Avatar’s Nine New Minutes: The Best 3D of 2010?

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Avatar is now officially back in movie theaters – only in 3D, with nine additional minutes of footage to woo all of those loyal fans who were still enamored with the glowing forests of Pandora when the movie was prematurely yanked from the nation’s theaters to make way for Alice in Wonderland in March.

I bought a ticket for the very first daytime screening of Avatar: Special Edition in New York City Friday morning, eager to journey back to the universe of Hometree, Ewa and the Na’vi. But when I walked into the theater and realized I would only be joined by a handful of others, it became clear quite quickly that the Avatar furor has died down considerably since last December, when we all eagerly awaited the new James Cameron movie that would, it was said, change filmmaking forever. (My suspicions were confirmed late Sunday, when the initial box office estimates pointed to a paltry $4 million haul, which evens out to a cool $444,444 for each new minute of Avatar footage). (See TIME’s interview with James Cameron about his influences)

I chalk up the limited appeal to the fact that those who wanted to see Avatar have now already seen it multiple times. And those who missed the event in 3D have gone on to watch the DVD of Avatar in 2D, never quite realizing the sensory experience they have missed out on. I bet there are even some out there who never saw Avatar, but who then witnessed the disappointing 3D butchery of Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, and now remain convinced that 3D is just a gimmick geared at beefing up ticket prices. They’ve written off the whole 3D experience, and there’s no way they’re buying a ticket to the Special Edition of a 3D movie about blue aliens on a fictional planet.

That’s a pity, because this is 3D unlike any other; 3D as legitimate artistic aesthetic. Still after almost a year, Avatar is doing things that Hollywood seems incapable of emulating. I’ll come back to that later. (See where Pandora stacks up in our list of the top 10 sci-fi planets of all-time)

Yes, the Na’vi Sex Scene is Here

Two quick paragraphs about the extra footage: When it comes to Avatar’s nine additional minutes, I was quite impressed with how Cameron didn’t just inject new and unneeded scenes – standard operating procedure with most bloated director’s cuts – but instead limited his inclusions to revelations that heightened the complexity of the story. There is a brief visit to a Human-Na’vi school in the Special Edition that is only alluded to in the original film, a glimpse of a shot-up classroom that suggests a horrific confrontation between human marines and Na’vi children. No wonder diplomacy has failed on Pandora. Then later, after Jake is initiated into the tribe and establishes himself as a successful hunter, the Special Edition glimpses a dazzling mass hunting exercise, with hundreds of bison-sized animals being chased by thousands of Na’vi, Jake right there one the front lines of the clan. After all the humans have dismissed the Na’vi as savages, the grace and sophistication exhibited by these Na’vi hunters proves that they are masters of this planet.

The three most interesting and essential additions to the film are a little more intense than fans might be expecting. Yes, as I’ve already been asked numerous times, the Na’vi sex scene has made its way onto the big screen. Jake and Neytiri bond with one another in a slightly awkward gesture, but then they sell us on the sensual nature of seeing into one another’s soul. Blue aliens or not, it gets a little steamy. Then the morning after, when the humans first arrive to destroy the sacred trees, Cameron has added a new scene of fiery carnage, suggesting that the Na’vi are a whole lot tougher than we give them credit for. With the marine bulldozers set ablaze, and the prairie littered with human corpses, it helps to explain why the Na’vi hold their ground when the humans arrive later to destroy Hometree. They’ve already won one battle against the “Sky People” under the leadership of Tsu’tey – who is the subject of the Special Edition’s most emotional addition. In the original film, this Na’vi warrior falls to his death, which occurs off screen, but in the new Avatar, we bear witness to his final moments, as he blesses Jake’s ascension to leader of the tribe and implores his new friend to end his suffering. (Check out our top 10 sci-fi films of the last decade)

All narrative tweaks aside, what struck me most about Avatar – now almost six months after its exit from the IMAX screens – is the meticulousness of Cameron’s craftsmanship. I was one of those fanboys who saw the movie a third time during its final weekend in theaters – and I was hardly alone. Waiting in line for 70 minutes on New York’s Upper West Side for a sold-out 11 p.m. IMAX screening – more than 12 weeks into the film’s run – it seemed to me that this movie could play on the nation’s biggest screens for another six months. Audiences were dazzled by the 3D depth and dimension that Cameron had achieved, and that sense of awe has not really abated. Cameron uses 3D here not to toss things at the audience, but to add horizon to his landscapes, creating the most immersive big-screen moments I’ve ever seen. And he also uses 3D a little more subtly in bringing definition and scale to his computer-generated characters. There are moments in Cameron’s uncanny valley so convincing and realistic that even Friday, my fourth time around the bend, I had to shake off the magic dust and marvel at the construction. He has scenes here that are 100 percent computer generated, and yet every facial expression of the Na’vi, every gliding movement of the Banshee’s wings, every aspect of the Pandoran landscape, is pitch-perfect. These seem like real creatures soaring above a dazzling alien landscape, and when Jake takes a joy ride on his dragon for the very first time, it may represent the single most credible argument for how 3D can enhance and elevate the standard cinematic experience.

James Cameron: Light Years Ahead of the Pack

TIME talked to James Cameron about the movie and TV influences he has had in his career thus far. Click above to watch.

In fact, the most arresting aspect of seeing the Special Edition is the unmistakable contrast that exists between Cameron’s Pandoran utopia and the 3D trailers of other upcoming films – such as Rio, Legends of the Guardians and TRON: Legacy – which screen before the feature presentation. The wow factor so carefully choreographed and calibrated by Cameron is simply not there in these other previews. It’s almost as if Cameron is the only one playing in the major leagues, creating 3D movies that don’t seem the least bit dimmed or faded, which offer a startling degree of depth, which use 3D as a deliberate storytelling device rather than a surface distraction. Look closely from scene to scene, at the backgrounds as well as the staging, and it’s obvious: Avatar cannot be fully appreciated in 2D.

So why see the Special Edition? Not for the nine new minutes or the predictable storylines, but for the sheer fact that I’m not convinced anyone else in Hollywood can do 3D anywhere near as well. At least not thus far, and, judging by the trailers I saw, not for the foreseeable future. I hope I’m wrong – that these trailers were just conversions of 2D trailers, that TRON: Legacy is the next native 3D triumph, that we’re on the front end of a whole wave of projects that were conceived, and executed in, high-end 3-D. After all, even Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog have embraced the form. But for now, Avatar remains the Holy Grail, the proof of the absolute best that can be done using today’s technology. See it – or see it again – to wash out the bitter aftertaste of the 2010 forgeries.

See it to remind yourself of what’s possible.

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