Avatar: The Way of Water

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 6/20/23;
Disney/20th Century;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $684.08 million;
$29.99 DVD, $36.99 Blu-ray, $44.99 UHD BD, $39.99 3D BD, $19.99 Digital;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language.
Stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Jemaine Clement, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Lo Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass.

The big question mark surrounding the box office prospects of an Avatar sequel was whether or not the first film had enough pop culture clout. After all, it’s not as if it were the topic of many conversions despite being the highest-grossing film of all time.

I think in the decade since that first movie came out, the only instance I can recall of Avatar being referenced by characters on another TV show or movie was in an episode of “The Rookie,” and that was only due to some corporate synergy to promote the sequel. (For corporate cross-promotion, it seems, “The Rookie” is Disney’s go-to show.)

But another adage going around Hollywood just before the release of Avatar: The Way of Water was “don’t bet against James Cameron.” And sure enough, the film ended up at No. 3 on the all-time list. And yet the franchise still doesn’t seem to be much of a conversation piece a la “Star Wars” or “Top Gun” or the Marvel movies or Zack Snyder’s Justice League, aside from “can you believe Avatar 2 made $2.3 billion dollars?”

A primary reason for this might be how much the “Avatar” films are designed as big-screen spectacles, almost akin to an amusement park ride or a traveling exhibit. Every few years, audiences can visit a large-format theater for the visual splendor of a tour of an exotic alien world, in this case, the exo-moon of Pandora, in eye-popping 3D. The story is almost a secondary concern, crafted to provide the excuse for the visuals, though Cameron clearly sees the films as parables for the plight of indigenous peoples and the impact of industrialization on the environment.

Nothing is more important to how a film leaves a lasting impression on a viewer than that first experience in seeing it, and there is probably no franchise that demonstrates the gap between the big screen and the small screen in this regard than “Avatar.”

For most films with staying power, the stories and characters will translate well despite being viewed in a theater or at home. I saw the original Avatar in Imax 3D, and was as blown away by the visual effects as anyone else, until a baffling plot oversight to set up the final battle took me out of the movie.

So I didn’t bother with the sequel in theaters, and my first impression would have to wait until I could play it on my 4K TV. As with the first film, the visual effects are so extensive that it’s easy to see why this would be a popular choice to see on the big screen.

The story probably works a bit better, too, and offers more depth in the emotional stakes. If the first Avatar was Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully, this one could be Free Willy meets Tarzan. Set about 15 years after the events of the first film, The Way of Water finds Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), having transferred to his alien avatar body, raising a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and leading their Na’vi clan.

Then the humans return to reclaim Pandora as the future home of humanity, while a clone of Quaritch (Stephan Lang) in a new avatar body leads a squad to hunt down Jake for betraying humanity in the first film. With his family under threat, Jake, Neytiri and their kids seek refuge with a clan of Na’vi who evolved to live in the sea, thus providing the film a template for allowing the audience to explore Pandora’s oceans.

For the story to work, Cameron also has to introduce new elements to the storyline that weren’t present in the original movie, most notably the addition of Spider (Jake Champion) a human teenager who was too young to return to Earth and thus grew up on Pandora as a loincloth wearing Na’vi wild child Na’vi wannabe.

There are several parallels to the events of the first film, including the introduction of a new magical substance to generate humanity’s interest in Pandora. Where the humans of the first film were interested in mining “unobtanium” ore, in Way of Water it’s about hunting alien whales, whose brains secrete an ooze that reverses aging.

The visuals are inventive, but the ubiquitous CGI and high frame rate make the film feel more like a video game without the human characters to provide some sense of scale. Every so often I had to remind myself this was supposed to be a representation of live-action, not a cartoon — a concern likely obviated in a theatrical setting with darkened lighting and 3D polarized lenses.

I’m not saying it isn’t fun to watch, but on the small screen it’s not so different in concept than many other visual effects extravaganzas. However, the filmmakers do take full advantage of the higher capacity of the 4K disc and HDR10 to really show off the visual effects, which are particularly bright and vivid compared with the image from the film’s standard Blu-ray, which itself offers some of the best picture quality the format allows. Also, at least at home the ability to start and stop the movie makes the three-hour running time easier to digest.

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The home video edition comes with a massive trove of behind-the-scenes material that runs more than three hours long, and as a primer on filmmaking techniques is probably more interesting than the movie itself.

The bulk is contained in the two-and-a-half-hour “Inside Pandora’s Box,” a series of 14 featurettes that delve into the technical challenges of the film, from the intricacies of crafting the visual effects to designing new alien sea creatures to expanding the Na’vi language. Of note, even though most of the characters are CGI aliens, the cast still performed the parts using performance capture techniques, which didn’t always let them off the hook in regards to doing stunts; for the sake of realism, several of the actors in performance-capture camera rigs still had to shoot scenes underwater, and learn how to hold their breath for minutes at a time to do so. Figuring out how to integrate Spider into the CG environments and interacting with CG characters also led to new challenges for the Oscar-winning effects team.

