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.

Horror-Thriller ‘Mid-Century’ Headed to Digital June 17, Disc July 26

The  horror-thriller Mid-Century is being released in select theaters, on demand and for digital purchase June 17, and on Blu-ray and DVD July 26 from Lionsgate.

Mid-Century follows a husband and wife on a weekend in a mid-century modern vacation rental that turns deadly when the husband discovers the owner is a psychopath with a backyard of buried secrets and designs on his wife.

Directed by Sonja O’Hara (Best Director winner for Mid-Century at this year’s L.A. Film Festival), the film stars Academy Award nominee Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Stephen Lang (“Avatar” franchise) and Shane West (“Gotham”).

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