Review: What can you really expect from the ‘Avatar: Special Edition’?

08.28.10 7 years ago 10 Comments

20th Century Fox/Lightstorm

I have a long relationship with James Cameron’s special editions.

I’m a guy who saw the original “Terminator” in the theater.  Well over 20 times.  Over and over at a theater where my friend’s older brother got us in for free, and where the film played for months to a mostly-full auditorium.  And by the time “Aliens” came out theatrically, I was working at a theater, so again, I must have gone 20 times or so in the long summer and fall the film played one of our eight screens.  I was addicted to Cameron’s action-movie sensibility, and I thought he was a clever, inventive SF writer.  His influences were fairly close to the surface, but so what?  He was an aggressive stylist and he knew how to throw down the big moments.

The reason I loved novelizations when I was growing up was because many of them contained material that was in the original script but that didn’t make it to the final film because the writer was working from something in advance, before there was a finished film to look at.  And when I read the Alan Dean Foster adaptation of James Cameron’s “Aliens” script, I got reeeeeeeally frustrated.  The material about Ripley’s daughter made it into the book, and right away, it struck me as a stronger character choice.  But at that point, the home video market really didn’t do the director’s cut thing.

Then when “The Abyss” came out, Orson Scott Card was the guy writing the book, and although Cameron seems agitated by the book when it comes up in conversation, the forward of the book talked about how closely Card worked with the script.

And the ending of the book, which came out about a month before the movie?  Totally different than the film that came out in theaters.  Much bigger.  Much different.  And totally gone in the finished film.

And for the first time, I felt like one of Cameron’s films didn’t quite work.  I thought most of it was amazing, but the wrap-up was sudden and terrible and gutted the movie thematically, I thought.

When I first discovered laserdisc and started getting interested in it, in 1989, it was because of the letterboxing.  But then when I moved to LA and started seriously buying discs, it was the dawning of the age of the special director’s cut.

And right away, James Cameron’s name was in the mix.

The “Aliens” box set that came out with the restored film on it was a major event for film nerds of the time, and right away, “The Abyss” followed.  And in both cases, the footage that was restored to the films made major thematic alterations to the films.  In the midst of this, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” came out, and right away, there was talk of a restored cut for home video.

Cameron basically helped pioneer the idea of the altered movie, the expanded home video version.  He basically has a second post-production on his films, and with “Avatar,” it appears to be the same way.  He released a film to theaters that worked and was a certain length.  And when it comes out on video this fall, it will be much longer.  But for now, there’s a theatrical version that is around nine minutes longer, and tonight, I went to the theater near my house to check it out.

I’ve already reviewed the film, so I won’t be getting into that again.  I’ll say that nothing they’ve added to the film is going to change your mind if you really disliked the film the first time.  So here’s the question… for fans of the characters and the world, does this cut matter?

No, and sort of.  This cut is transitive.  It’s not the cut you’re going to own eventually if you buy the “special edition” version of the film, which will be longer still.  And the sort of is because this cut suggests that the longer eventual cut is going to matter in the way the other James Cameron director’s cuts matter, and that cut will, I’m betting, genuinely enhance the experience and fill it out in a substantial way.

Or at least, I hope it will.  This was interesting, but hardly redefining.   The first new footage doesn’t appear until Jake goes out in the helicopter and sees a group of things called Sturmbeasts.  Basically, think of the buffalo in “Dances With Wolves.”  I really like the scene when they go to the school that Grace established.  It serves to introduce yet another form of indigenous life, and to show how Grace had worked to build bridges into the community.

There are several short additions to the scenes after Jake first meets Neytiri, including a longer dinner scene where she gives Jake her name, and then it’s a big stretch where the film’s the same before the introduction to the Floating Mountain.  And like most of the act two material, it’s mainly to fill out more of the details of life among the Na’vi, or to underline something about the characters.  Unsurprisingly, Neytiri is the one who benefits the most from the new material.  Tsu’tey also gets some nice moments that smooth out some of the character’s more one-sided qualities.

The biggest action set-piece added back in is the Sturmbeast hunt, and it’s a pretty effective piece of action.  It underlines the “Dances With Wolves” similarity again, with this standing in for the buffalo hunt.  It’s really well-staged, and it is a reminder that Cameron’s action choreography in 3D is impressive in a way that no one else has really managed with the format so far.

As far as the oft-discussed love scene goes… whatever.  They put their braids together.  It’s a few extra individual shots.  It makes no difference at all.

What does make a difference is a scene where we see the aftermath of an attack by the Na’vi on RDA workers and a worksite.  It’s evidence that the Na’vi are escalating their anger, and it justifies, to some degree, escalation on the other side.  And then there’s not much until the end of the film, when the big battle gets going.  This is where the earlier footage introducing new animals really pays off, and there’s a lot more of them joining the fight, including the Sturbeasts.

And then there’s a moment with Tsu’Tey that I won’t ruin for you, other than to say that it’s the single best piece of performance that’s been put back.  The whole sequence is a strong reminder of just how impressive the performance work is in the film, and when we get the much longer version, with the Earth footage that’s still not in this version, and when we see what else they put into the film, maybe there will be some piece of the puzzle that elevates the film in some way.

And if not?

Well, it sure did look great on the bigscreen again tonight.

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