Double Feature – Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar (2009)
Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
Are we officially in the post-originality era of film? Is everything now based on, inspired by or an homage to something else? When Avatar premiered in 2009, critics sussed it as a sci-fi riff on Dances with Wolves, an observation writer/director James Cameron apparently accepted, compliment or not. Here’s the thing, though: Does the story even matter here? The script — while certainly clever in places — served its purpose to set up a new generation of visuals effects that utterly dazzled audiences, making Avatar the highest-grossing film in history, for a time.

In the 22nd century, humans have set up shop on Pandora, a strange moon far from our overpopulated planet, in order to plunder its natural resources. The indigenous people are a race of tall, blue warriors who resist the invaders, and the solution to the rising tensions might be for the Earthlings to blend in by taking the form of the locals. They do this via the use of avatars, custom-grown organic hosts for the team of human emissaries, which includes eager former Marine Jake Sully, doing his part in exchange for a pricey surgery. His involvement, however, grows complicated when he catches feelings for his cerulean mentor, Neytiri, and her clan. Loyalties are tested and violence erupts.

And then of course is the inherent unoriginality of sequels. In Avatar: The Way of Water, we jump ahead 13 years and Jake and Neytiri are raising a family, which crowds the two leads to the background as we focus instead on a gosh-will-I-ever-fit-in subplot worthy of the Disney Channel. Despite having been summarily dispatched, a key character returns in a somewhat hokey fashion to help further the nefarious goal of Pandoran exploitation by the humans. Along the way, Cameron also revisits plenty of tried-and-true nuggets culled from his own canon. Even though it’s a “more of the same” variety follow-up, the visuals have been kicked up a big notch: Oscar winners both, these movies are richly deserving of all their accolades, and they’re ideal fodder for Ultra HD Blu-ray.

The Way of Water’s languorous beauty shots might lead us to sigh out loud with their insane levels of native 4K detail and vibrant hues, particularly blues and greens. The composition is at times hypnotic, layers of sunshine breaking through the canopy of trees and drawing the eye. Some scenes combining live action with CGI can take on a peculiar appearance, but by now our brains are likely used to the sensation.

The first Avatar is making its 4K disc debut as well, elevated to modern standards for its recent theatrical re-release utilizing AI to up-rez the image from its 2K source. The image is sharper and more finely textured with only minor video noise and excellent highlights plus improved shadow detail: There’s no mistaking this for the old HD Blu-ray releases. Limited by its 14-year-old technology, it’s missing just a bit of Water’s sparkle, making it a close second. Both arrive on triple-layer 100GB discs.

The Way of Water was produced in native 3D and Mr. Cameron has flexed his muscle to give fans a Blu-ray 3D release, something of a rarity these days. Unlike 2019’s Cameron-produced Alita: Battle Angel, Water 3D is a separate purchase, spread across two discs to ensure superior quality.

The Dolby Atmos soundtracks of both films offer everything we could ask for from a big event film: pleasing depth, a wide active soundstage, plenty of low end, and superb reproduction of quieter, more emotional, dialogue-driven scenes. The overhead channels provide outstanding immersion in this fantastical world of jungles, airships and flying beasties, and James Horner’s musical themes live on in rich fidelity and thumping bass. All of Avatar’s extras reside on its third platter and include two new retrospectives plus a truncated sampling of the many past supplements. Water packs well over a dozen featurettes which, despite their limited length, offer a deep dive on the movie and its creation.

ASPECT RATIO: 1.78:1 (Avatar), 1.85:1 (Avatar: The Way of Water)
AUDIO FORMAT: Dolby Atmos with TrueHD 7.1 core
LENGTH: 162 mins (Avatar), 193 mins (Avatar: The Way of Water)
DIRECTOR: James Cameron
STARRING: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang

Billy's picture

The first one was magical but I found this tedious. The high box office I bet was from anticipation because of the last one, but it will be nowhere near as profitable. I will not see a third one. 15 bucks lost to a so so movie. Of course, just my humble opinion. Jim Cameron knows what he is doing, but dropped the ball here.

David Vaughn's picture

I went in with very low expectations and actually enjoyed it. Surprisingly, I didn't feel it dragged that much. Sure, some of the VFX shots could have been shortened, but it was very pretty to look at and both my wife and I got lost in the world created by Cameron.

3ddavey13's picture

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the 2D version of Avatar: The Way of Water shown in 2.39:1 while the iMAX 3D (which is how I saw it) was in 1.85:1? So why use the 1.85:1 version to make the 4K disc? Wouldn't it have made more sense to use the 2.39:1 format for the 4K? It would have allowed us to see what's missing from the 1.85:1 version, and provided a compelling reason to buy both formats, since they refuse to offer a "Collector Edition" containing both. And why not split the second film over 2 discs for a higher bitrate like WB chose to do with the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings' trilogy (imo still the best-looking/best sounding 4K discs to date)? Personally, I enjoy an 'Intermission' with a 3-hour+ movie. And no Dolby Vision? Really? What's the problem with Fox/Disney and Dolby Vision, anyway? It's fine for streaming but not for discs? Visually this is a statement film, but that's not how it's being presented.
For the present I'll make do with the 3D version, although I really miss not having an Atmos soundtrack. Thankfully this wasn't crammed onto a single disc. And the 3D quality is superb, except when compared to the theatrical experience. I wish there was a more enticing reason to purchase the 4K version other than Atmos. A 2-disc, 2.39:1 version would have provided that, at least for me.