A half-hour supplement called “More From Pandora’s Box” offers four additional featurettes that focus on stunts and some of the below-the-line players that are essential to the film’s technical achievements, including a troupe of performers who put on blue suits to stand in for the Na’vi on set to provide reference for the CGI artists. Also included are screen tests from some of the new young cast members, which reveals a unique challenge for casting a film with a production schedule that lasts several years — having to cast a child while studying their family to project whether they’ll still fit the part in a few years when they appear on camera.

Rounding out the extras is a package of marketing materials that runs a total of about 10 minutes, including two trailers and a “Nothing Is Lost” music video by The Weeknd.

Note that these are the exact same extras included with the digital release of the film back in March. There are no exclusives for disc, which would have been a nice incentive for physical media buyers. At least the new 4K of the original 2009 Avatar has some new retrospective featurettes.

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray combo pack of Avatar: The Way of Water is a three-disc set that includes the film on both a 4K disc and a regular Blu-ray disc. All the extras are contained on the third disc, which also is a regular Blu-ray. Rounding out the package is a redemption code for a digital copy. The standard Blu-ray is a two-disc configuration, with the movie on one disc and the extras on another. The 3D edition is a four-disc set that includes the 3D version of the film split among two discs, joined by the regular Blu-ray Discs of the film and the bonus materials.

On the digital side of things, the bonus materials are subject to availability depending on the retailer. However, since Disney is a Movies Anywhere company it shouldn’t be too hard to access a member retailer that offers the extras (Movies Anywhere has them, as does Vudu).

Updated from a review of the digital version, originally published April 3, 2023.

Sam Worthington Crime Thriller ‘Transfusion’ Headed to Blu-ray and DVD April 18

The Sam Worthington crime thriller Transfusion arrives on Blu-ray (plus digital) and DVD April 18 from Lionsgate.

In his directorial debut, Matt Nable (TV’s “Mr Inbetween”) stars alongside Sam Worthington (Avatar).
 
In the film, ex-special forces operative Ryan Logan (Worthington) has a sharply honed set of survival skills that have allowed him to walk the line between courage and fear. But after a personal tragedy shatters his family and sends his teenaged son, Billy, into a world of drugs and delinquency, he is pushed to the edge. Desperate to make a new life for Billy, Ryan plunges into the criminal underground for one final mission.

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Disney Sets March 28 Digital Home Release Date for ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

The Walt Disney Co. has set a March 28 home release date for James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, which will initially be available only for digital purchase from most major digital retailers, including Vudu, Redbox On Demand, Prime Video and Apple TV.

A DVD and Blu-ray Disc release date has not yet been announced, but is expected to follow.

The belated sequel to 2009’s original Avatar is the third-highest-grossing movie of all time, earning more than $2.2 billion worldwide ($607.7 million domestic) and receiving four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

The film’s digital release will offer 4K Ultra HD quality and immersive Dolby Atmos audio. The release includes three hours of never-before-seen bonus content featuring the filmmakers, cast and crew.

In Avatar: The Way of Water, director Cameron returns to the world of Pandora more than a decade after the events of the first film. The sequel launches the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure. Audiences also are introduced to new Na’vi cultures and a range of exotic sea creatures that populate the majestic oceans.

Produced by Cameron and his longtime partner Jon Landau, the Lightstorm Entertainment production stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet. New cast members include Britain Dalton, Jamie Flatters, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Bailey Bass and Jack Champion.

Bonus features include:

