Kaleidescape vs. Streaming – Avatar: The Way of Water

We started this blog last October to explore a different way of experiencing movies at home — one that doesn’t involve spinning 4K Blu-ray discs or streaming movies from Netflix and other services. I’m talking about the server-based Kaleidescape movie system. You can read my impressions of the system in A Marriage Made in Movie Heaven) and my previous Kaleidescape-based movie reviews here.)

Kaleidescape Scenes
James Cameron’s epic sci-fi film Avatar changed the landscape of movie-making when it debuted in 2010. Fans of the celebrated director flocked to theaters, ultimately producing box office receipts that topped $2.9 billion worldwide and making it the top lifetime grossing film of all-time. Now, 13 years later, Avatar: The Way of Water is enjoying the same mega-blockbuster success, having grossed over $2.3 billion since it was released to theaters in December, making it the third highest grossing film in history behind 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which raked in $2.8 billion.

The sequel begins 15 years after the events depicted in the original film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now living as a Na’vi and has started a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). When the humans return to Pandora looking for revenge and profit, the Sully family is forced to go into hiding and seeks refuge with the Metkayina clan. But the oceanic clan’s way of life is much different than what the Sully’s are accustomed to, so they must learn how to swim, forage from the ocean, and bond with sea creatures, all while knowing the humans are coming.

Though many of the thematic elements are the same as the first film, the sequel carries added emotional weight as Jake struggles to be a good father while fighting for their survival. With a running time in excess of 3 hours, Avatar: The Way of Water is filled with computer-generated scenes that, while visually stunning and technically amazing, do little to move the plot forward, making the film feel a little long at times. It could be shortened by a good 30 minutes or so without disturbing the storyline.

The film has been available for streaming since late March but the studio has yet to announce a date for its release on physical media. So, although I wasn’t able to compare the quality of Kaleidescape’s full-bandwidth download with the movie on 4k Blu-ray as I have done in the past, I was able to do a direct comparison with the online stream through the Movies Anywhere app.

I was blown away by Way of Water’s striking presentation in the theater so I fully expected to be wowed by Kaleidescape’s 4K download — and I was. Comparing the download with the Movies Anywhere stream turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. I cued up the Movies Anywhere stream on my Nvidia Shield and about 30 seconds later hit Play on the Kaleidescape, which let me compare images by switching between inputs on my reference-level JVC DLA-RS3100 projector. The HDMI handshake wouldn’t allow for an instantaneous back-and-forth, but the delay was less than 7 seconds when I switched inputs, which enabled me to make valid comparisons between the two formats.

First off, I have to say right up front that streaming has come a long way over the past five years thanks to the steady evolution of compression algorithms. In all honestly, if streaming over Movies Anywhere was my only option for watching this film, I wouldn’t have much to complain about. Differences between the two formats were subtle. Backgrounds were a bit clearer on Kaleidescape, but the foreground was razor sharp and teeming with detail in both presentations. Another minor difference was the superior depth conveyed in the K-scape download, which I presume has to do with the sharper backgrounds, especially in fast-moving scenes. Colors popped in both presentations, though the K-scape download was a tad bit darker than the streaming version, which gave images a less harsh and more nuanced appearance — especially during the bright daylight scenes. Finally, black levels were a bit more stable in the K-scape presentation, but if I wasn’t doing a direct comparison I doubt I would have noticed the difference.

While neither of the services support 3D, I’m hoping for a 3D release on disc. Yes, I know the format is all but dead (again), but the original Avatar is such a visual feast that it’s one of the few films I enjoy watching in 3D. I’m sure the sequel would look just as good. Another thing I’d like to see on disc is a 2.39:1 framed image versus the 1.85:1 presented here. Cameron shot the film with both aspect ratios in mind for its theatrical release, so I hope the studio decides to pull the trigger. Regardless of the formatting, the video presentation is simply marvelous in the way its reveals the rich color palette of Pandora.

Both the K-scape and Movies Anywhere presentations feature a Dolby Atmos soundtrack but the sound in the streamed version is much more compressed than in the full-bandwidth download. Can you tell the difference between the two? Absolutely. The uncompressed presentation had much more heft and presence, especially in the low end. Overall, I found the Kaleidescape-delivered sound to be more enveloping and engaging. That’s not to say that the sound on the Movies Anywhere stream was bad — it wasn’t, not by a stretch — just not as good as it could be.

One thing you get with the Kaleidescape download (and on disc) that you don’t always get with streaming is extras — and they are plentiful in the K-scape download. More than 3 hours of supplemental material is broken into three segments: “Inside Pandora’s Box,” “More from Pandora’s Box,” and “Marketing Materials and Music Video.” The first two segments dive deep into the filmmaking process and visual effects, including a behind-the-scenes look at the extensive design work that went into the various vehicles and creatures in the film and how the magnificent underwater sequences were created. The final segment includes a music video from The Weeknd of “Nothing is Lost (You Give Me strength).”

