Movie Review: Avatar Special Edition

It's obvious why "Avatar" was released again, and perhaps a little selfish on the part of the money makers. Near the end of its run, "Avatar" was pushed off a majority of its 3D screens by up-and-comers that couldn't do long term damage, but perhaps shortened the length of the blockbuster's victory lap. The movie could have made more money, so now it has been released again, this time with less than 15 minutes of additional, bonus footage. It's already out on DVD, and you can even get a free copy by buying a new Samsung phone, so is it really worth seeing again on the big screen? Does the movie hold up, now that the hype has worn down? In a word? Hell yeah.

I didn't want to see the re-release of "Avatar" at first. I was skeptical that I would enjoy sitting through the three hour epic again. I wanted to see "The Last Exorcism" this weekend, but I couldn't find a tech angle that would justify a review on SlashGear. I tackled "Avatar" because I wanted to see if it was worth seeing again for the extra footage, if the 3D was really as good as I remember, and if the movie holds up after all these months.

Spoiler Alert: There is new content in "Avatar." Nothing that changes the plot, but I might give away some of the new bits below. I expect that most people will not go to see "Avatar" again, so I don't mind ruining some of the surprise. I was expecting the extra footage to make up a couple new scenes. I'd heard there would be a love scene, so my expectations were low. In fact, I was surprised by how much the additional footage added to the film.

If there are twelve extra minutes in the movie, most of the additions are a few seconds tacked on here and there to make up the lost time. I can see why much of it was cut. Sometimes, it's just an extra glance and a line of dialogue. It's a sentence of unnecessary explanation. Want to know why the Hallelujah mountains on Pandora float? It's in the extra footage, though it's probably exactly the explanation you'd guess. Want to know why unobtanium is so valuable? That's in there, as well.

Surprisingly, none of these answers are all that important. In cutting this footage, I think James Cameron realized that you don't have to overexplain everything in a fantasy epic. Often, it's better to let the audience figure it out for themselves. After all, there are no real floating mountains, and there is no unobtainium. So who cares about a scientific reason why these things are important and, perhaps, connected? Still, a lot of the extra footage added texture and a bit more depth to the movie.

As a side note, I still think that calling the precious ore "unobtainium" was the only truly lame moment in this movie. "Unobtainium?" That's the best they could come up with? Why not call it "importantium?" Or "killthebluecatpeoplium?"

There is something of a love scene in the new footage, but it is precisely that. Love, not sex. If you brought a small child to the movie, they would probably not realize what's implied by the hugging and hand-holding under the big magic tree. It was blessedly brief, not uncomfortable or silly, and actually somewhat interesting. After seeing these creatures plug their pony tails into wild life for 3 hours, it must have made some viewers curious about how they connect with each other, as well, and the film answers these questions. It isn't intercourse, it's about all the physical contact you could hope for from creatures who anatomically resemble a cross between the Thundercats and a Barbie Doll. I guess if we learned anything from George Clooney's turn as Batman, fantasy characters don't need nipples.

So, was the 3D as good as I remember? Better. Besides a few children's cartoons, I've seen just about every lousy 3D release since "Avatar" left the big screen. They were all bad, and the 3D made them worse, and more expensive. On Slate, Daniel Engber has this rather tone deaf and ignorant take on whether 3D is already a dying technology (again, one presumes). Engber analyzes all the major 3D releases since "The Polar Express" in late 2004, and determines that 3D produces diminishing returns for the studios involved. It is less and less worth the effort to make a 3D movie.

That's all fine and dandy, but Engber forgets one major point. All of those movies were horrible. The 3D was a gimmick, not a part of the moviemaking experience. "Beowulf?" "Alice in Wonderland?" "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore?" You can't judge the viability of 3D technology by taking the entire sum of its constituent parts and running them through an equation. Can you imagine if we did the same for movies with sound? If we evaluated ever talking picture ever released to determine if it was worth adding a musical score and spoken dialogue? Not only would that be a flawed equation, it would miss the point entirely.

By blindly tossing every horrid piece of 3D trash that ever popped off the screen into the mix, Engber misses the art of 3D. If there is one thing "Avatar" taught us, it is that there can be real cinematic value in producing a 3D movie. "Avatar's" plot lent itself perfectly to the format. The movie is about traveling to a fantastic other world. It's about immersing your senses in an experience so realistic, you can literally leave your body behind. It's about new technology and interface designs; it's about depth and heights and landscapes of great scale. The world of "Avatar" is designed to make us feel small the same way sitting in front of an IMAX screen is designed to make us feel small.

My biggest complaint about 3D technology still stands. You're sitting in a dark theater wearing what are essentially sunglasses. Same polarizing technology you'll find in your Ray Bans. But James Cameron actually gets around much of this by setting a majority of the film at night. I had forgotten how much of "Avatar" takes place in a glowing night-time wilderness. I think this is a major hurdle that the technology will have to overcome before serious, day time movies can take advantage of 3D, but I have no doubt the problem is surmountable.

In any case, it's just silly to ask if 3D is dead on arrival. It's like asking if SCUBA tanks are a dying technology, because you don't see people walking around all day wearing a breathing apparatus. It's appropriate in some situations, but other times it's just silly. If you force people to wear SCUBA gear to every party, they'll leave exhausted and frustrated, and they won't want to hang out with you any more. But when it's time to dive deep and visit the vast world of life underwater, a SCUBA tank is the only way to go.

So, finally, does the movie hold up? Does it ever. I was hesitant at first, since I saw the movie twice in its original release. I expected to feel bored, but at every turn I was looking forward to the next moment. Just when the movie starts to slow a little bit, the bad guys break out the guns and start knocking down trees. Just when it seems the movie is going on a bit too long, giant dragons swoop down from the sky carrying motivational speakers to wake up the crowd. It's a delightful movie, just as fun the second or third time around.

I think "Avatar" was robbed of its best picture award. I've heard theories, and the best of them goes like this: most Motion Picture Academy voters don't watch the movies on which they vote on the big screen. They get DVD screeners and watch them at home. A movie like "The Hurt Locker" looks just as good on your HDTV at home as it does on the big screen. A movie like "Avatar" doesn't come close. If this is the case, I think the Academy needs to change its voting rules immediately. Voters should have to produce a ticket stub to cast their vote for a film. "Avatar" is a movie that was made specifically for huge screens with 3D projection. You can't judge the movie without having seen it this way. It would be like watching a movie with your eyes closed.

I have another theory about why "Avatar" was the victim of such a backlash. The backlash is a good story. "Avatar" made so much money, and rich people are the enemy right now. "Avatar" was the victim of its own hype. In my own circle of technology journalists, there was a remarkable backlash against the movie, and I think the folks who claimed to prefer "The Hurt Locker," or those who simply relished an "Avatar" loss at the Oscars, were playing into this narrative. The media experiences a 'truth fatigue,' and longs to tell a great story, instead of simply relaying the facts.

What makes for a better story, that a huge blockbuster that cost hundreds of millions and made more than a billion dollars worldwide would go on to be crowned king of all movies? Or that a scrappy little movie that managed to portray an unpopular war in a non-judgmental way, a movie that was underserved by large theater chains, a movie directed by the ex-wife of the blockbuster's director, would go on to win, instead? The latter makes the better story. "The Hurt Locker" was a very good movie, but "Avatar" redefined the way we experience movies. In the future, we'll laugh at that decision, while our children beg to watch Avatar just one more time.