nice to have the little narrative gaps filled: I had always wondered why Dr. Augustine’s outreach program was faring so poorly; now we know it was sabotaged (whether intentionally or inadvertently) by gunfire from the company mercenaries. And the burning bulldozers (along with the dead human crew) make it more understandable why the company drones are convinced that military force – not peaceful negotiation – is the only option.

The Na'Vi ride their banshees in the restored hunting sequence
The Na'Vi ride their banshees in the restored hunting sequence

Mostly the new scenes give us more of Pandora, which is for usually worth seeing. Sometimes, however, the extra minutes make themselves felt. The hunting sequence, for example, offers some nice aerial thrills, but it also expands the weakest portion of AVATAR: Jake’s learning the ways of the Na’Vi is a necessary plot point, but it could have been conveyed in a brief montage; instead, it virtually becomes the second act – a lengthy series of scenes that does little to advance the story but does give Cameron more opportunities to show off the beauties of Pandora.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the re-release is the opportunity to see AVATAR post-backlash. A second time around, the heavy-handed message and the one-dimensional villains seem simply like part of the film’s texture – not great virtues but hardly the fatal flaws that detractors would have us believe them to be. The movie’s strengths are more than enough to eclipse its weaknesses, which seem more and more like trivial nitpicking. Though far from perfect, AVATAR emerges victorious – a film with a Sense of Wonder as wide and beautiful as the skies of Pandora.
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