Release Date(s)2022 (June 20, 2023)
Studio(s)Lightstorm/TSG Entertainment II/20th Century Studios (20th Century Studios Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: Portions of this film review were written by Stephen Bjork, while the remainder was written by Bits editor Bill Hunt.]
Sixteen years after forcing the RDA to abandon Pandora, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has now fully merged with his avatar and lives as the chief of his Na’vi forest clan. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are also raising several children of their own, including sons Neteyam and Lo’ak, daughter Tuk, and adoptees Kiri (played by Sigourney Weaver, somehow born of the late Grace Augustine’s discarded avatar) and Spider (the human son of the late Colonel Quaritch, who was too young to return to Earth in cryosleep).
When the RDA suddenly returns however, determined to take Pandora for humanity by force (because Earth is now dying), Jake and his family are forced to flee. It seems the invaders have created new “recombinant” avatars—using the implanted memories of deceased marines (including Quaritch, played again by Stephen Lang)—to take down Jake once and for all. The Sullys briefly find shelter with the aquatic Metkayina clan, led by Tonowari and Ronal (Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet), but it soon becomes clear that the RDA and its recombinant “Blue Team” aren’t ever going to stop hunting them. So Jake, his family, and all the Na’vi must once again rally to save everything they hold dear.
Released thirteen years after the original film, Avatar: The Way of Water finds itself in a paradoxical position. It’s a sequel to the biggest Hollywood blockbuster of all time, yet one the moviegoing public wasn’t necessarily clamoring to see. Even if director James Cameron hadn’t taken his time in bringing The Way of Water to the big screen, the original Avatar managed to generate record-breaking grosses while having remarkably little cultural impact. It was an oft-admired film, but one that was seldom loved. Yet Cameron’s plan for Pandora includes at least three more sequels to come, and the box-office success of The Way of Water means we’ll almost certainly see them all realized eventually.
There can be no doubt that Cameron’s vision is extraordinary, at least in terms of the sights and sounds on display here. The Way of Water ups the ante over the original Avatar in multiple ways, starting with its depiction of an entirely new region of Pandora—its ocean environments. Far more compelling than the forests of the first film, the high frame rate 3D gives the water a tactile quality never before seen in theaters. That realism remains just as compelling at home without HFR (though it should be noted that a Blu-ray 3D version is available separately). The visuals transcend both their digital nature and the uncanny valley that’s been such a limitation for photorealistic CGI in the past, bringing these characters and their surroundings to genuinely vivid life in a way that never gets old, even after more than three hours of viewing. The advances in virtual volume technology and motion capture—perhaps emotion capture would be more accurate—are significant too.
Still, the dramatic narrative here remains frustratingly simplistic. At the core of both Avatar films lies the myth of native peoples living in perfect harmony with their environments. While it may be true that they live in greater harmony, they’re still exploiting the environment in their own ways for survival—it’s just that some types of exploitation are more sustainable than others. But the real issue is that The Way of Water also reveals the essential paradox at the heart of this filmmaker’s vision, and frankly much of his career: Cameron’s environmental concerns are counterbalanced by his obvious fascination with technology, military hardware in particular. Avatar and The Way of Water are both staggeringly-beautiful productions that preach peace and celebrate nature, while also finding endless and ingeniously-creative ways to depict violence, fetishizing AMP suits and gunships to the same degree as banshees and tulkun. Thirteen years later, Cameron’s world-building remains superb. It’s just that he’s once again allowed his predilections to get the better of his pretensions.
The Way of Water’s live action elements were captured digitally in 16-bit X-OCN RAW format (at 4K resolution) by cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic, True Lies) and his team using Sony CineAlta Venice 3D and PXW-Z450 cameras, with Fujinon MK and Premier Cabrio lenses. Additional performance imagery was captured using a virtual camera and volume, supplemented by a Simul-Cam process that combined the live-action, performance capture, and rough anamatic imagery all at once, allowing Cameron and Carpenter to “shoot” the film in much the same way a documentarian might. All of this was then enhanced and supplemented by extensive computer-generated visuals to produce the final result, a native 4K Digital Intermediate framed at both the 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 aspect ratios (depending on the theatrical exhibition venue). For its appearance on Ultra HD, the 192-minute theatrical presentation has been graded for high dynamic range (HDR10 is the only option on this disc, and the lack of Dolby Vision on a title this significant is unfortunate). In a slight departure from the original Avatar (reviewed here), which was presented on disc at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, The Way of Water is framed at 1.85:1 for its Blu-ray and 4K UHD release.
