Avatar 4K Review: Feeling Less Than Blu

Considering the degree to which James Cameron expresses his support for the theatrical experience, it’s frustrating among home media collectors that he won’t release some of his movies on 4K discs yet. Ostensibly, this is because he wants to supervise the transfers personally, but never actually has time to. So, we get nothing unless there’s a theatrical rerelease, in which case the remaster for projection can work for home release also. Thus Terminator 2 got a 4K release based on the remastered 3D anniversary theatrical version and the original Avatar gets a 4K based on the recent theatrical rerelease on June 20th — the same day as the 4K disc for The Way of Water. Titanic fans, you’re next. Abyss fans? Keep waiting.

Missing in Action

Our previous review of the digital release of The Way of Water covers most of what’s on its disc as well, and thus it doesn’t merit an entirely new review; to the extent that it does, we’ll make mention herein. For the first film, however, this is the first home 4K release, and it has a couple of new features. Because of the aforementioned way this process seems to work for Cameron, extended cuts are not here, and probably will not be in 4K for the foreseeable future (like the T2 extended edition). The Blu-ray “Ultimate Edition” that contains all three versions, however, is still available. Also on that set, and not the new one, are the deleted scenes and scenes in which users could flip between the raw footage on the soundstage and more finished versions.

Other interactive galleries and such are also gone, but the featurettes and the behind-the-scenes feature documentary remain. They’re all on their own disc, and separate discs for the 4K version and regular Blu-ray version complete the package.

Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) riding a mountain banshee, Seze, in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

The theatrical cut of the original Avatar is arguably the best cut overall, though it unfortunately omits a key scene filling in the backstory of Grace Augustine’s Na’vi school, which makes some of the natives look less than heroic. The footage of future Earth is fun but not absolutely necessary, and Tsu’tey’s post-fall last gasps forgiving Jake for taking his woman and his position are a touch silly. Still, not including them even as Blu-ray extras seems a shame.

Now Playing

There are two new featurettes. In “Memories From Avatar,” producer Jon Landau interviews Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Lang all at once, while “Avatar: A Look Back” uses quotes from Cameron and others that were clearly recorded during the interview sessions for the sequel’s featurettes. We’ll say this for Cameron: he’s got cojones for including footage of his trip with cast members to help save a rainforest tribe from a nearby dam. Some tone-deaf comments he made during that trip came back to haunt him this last time around, but in the end, his going down there to help was still more than most people did. “Memories From Avatar” offers some good insight from the actors into their processes approaching such a uniquely filmed project. And may make viewers wonder what their anti-aging secrets are.

Jake Sully (voiced by Sam Worthington) riding the Great Leonopteryx Toruk in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

The movie itself looks a little muted on the 4K disc, so you may want to futz with color saturation settings to get it right. The Na’vi characters periodically look a bit slick and cartoonish in some shots, but on the whole, sport a gorgeous level of detail. Even after special effects people actually told me in interviews how they cheated a bit to make the hair texture work, I didn’t see it. Individual hairs seem to bust out of the braids as they do in real life. It’ll never look quite as good as it did in 3D — and the 3D on this last rerelease was even better than before — but it’s an Avatar full of depth. The disc only froze once, but it remembered its place when I ejected it and put it back in, and kept on going from the same moment.

Yes, People Liked This Movie

As for the movie itself, well, the sequel’s record-breaking grosses say it all about the misguided myth that nobody cared about the first one, remembered the characters, or could quote any dialogue. (Heck, there’s a movie coming out this month that uses the line “I see you” in the same context.) It has a simple story, but many possible readings. The soldier gone native is an obvious one, though that trope predates Dance With Wolves by a longshot, and they have quite different third acts besides.

Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

The religious allegory of a “sky person” who takes the body of the general population in order to save them is one common to many scriptures; the idea that Jake only truly discovers himself in a new, modified body could arguably play as a trans allegory — though the concept of an avatar in almost any form (online, for example) does that inherently. It’s mainly about an outsider finding his place, which can apply to so many people in multiple ways. James Cameron could have saved himself a few headaches and “white savior” criticisms by casting someone nonwhite as Jake, but well, it happened.

May the Faith Be With You

Still, what often pushes sci-fi movies into the realm of immortality is the depiction of religious concepts in a way that scientifically minded people can accept. Stanley Kubrick gave us aliens as God in 2001, while George Lucas gave us the Force and midichlorians in the Star Wars saga. With Eywa, James Cameron gives us a literalized Gaia, a planetary collective deity and organic neural network that connect to all life on Pandora via the organic versions of USB ports as body parts. It’s a believable god concept that doesn’t have to replace any larger faith a viewer might already have. Pandora may be a Gaia, but the universe as a whole could still have been made by your personal god. Don’t believe in one? That’s okay too, but Eywa is provable.

(L-R): Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine and Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

Revisiting the original film post-sequel offers us another chance to see how the second one builds on — or retcons — it. Certainly Quaritch never once comes off like a man with a newborn baby. As for possible chemistry between Weaver’s Dr. Augustine and Joel David Moore’s Norm Spellman, that’s absent too — if anything, she has more chemistry with Sam Worthington as human Jake. Anyone who’s seen the deleted scenes knows that a romantic angle between Norm and Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) was actually the idea, but is no longer canon. It’s interesting to note that Jake only mentions two other Na’vi clans here, and names them based on their primary animals rather than the four elements.

So, yeah, The Way of Water retroactively adds a lot that wasn’t there. So long as Cameron doesn’t pull a Lucas and add new CG stuff into the original after the fact, that’s allowable. He has added an extra line from Giovanni Ribisi, which is also now on the Disney+ version, setting up the sequels. It’s not a change likely to annoy anybody, but it sets a bad precedent — let’s hope he doesn’t make a habit of such things.

Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon in Twentieth Century Fox’s AVATAR. © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

Wet Bar

As regards The Way of Water 4K disc, it looks beautiful. It is even more detailed and vibrant than Avatar with no adjustments necessary. On a physical disc, it’s mercifully free of the vicissitudes of one’s local Internet speeds. It does not include the divisive high frame rate — the underwater stuff definitely looks superior to all else onscreen, but unlike the actual HFR 4K of Gemini Man, it doesn’t suddenly look like you’re staring through a window to the real world outside. The extras are the same as for the digital version, and yes, this includes a digital copy, so buying the digital early may turn out to mean a double dip for some.

Both movies include a descriptive audio track, and a “family-friendly” track that drops out the swears, if that matters in a movie full of nearly naked blue aliens with the occasional high-definition nip-slip.

The first Avatar 4K suffers from what we already know to be missing. In a vacuum, a movie this impressive with this many extras might rate a 5-star review. But since we know what’s missing from the movie (two other cuts) and the extras (a lot), it’s not remotely possible to give it a perfect grade.

Avatar: Movie 4/5, Extras 3/5.

Avatar: The Way of Water (on physical disc) — Movie 5/5, Extras 4/5

Both Avatar 4Ks hit retail June 20th.