The top-grossing film in movie history is No. 1 again. The James Cameron epic Avatar, which has earned more than $2.7 billion in theaters worldwide since its Dec. 18 release nearly 50% more than the previous record holder, Cameron's Titanic went into video stores yesterday and sold about 4 million copies. That established new standards for sales of both DVDs (topping Twilight as the year's top seller) and Blu-ray discs (smashing The Dark Knight's stash by nearly a million units). Actually, we're not sure how the folks at Fox calculated that, since the Blu-ray edition of Avatar is offered only packaged with a DVD for $39.99 (currently half price on amazon.com). Anyway, it's quite a haul.
More surprising than the sales figures is the composition of the DVD package. Released on Earth Day, April 22, to underline the film's eco-friendly message, the first home version of Avatar is hardly fan-friendly. It boasts no extra footage; apparently the picture that Cameron showed in theaters was his director's cut. You'll find no making-of documentaries, no "behind the scenes in Pandora" mini-movies, though several of these played in heavy rotation for months on the Fox Movie Channel. The presentation also skips the usual trailers for other Fox movies. The only "extra" is an anti-smoking public service announcement. And one other caveat, which sends the collective voice of Avatar's admirers ascending into a shrill chorus: no freakin' 3-D.
This, after all, was a movie sold on the need to see it in its full stereoptic grandeur, and audiences bit: about 75% of theatergoers paid higher prices to see the picture in 3-D or IMAX venues. Some people waited for weeks to get seats in those theaters, because, as critics and fans agreed, who wants to see Avatar in poor old 20th-century 2-D? Yet here the movie is, available in a format that only a quarter of the moviegoing public saw it in. If, as DreamWorks Animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg keeps saying, 3-D is the biggest transformation in movies since color, then this is Avatar in black-and-white. Remember Col. Quaritch's warning, at the beginning of the movie, that "You are not in Kansas anymore"? Welcome back to Kansas.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Cameron said he didn't release a DVD in 3-D because "Our feeling is there just aren't enough players out there. We don't want it to come out and be a fart in the frying pan." Yet if there's one event that could cue a 3-D DVD buying spree, it'd be the release of Avatar in that format. Instead, the Na'vigator hopes to milk his movie's popularity dry with no fewer than three home versions. "Right now, today, if people want them some Avatar, they can get it. And I think they will. And then in August, we're going to take those six minutes of deleted scenes and finish them up to a level of photo-reality equal to the rest of the film and re-release the film theatrically. Then we'll get creative with the DVD technology in November."
So what do you get right now? A crisp keepsake of the movie; a thing to hold called Avatar; a fetish for acolytes; a slim box to put on your video shelf, with space for the real editions coming out later. Seen in its flat format, the film looks ordinary, especially in its first half-hour or so, as Cameron none too adroitly sets up his premise. The middle section, in which Jake (Sam Worthington) befriends the Na'vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and becomes part of her world, is much more beguiling; 2-D can't rob Pandora of its majesty, and the colors, especially in Blu-ray, are as spectacular as ever. Those who fell in love with the love story, with Jake and Neytiri and their blooming emotional connection, will get a lot more out of this Avatar than moviegoers who were just wowed by the spectacle.
But will any home version, in DVD, Blu-ray or 3-D, equal what the theatrical version offered? The whole economic and artistic point of the Avatar we all saw indeed, of any 3-D movie was to create an experience that couldn't be duplicated at home. On the big screen, in that process, the picture hypnotized moviegoers with its size and scope. The gigantic image had no competition for a viewer's attention; in the darkened cathedral of a large theater, the movie was the only light, and watching it was a votive experience, with Cameron the high priest controlling the message and the tempo. Sitting there, in the company of a thousand other communicants, we entered Jake's virtual, much more beautiful life. We were all dreamwalkers.
There's no way to duplicate that intensity at home, with a much smaller image, and the ordinary interruptions of phone and email messages, of the ordinary importuning of kids and spouses. Yet in an important and diminishing way, you are in charge, not Cameron. You can fast-forward through the slow spots, click back to relive a scene, stop when it's dinnertime and maybe never come back. Even a movie as powerful as Avatar can't work its spell on a distracted viewer. To stay with it requires an act of will, not the blessed passivity of a moviegoer.
Later this year we'll doubtless pony up more money for a fuller version of the film. But I'd rather believe the rumor now circulating: that Fox has found a hole in the crowded schedule of the year's 3-D movies, and will rerelease Avatar in theaters. That's really the only way to see it until Cameron and his video savants come up with a 3-D home machine that can duplicate the theater experience. I wouldn't put it past them. After all, they figured out how to turn an epic vision into a trailblazingly glorious movie.