The resulting 4K image is absolutely breathtaking, smooth and highly dimensional, with sublime detail and complex yet cleanly-refined texturing. Subtleties abound in skin, hair, foliage, hand-woven attire, corals, rocks, even density effects like fog, haze, and sunbeams filtering through down through water. The dynamic range is impressive too, with deeply black shadows that retain texture detail, and bold highlights that lend added realism to wave-tops, glistening skin, phosphorescence, starlight, explosions, flame, and the nighttime glow of Pandora’s gas giant primary. What’s more, the film’s palette is luminous in 10-bit color, with vibrant, nuanced, and highly varied hues. Perhaps best of all, the film has been included on a BD-100 disc to allow for consistently high bit rates (approximately 45 Mbps, per the studio). In every sense of the word, this is a reference quality 4K image. In fact, it might be the best looking 4K disc since last year’s Top Gun: Maverick.
Audio-wise, the 4K disc includes a home theater port of the film’s theatrical English Dolby Atmos mix that’s fantastic from start to finish. The stage is big, wide, and highly immersive, with constant surround and height channel activity, and smooth movement. Bass is exceptional, notably more robust than it appears in the film’s streaming incarnations. The mix goes from softly nuanced to thunderous and muscular with absolute ease. Dialogue is clean and discernible at all time, while Simon Franglen’s score—which honors the work of the late James Horner on the original film—is layered in with pleasing fidelity and musicality. This is a terrific surround sound experience. Additional options include English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, English Descriptive Audio (in 2.0 Dolby Digital), an English Family Audio Track (in 5.1 Dolby Digital), French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Spanish and Japanese 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus. Optional subtitles are available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Japanese. (Note that the Blu-ray version swaps the Atmos for 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.)
Fox’s 4K Ultra HD package includes the film in 4K on UHD and 1080p HD on Blu-ray. There are no special features on either, however you also get a dedicated Blu-ray of Bonus features, which include:
- Inside Pandora’s Box
- Building the World of Pandora (HD – 9:33)
- Capturing Pandora (HD – 10:47)
- The Undersea World of Pandora (HD – 11:30)
- The Challenges of Pandora’s Waters (HD – 11:42)
- Pandora’s Returning Characters (HD – 8:49)
- Pandora’s Next Generation (HD – 10:47)
- Spider’s Web (HD – 10:23)
- Becoming Na’vi (HD – 10:51)
- The Reef People of Pandora (HD – 11:47)
- Bringing Pandora to Life (HD – 14:40)
- The RDA Returns to Pandora (HD – 13:34)
- The New Characters of Pandora (HD – 9:38)
- The Sounds of Pandora (HD – 13:27)
- New Zealand – Pandora’s Home (HD – 4:24)
- More from Pandora’s Box
- Casting (HD – 10:01)
- Stunts (HD – 5:42)
- The Lab (HD – 6:43)
- The Troupe (HD – 5:38)
- Marketing Materials & Music Video
- The Weeknd’s Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength) Music Video (HD – 4:41)
- Theatrical Trailer 1 (HD – 1:39)
- Theatrical Trailer 2 (HD – 2:30)
As was the case with the 2010 Avatar: Extended Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, these features cover seemingly every aspect of the production from start to finish. They begin with a look at the world-building of creatures and biomes. Then we see the actors working with performance capture and the virtual volume, the work required to flesh out the ocean environment and populate it with creatures, and the use of performance capture tech in underwater tanks. We learn about characters old and new, the effort required to train the actors as Na’vi, the new Reef culture, the RDA’s new technology, and the film’s score and sound design. There’s a tribute to WETA and the filmmaking talent in New Zealand. You get screen test footage, a look at the fight choreography and stunt work, the virtual and post production pipeline, and the troupe of actors and dancers who bring all of the background Na’vi to life. Finally, there are a pair of trailers and a video for The Weeknd’s closing credits song. The package also includes a Movies Anywhere Digital Copy code on a paper insert, which gives you access to a couple of Digital-exclusive features too, including:
- Acting Underwater for Avatar: The Way of Water (HD – 1:34) (on Movies Anywhere)
- Theatrical Trailer 3 (HD – 2:33) (on Apple TV)
These features are not quite as comprehensive as those made for the original Avatar, in that there are no image and artwork galleries, there’s no Pandorapedia, nor do you get the film’s complete script. But by the standards of today’s typical Blu-ray and 4K special editions, this disc is positively loaded. And all of this content is thoughtful, interesting, and genuinely informative, created for diehard fans as opposed to simply being intended for use as studio EPK material.
There can be no doubt that Avatar: The Way of Water represents a new high-water mark for the technology of filmmaking, with dazzling CG imagery that flexes its prowess without shame. Frankly, it’s remarkable how far this tech has come in the last thirteen years, yet generative AI, neural networks, and machine-learning algorithms are only going to improve upon these capabilities and probably quite rapidly. Even so, whether or not you enjoy The Way of Water will probably come down to whether or not you enjoyed the original Avatar, because this is definitely a case of “second verse, same as the first,” just more and more dazzling (though not necessarily better story-wise). That said, this is certainly the reference 4K UHD of the year to date, with copious candy for both the eyes and the ears. So this release is definitely recommended for both fans and A/V enthusiasts alike.
- Bill Hunt with Stephen Bjork