  • “Inside Pandora’s Box” — a series of featurettes on the challenges facing cast and crew as filmmakers devise new technologies to push the limits of cinema)
  • “Building the World of Pandora” —  Cameron and a team of talented artists combine years of research with their design skills to build the world of Pandora with new characters, creatures, indigenous clans, underwater environments and the hard-tech world of the RDA.
  • “Capturing Pandora” — Cameron’s approach to performance-capture has the cast performing in a volume rigged with infrared cameras to capture their movement, and head rig cameras to capture emotion on their faces with only the boundaries of imagination to limit them.
  • “The Undersea World of Pandora” — Co-production designer Dylan Cole and his team conceive of the marine creatures required for Avatar: The Way of Water while James Cameron and his stunt team devise extraordinary means to bring those creatures to life in a performance capture tank.
  • “The Challenges of Pandora’s Waters” — Cameron tackles the challenge of performance-capture above and below the water’s surface, utilizing a wave machine and current generator to reproduce ocean conditions, and underwater vehicles to replicate creature movement.
  • “Pandora’s Returning Characters” — Cameron reunites with his returning cast to discuss the evolution of their characters in Avatar: The Way of Water.
  • “Pandora’s Next Generation” — Viewers are introduced to the young newcomers who have been cast as the next generation of Na’vi and follow them through the adventure of making Avatar: The Way of Water.
  • “Spider’s Web” — Cameron introduced the human character of Spider (portrayed by young actor Jack Champion) into the fabric of Pandora, an introduction that created a host of technological challenges on set.
  • “Becoming Na’vi” — The Avatar cast is immersed in the culture of the indigenous Na’vi, living off the land in the Hawaiian rainforest and training in a multitude of disciplines in preparation for their roles.
  • “The Reef People of Pandora” — A look at how the Metkayina reef clan was developed with great attention to detail, bearing unique evolutionary traits and a culture — with new dwellings, new clothes and different way of life — all a result of living off the ocean.
  • “Bringing Pandora to Life” — Once Cameron completed his virtual production process, every sequence was turned over to Weta FX to bring Pandora to life — with significant advancements in facial performance, environments and making CG water look real.
  • “The RDA Returns to Pandora” — Co-production designer Ben Procter and his team present an armada of new vehicles and human technologies that the RDA brings to Pandora — in concept design and with practical builds.
  • “The New Characters of Pandora” — Viewers are introduced to the important new characters of the Avatar saga played by Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell and Jemaine Clement.
  • “The Sounds of Pandora” — Hear how Cameron worked with composer Simon Franglen to create the distinctive music of The Way of Water while building on James Horner’s score for Avatar, and learn how Chris Boyes created the immersive sounds of Pandora.
  • “New Zealand: Pandora’s Home” — The production of the Avatar sequels is so thoroughly ensconced in New Zealand that Cameron considers The Way of Water a “New Zealand film.” Hear reflections from the cast and crew, including the New Zealand crew, on making the film.

 

Also included are the screen tests that won the young cast their roles in Avatar: The Way of Water; a look at the stunt team that did everything from racing underwater on ilus and flying the skies on ikrans to maneuvering RDA speed boats; a virtual visit to the Lightstorm Lab, the backbone of virtual production for the Avatar films; and an inside look at The Troupe, whose members played dozens of roles in the performance capture volume and on live-action sets.

Drama ‘The Keeping Room’ Due on DVD and Blu-ray July 12 From MVD

The Civil War story The Keeping Room (2014) will be released on Blu-ray Disc and DVD July 12 from Drafthouse Films, Giant Pictures and MVD Entertainment Group.

In the reimagined Western set near the end of the Civil War, Augusta encounters two renegade soldiers who are on a mission of pillage and violence. When the pair of soldiers track her down intent on revenge, the trio of women are forced to take up arms to fend off their assailants, finding ways to defend their home and themselves as the attacks become more unpredictable and relentless.

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From director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown) and writer Julia Hart (Miss Steven’s, Disney+’s “Stargirl”), the film stars Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, The Edge of Seventeen), Sam Worthington (Avatar), Brit Marling (Another Earth), Ned Dennehy (“Peaky Blinders”) and Amy Nuttall (“Downton Abbey”).

Redbox Bowing Western Action Movie ‘The Last Son’ Dec. 10

Redbox Entertainment, the original content division of disc-rental kiosk vendor Redbox, will release western actioner The Last Son digitally Dec. 10. In a deal with the movie’s producer, Decal, Redbox will have on-demand access on the same day as the film’s theatrical debut.

The Last Son stars Sam Worthington, Colson Baker (a.k.a. musician Machine Gun Kelly), Thomas Jane and Heather Graham.

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Written by Greg Johnson and directed by Tim Sutton (Donnybrook), The Last Son is set in the Sierra Nevada in the late 19th century. Isaac LeMay (Worthington) is a murderous outlaw cursed by a terrible prophecy, hunting down his offspring to prevent his own murder before targeting his son Cal (Baker). With bounty hunters and the enigmatic U.S. officer Solomon (Jane) on their tail, all are set on a collision course.

The Last Son truly portrays the brutality that was the West in the 19th century,” Galen Smith, CEO of Redbox, said in a statement. “With an all-star cast, beautiful cinematics, and an engrossing storyline, I know our customers are in for a treat this December.”

Shot entirely on location in Montana, The Last Son is executive produced by Thomas Jane and Courtney Lauren Penn of Renegade Entertainment, Galen Smith and Marc Danon of Redbox, Brandon Burrows, Kim Delonghi, Christina Lundbohm and Mark Andrews of 828 Media Capital and JD Beaufils of VMI Worldwide.

Andre Relis of VMI Worldwide produced The Last Son with Jib Polhemus of Source Management + Production, Dean Bloxom of Deano Productions, Steven Luke, and Todd Lundbohm of 828 Media Capital. Jessica Bennett and Sherri Hewett of VMI Worldwide are co-producers.