It’s 2009 and outside of some television and oceanic-centric films, writer/director James Cameron hasn’t had a film in theaters since 1997’s Titanic. His new project, Avatar, promises to take audiences on an incredible ride to a new planet, invaded by Earth interests. As much an action drama as it is science fiction ecological study, Avatar utilized the then-still new 3D technology so as to give audiences a ride unlike anything they’d experienced so far. As of this writing, Avatar brought in $2.92 billion globally, a record broken by Avengers: Endgame in 2019 and re-broken when Avatar was recently re-released into theaters for a limited time. But the one thing that Avatar didn’t have, with all the acclaim and records, is a 4K UHD edition that might provide home viewing audiences the peak experience — until now. Featuring two new bonus features and all the previously available bonus features, Avatar is now available with 4K UHD with high dynamic range (HDR) and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.
But is it worth the snag?
On the far away planet of Pandora, U.S. military forces have set up a base in coordination with a corporate entity and scientists in order to learn about the Indigenous peoples of the planet, the Na’vi, in order to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. In truth, what the base operators really want is to get their hands on a natural resource that’s heavily desirable on Earth titled unobtainium. One way that they seek to do this, via the science and exploratory division, is through the use of lab-grown bodies that mimic the Na’vi that Terrains can then pilot via pods. The latest arrival to Pandora to undertake this mission and task is Jack Sully (Sam Worthington), a marine who’s taking the place of his scientist twin brother. For Jack, this is just a way to be of use, to get back in the field, but it turns into something else, something far more personal and enriching, when he finds himself selected by the Na’vi leaders to learn how to become one of them. Loyalties are tested, identity is challenged, and what’s truly valuable in life comes to life.
Typically in a home release, this is the part where thoughts are offered exploring the film before getting to the re-issue/re-release/restoration portion of the review. Plenty has been written over the years since release and there’s not much I can add to the discourse except to say that the film as a whole does little to excite me, seems to tread too heavily on the White Savior trope to feel fresh, and knowing that Cameron took inspiration from the Indigenous peoples of the Americas to create the Na’vi doesn’t help with the comparisons to Dances with Wolves (1990) or Ferngully (1992). It’s the world of Pandora married to the groundbreaking technology used to bring it to life that makes Avatar impressive, but it otherwise comes across as hollow, spectacle for the sake of it with little else to offer. This is enough for many and those who love it and find meaning in it, I wish I could see what you do, but I don’t.
Let’s get into what you can expect from this re-release.
First, there’s the cosmetics: a 4K UHD with HDR picture and Dolby Atmos-compatible audio track. Technically speaking, this is a vast improvement over the standard high-definition 1080p and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack of the prior home release, which should delight those with the capability to take full advantage in their home theater. Do keep in mind that if you have a Disney+ subscription, you can view the film with these exact same specs, but the compression must be different between watching it through D+ versus iTunes as the iTunes edition features superior depth of field and range of color. The downside, of course, is that there are moments when it’s *very* clear that (a) the actors are on a different plane than the digital creations (example: the conversation with Sully and Stephen Lang’s Colonel Miles Quaritch as the Colonel climbs into an AMP Suit before walking off in it) or (b) scenes where the 3D was the feature of the sequence. With the increased detail, everything is crisp and enhanced at a way that impresses, but it’s difficult to maintain the illusion when the improved picture highlights the discrepancy between reality and digital magic.
Second, there’re the bonus features: two new featurettes — “Memories from Avatar” and “Avatar: A Look Back” — and the rest of the previously available bonus features. In total, these two featurettes offer about 30 minutes of brand-new behind-the-scenes information with the first, “Memories,” being a conversation lead by producer Jon Landau with four principal returning franchise cast members, and the second, “A Look Back,” being a retrospective centered on the technology used to create the original film. Beyond this, it appears that everything included in the 2010 Extended Edition is also included here. Of note, the iTunes edition also appears to include an optional English Family Audio Track that removes potentially questionable dialogue so that audiences of all ages can watch the film without parental concerns of what younger ears might hear. (Why do I suddenly want to sing Blame Canada??)
Speaking of the digital edition, I need to make it clear that 20th Century Studios provided a digital code in order to complete this 4K UHD release review. I mention this specifically because there were several moments of lag whether watching the film straight or jumping to a different scene. The audio held no issues when this occurred, but it’s important to be aware that this can occur when one’s internet provider can’t handle the compression necessary for the large data required to present 4K UHD, even before the HDR and Dolby Atmos. This is less likely to occur with physical media as the film is uncompressed (or more likely to be) on a 4K UHD disc. I say “more likely” because there are instances, such as with Avengers: Endgame, where the home release still had to be compressed a bit *on the disc* in order to get the film to fit. From the press materials, it’s unclear if that’s the case with Avatar, but, based on Cameron’s particular brand of intentionality with his releases and the length of time it took to get this film released in 4K UHD, I tend to lean on the on-disc being the best version it can be. That said, it’s all speculation as I only have the digital edition, but I can’t necessarily recommend it due to the frequency in which the lag ruined the otherwise pristine video display.
Snagging Avatar in 4K UHD is basically a foregone conclusion for most people. Both this original film and its 2022 follow-up, Avatar: The Way of Water, broke box office records, so it’s far more likely that the long-awaited 4K UHD edition was either pre-ordered or purchased Day One, June 20th, 2023. But if you opted to wait, outside of the benefits of not having to find space for the physical media, I cannot recommend the digital edition. Our house has been using Google Fiber for some time with no issues streaming 4K content through subscription services or previously owned 4K editions, yet none of them presented the number or length of latency that Avatar did. Just something to keep in mind as you decide, if you haven’t already, which one to purchase before heading to Pandora.
Avatar Special Features:
- *NEW* Memories from Avatar (21:21)
- *NEW* Avatar: A Look Back (10:03)
- Capturing Avatar: Parts One-Four
- Sculpting Avatar
- Creating the Banshee
- Creating the Thanator
- The AMP Suit
- Flying Vehicles
- Na’vi Costumes
- Speaking Na’vi
- Pandora Flora
- Performance Capture
- Virtual Camera
- The 3D Fusion Camera
- The Simul-Cam
- Editing Avatar
- Scoring Avatar
- Sound Design
- The Haka: The Spirit of New Zealand
- English Family 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio Track
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray and digital June 20th, 2023.