CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article suggested that recent Blu-rays from Searchlight did not include digital copies at the consumer level. In fact they do. We regret the error.
James Cameron generally sounds pretty insistent that viewers watch his movies in the best possible presentation. 4K, 3-D, and HFR all enhance his vision in a properly equipped theater, and he hates people watching movies on their phones. So how would he feel about a digitally streamed version of Avatar: The Way of Water that constantly down-rezzes because it doesn’t have the full bandwidth? Probably not great, and odds are he would say to wait for physical media. Certainly that seems the preferable option after the viewing in Vudu for this review featured frequent pixilation, as the signal went up and down.
That may not be a universal experience. If your own viewing had no issues, great! The mere fact that it might, however, shouldn’t be a thing, and wouldn’t with non-defective physical media. If there’s one thing Ang Lee’s Gemini Man taught us about High Frame Rate, it’s that a disc can hold a higher data version than a stream can. Avatar: The Way of Water coming out on digital without an announced 4K disc seems like a way to get hardcore fans to double-dip, rather than wait for a digital copy to come with the disc, as so often happens with mainstream releases. Here’s hoping those will still come with digital copies included, and the early digital sale will simply be for those who can’t wait.
Regardless, Avatar: The Way of Water demands the clearest, best image possible, and at least in the case of our first streaming, that didn’t consistently happen. If you already know the movie well and re-watch it for the story, that may not matter as much. Timing didn’t much matter — even at around 2 a.m., scenes with lots of visual information, like the underwater HFR moments, could cause Vudu to stall and suggest the viewer should downgrade to HD or SD to prevent such issues. When it did work, it looked fabulous. We’ll see if a future disc version actually pulls off the Gemini Man feat of looking like the TV is literally a window on to the scene.
Fortunately, there were no issues with the accompanying 2.5 hour documentary (divided with chapter headings), entitled Inside Pandora’s Box, which sounds uncomfortably like a porn parody. Behind-the-scenes featurettes get so pro forma these days that it’s refreshing to get a serious look at the filmmaking process. But this is a movie that demands it. Both for fans wondering how exactly James Cameron pulled it off, and cynics who somehow believe it was just a cartoon, shot like a Pixar movie or something similar.
Even though there’s a CG veneer over every shot, more of The Way of Water was real than you probably think. Every underwater scene was shot underwater. Cameron flooded sets, had actors run away from real walls of rushing water, put them next to open flames, built most of the boats partially and entirely and had them move with flight simulator technology, shot Nerf darts at them to simulate incoming artillery, and generally insisted on as much being practical as possible. Actors frequently complain that heavy greenscreen movies have them talking to tennis balls on poles; this time, Weta replaced those tennis balls with monitors displaying actual performances.
To get the right eyelines, little people would substitute for humans opposite Na’vi actors, while the human actors would work opposite giant puppets. Performances from an earlier session of group capture would then composite over that. As in animation, every background detail could be tweaked, and having the movie at home makes all those details easier to appreciate. In 3D, and with a skilled director in charge, the primary story elements draw the eye. On a big-screen 4K TV, it’s easier to look around the frame and appreciate the smaller things.
The documentary even comes with about 30 extra minutes of outtakes — this is the only time any material gets recycled. Longer explanations of the tech and actor screen tests get highlighted here, which may help viewers appreciate the younger performers more, especially Jack Champion (Spider) and Bailey Bass (Tsireya).
As typically happens on groundbreaking productions, new effects technology had to be invented to do everything necessary. And while even 2.5 hours isn’t enough to explain everything, it’s plenty to impress. See motion capture evolve into final animation, and watch motorized creature stand-ins drag the actors around underwater at high speeds. Viewers can even catch a sneak-peek at sequel designs for Pandora’s deserts, volcanoes, and arctic areas.
Both theatrical trailers also come in the package — in hindsight, it’s remarkable just how much they “spoil” if you know what you’re looking at. Still, one of the appeals of the Avatar movies is that the main story is hard to spoil. They don’t rely on surprises in their familiar natives vs. military industrial complex dynamic, but rather in the new characters and interpersonal dynamics. The Weeknd’s music video also shows up here, with some high-speed camera moves through virtual sets, and it works better as its own thing then as a fragment over the end credits.
When this inevitably does come out on disc, the documentary needs to be part of it. If not, it will make the digital version at least worth a rental to see it. Otherwise, wait. The movie will look better when it doesn’t rely on a consistent, uninterrupted Internet stream.
Avatar: The Way of Water is now available on digital.
Digital package: 2/5
Recommended Reading: Avatar The Way of Water The Visual Dictionary
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