Ten Kaleidescape Scenes are on tap, all of which do a fantastic job highlighting the film’s topnotch audio and video. My personal favorite is “A Raiding party,” which gives the low-frequency effects (LFE) channel a serious workout and uses high dynamic range (HDR) to great effect as the Na’vi harass the human invaders. Here’s the rundown of the scenes:

• A Raiding Party
• An Old Enemy Returns
• Trouble at Three Brothers Rocks
• Lo’ak and Payakan
• Return of the Tulkun
• New Wrath of the Sky People
• Saving Payakan
• Fighting Back
• Sullys Fight Together
• Kiri Lights the Way

Avatar: Way of Water is not the best film I’ve seen over the past year, but it is an undeniable audio/visual treat. My only real complaint is that the studio has yet to make the 2.39:1 CinemaScope version of the film available in any format, so I’m hoping the ultra-widescreen presentation will find its way onto UHD Blu-ray. In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the fantastic 1.85:1 presentation Kaleidescape delivers.

Studio: Twentieth Century
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Download Size: 103.4GB (4K UHD)
HDR Format: 4K HDR
Audio Format: Dolby Atmos
Length: 3 hours, 12 mins
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis

Rodolfo's picture

ONY in CinemaScope, not the hybrid of Cinemascope aspect ratio switching to an IMAX squarish aspect ratio through the movie like Top Gun Maverick, Batmans, and even the previous Avatar (in less switching).

Most movies today are released in CinemaScope and that is the reason many home theater fans have built their CinemaScope screens, me included; alternating aspect ratios within the movie is very disruptive and when switching to the IMAX squarish image while watching the Cinemascope main content of the movie the image surpasses the physical top and bottom of the CinemaScope screen on the wall, totally unacceptable, and constantly switching the projector memories of aspect ratios is even more disruptive.

The movie TopGun and others was shown in CinemaScope 100% in the CinemaScope local theater, but it had the hybrid switch of aspect ratios on the disc, unwatchable on my CinemaScope theater, maybe not on a 16x9 TV where the IMAX will fill the screen while the CinemaScope image movie parts will be smaller and have top/bottom black bars, the usual for TV viewers but still disruptive.

I understand the production has to come up with different versions for the various local theaters, but having seen the full CinemaScope version on a local theater and decided to buy the disc I will only accept the same version on the disc, and for the disc package showing very clearly that there is a hybrid of aspect ratios inside, so I do not buy it, I returned the Top Gun for exactly that issue.

David Vaughn's picture
Since getting a 2.35:1 screen a few years ago, I can't stand the VAR movies. Thankfully, my JVC projector (RS3100) has a masking feature and I have a VAR memory set up that keeps the aspect ratio at 2.39:1 for the entire film and even if the ratio changes, I never notice it. Furthermore, knowing that the film is framed for a 2.35:1 presentation, you don't really miss anything that's masked out.
barfle's picture

I’m desperately hanging on to my 3D setup. Avatar without 3D would still have been a good movie, but with 3D, it was spectacular! I’ve heard that Way of Water isn’t as good as the original (few sequels are), but it would make a wonderful addition to my 3D collection. I’ll wait for it.

David Vaughn's picture
While I'm not a big fan of the format, Avatar is a movie I own in 3D (I actually own about 60 films or so) and was the last 3D film I watched about a year ago.
3ddavey13's picture

I saw Avatar: The Way of Water in 1.85:1 3D iMAX and it was easily the most-detailed 3D presentation I've ever seen, and I try to see everything in 3D. I had no idea it was also being shown in CinemaScope. I would love to see the film released in CinemaScope on the 4K disc with a 3D bluray in 1.85. I purchased a 75" Sony Z9D when I found out TV manufacturers were no longer going to support 3D. If Cameron is calling the shots I feel good about a 4K/3D bundle like Alita, but if the decision is Disney's, we might have to wait for a UK/EU release.
I'm also curious about the framerate. The 3D iMAX looked like video, not film. No idea if this was the case for Cinemascope.

David Vaughn's picture
Hopefully it gets the Alita treatment, but I'm not holding my breath if Disney is making the decision.
3ddavey13's picture

Well, we're getting the movie in 3D but without Atmos. Can't say I'm surprised. Actually, the way Disney usually does Atmos it's probably no great loss. The bigger disappointment is no Dolby Vision on the 4K disc. Really? A movie like this and all we get is HDR10? It also would have been nice if they had spread the film over two 4K discs like WB did for Lord Of The Rings (extended). Obviously, Disney is in control. And forget about a 2.39:1 version. I reluctantly pre-ordered the overpriced 3D release but refuse to buy the 4K disc in its present form. Good thing you're not holding your breath.