Avatar – The Way of Water is not yet out on disc media, but it is available for purchase on all the main streaming platforms. I checked out the Apple TV version for this review.
I will not give away any plot lines or ruin the story, so you can safely read on.
I can see why the movie took almost 10 years to make. This is basically the Terminator, The Abyss, Aliens, The Titanic and the original Avatar rolled into one. I bet James Cameron was having a time of his life while making it – and it sequels which are coming in short order.
When I saw the run-time, which is just about 3 hours, I was hoping Cameron would spend a bit more time fleshing out the characters. I wasn’t quite satisfied in this area with the original Avatar and I’m afraid, the same goes for this flick.
However, he must know what he’s doing as I got teary in quite a few places in the movie, so clearly there is a hook and emotional engagement, much more so than with the original Avatar. Or it could just be that I’m getting older and softer?!
Sigourney Weaver is playing Kiri’s character, which felt very recessed and in the background throughout the whole movie, giving us only hints of what is to come as her character is unpacked, hopefully throughout the next movie. I do feel like the character could have been given more lines and more engagement here. I even felt like her facial animation was given a lot less time than that of the other characters. It’s a bit of a shame, but I hope to be pleasantly surprised in the next movie.
The movie was viewed in HDR on a JVC NZ8 laser projector in high laser at 110″. I also watched part of the movie on a Samsung Neo QLED (85″ QN85A) and an LG OLED (B8). All the displays were calibrated.
I always find Apple TV rentals or purchases to be of higher quality than other streaming services, at least in Australia. This was no exception. There was plenty of detail and definition in the image.
The picture was also devoid of any compression artefacts that would have been distracting. The only exception to this was the sky in some of the very bright scenes, where the heavy tone-mapping required highlighted some slight flickering in the image. This was only an issue on the JVC, and not the QLED or OLED. Again, I believe this is in the source, but brought out by the tone-mapping down to the projector’s brightness levels. Even if very rarely, it can also happen with disc-based media.
HDR – Overall
I kept wondering if Cameron supervised this transfer or they selected one colour-timed version to be transferred to HDR without a lot of oversight.
This movie literally contains some of the very best and some of the very worst use of HDR. The evening and night scenes are absolutely spectacular in HDR on both the projector and the TV screens. It is one of the best use of HDR I have seen to date: inky blacks with amazing insight and very bright highlights that literally melt the screen. It is just sublime.
However, when it comes to the HDR grading of the day scenes, I was less than impressed. The day scenes lacked contrast especially in the mid-tones. I feel that this is a sub-standard HDR grade. I can see that whoever graded this tried to keep a lot of the definition in the skies. However, this took masses of dynamic range away from the focus: the characters, the water, the animals. I think that in the interest of trying to aim for utmost physical accuracy, it ultimately hurt the artistic intent and overall image.
Apologies for the slightly blurry shots. These images were taken while the movie was running and in a pitch black room, neither of which lends itself to detailed pictures. Focus on the colours, contrast and overall look which is the point of this article.
I feel this was not the correct decision to make. I genuinely hope the disc version fixes this.
To be extra sure, I viewed some of the movie on the QLED and the OLED and I was left feeling the same: this transfer might look spectacular on a 10,000 nit screen, but for the majority of the displays which barely reach 1000nits, this transfer is not ideal.
What is even more puzzling about this, is that watching the movie in SDR, which uses Dolby Vision’s SDR layer, does not look like the original Avatar with regards to its day scenes: there is less contrast and definition.
This is another puzzling aspect for me. Out of the water, the colours look spectacular, if at times a bit mooted compared to the original Avatar. However, there is such a heavy use of blue filter for the underwater shots, it causes heavy de-saturation of other colours, takes away from image definition and hurts the image. I was not at all a fan.
Again, I think that Cameron was so obsessed with making the movie look “real” that he prioritised that over overall image quality, and over what looks good. I honestly felt this was a bit too heavy handed and took away from my enjoyment of the under-water plants and animals.
While I understand that this might be Cameron’s first attempt at HDR grading, along with the HDR treatment of the day scenes, I was expecting more polish. I am more than certain that Cameron wanted to convey the wonder and beauty of sea life to us. I fail to see how such heavy-handed colour grading that almost obliterates colours achieves that aim.
Again, I honestly hope Cameron was not personally involved in this HDR transfer and he is focusing on correcting this for the disc version.
Contrast & Black Level
Jaw-droppingly spectacular! As I said under the HDR section, the night shots just have bags of shadow detail while still presenting inky blacks and ridiculously good-looking highlights. Even the JVC NZ8 looked like a massive OLED screen. It just looked gorgeous.
Cameron pays attention to black level and shadow detail in all his movies and this is no exception. This is normally the thing that goes wrong with HDR, but that is not the deal here. There was clearly a lot of attention paid to this area. 10 / 10
I have to be honest – the original Avatar isn’t going to win awards for sound mixing in my book, I don’t care how many academy awards they were handed – funnily enough also for the sound mix. I think we have all heard much better. I found the sound mix to be a bit too laid-back for my liking.
I am happy to report that Avatar – The Way of Water ups the ante a bit on this front and I enjoyed the sound mix more. However, I still feel it’s not on the same level as some other block-busters. This is certainly not a Michael Bay movie.
However, both the sound mix and the score are engaging and draw you into the story. There is great use of the LFE channel and the surrounds. But again, I feel like it could be a bit stronger.
The sound quality was great, however the volume for the Dolby Atmos mix was about 10dB lower than it should be. This reduces some of the dynamic range and impact.
I would like to see Fox – and Disney – offering the full theatre mix for home audiences alongside these neutered mixes, as an optional separate soundtrack. I think a lot of us would be willing to pay a little extra to get them on streaming. However, this is certainly not as bad as some of Disney’s past offerings, some of which were riddled with very heavy DRC and the occasional distortion.
If you have seen the original Avatar, and you enjoyed it, then this is a must-see. I feel this release is not ideal and I would love to see the equipment it was graded on. If indeed it was graded on a 10,000nit Dolby monitor, then I wonder if the SDR grade was being monitored properly alongside the HDR grade, which could have avoided some of the issues mentioned in this review.
Having said that, HDR is still a developing format and directors have artistic licence to use it any way they wish. I feel like Cameron’s first outing into HDR is a bit of a hit and miss: some of the very best HDR alongside some pretty lacklustre use of it. That’s my own personal opinion and others might not share it. For me, it distracted from the experience.
Looking forward to seeing the disc version and hoping these issues will be fixed. But even if not, this movie is a must-have for Avatar fans.