There’s nothing quite like watching a film at the cinema. Projected onto a big screen, with an immersive surround-sound system, in a darkened room with (hopefully) no other distractions, the experience of watching a film can truly shape an audiences’ opinion of it. James Cameron‘s Avatar is one of those films that just has to be seen at the cinema – filmed in 3D, with state-of-the-art visual effects technology, an immersive soundscape and an emotive score from the late, great James Horner, it’s an audio-visual experience that just isn’t the same watching it on a TV. With Avatar: The Way of Water releasing this Christmas, Disney and 20th Century Studios have re-released the original Avatar in remastered form for audiences all over the world to experience again on the big screen, as intended by the filmmakers.
Set in the distant future on the alien world of Pandora, Avatar follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a marine who is enlisted to take part in the Avatar program. His consciousness is transposed into the body of one of the natives, the Na’vi, to integrate himself with the species and encourage them to either leave or help the humans to mine for Unobtanium (a less-than-subtle fossil fuel name). As Jake begins to understand and empathise with the Na’vi – falling in love with the their leaders’ daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) – he finds himself unable to justify destroying their home for the mineral, pitting him against Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who will stop at nothing to obtain it…
Originally released in 2009, Avatar was a huge success at the box office, grossing nearly $3 billion. Its technical achievements further cemented the digital revolution in Hollywood, it kick-started a 3D trend in blockbuster movies, and was even re-released with a Special Edition cut. Over a decade later though, Avatar has lost a lot of the interest it had at the time of its release, with many dismissing the film’s story and characters as unmemorable or clichéd. It makes sense then that Avatar would receive this cinema re-release, with a new remastered presentation – in 4K resolution, with High Dynamic Range, selected sequences in High Frame Rate, a new Dolby Atmos sound mix and of course, in 3D.
It’s safe to say that the film has never looked better: the visual effects work holds up surprisingly well with the extra resolution (the visual effects artists deserve all the praise and money in the world, considering how good this looks), while the new HDR grade is more vibrant and eye-catching. It’s certainly one of the more successful 3D blockbusters, with every shot benefiting from the added depth. If there is an issue to be found with the presentation, it’s that it can sometimes look a bit too clean, not helped by the HFR sequences – which look almost like videogame cutscenes, losing that typically ‘cinematic’ quality. Inevitably, this will be entirely subjective, and I’m sure some audience members either won’t register this, or prefer the potentially more immersive quality provided by the additional frames. And who knows – perhaps this technique will have been perfected in time for the sequel this December.
As for the film itself, I think it’s fair to say that Avatar is a ‘style over substance’ piece, making the cinema experience the best way to engage with the story. The flying sequences, the battles, and the huge landscape shots of Pandora work brilliantly on the big screen – all part of James Cameron‘s intention to make the film more immersive for audiences. Yes, the story is quite clichéd, but the ensemble cast are entirely committed, and the performance-capture used for the Na’vi characters is really quite something. Ironically, despite the 162-minute running-time, the opening scenes almost feel rushed, covered by some expository narration, before the film really gets going as soon as Jake is ‘Avatar-ed’ into his Na’vi body. Some fans may be disappointed that this remastered re-release isn’t of the Special Edition (170 minutes) or the Collector’s Extended Cut (which runs at a mighty 178 minutes), but perhaps remastered versions of both will follow on Disney+ and/or on 4K Blu-ray.
The greatest strength of Avatar is the combination of the visuals and the score. James Horner‘s music is incredibly emotive, carrying the emotional core of the film, adding to the sense of scale and drama throughout, and hearing it played through Dolby Atmos speakers is an experience unto itself. I think it’s this unique combination of visual and musical storytelling that made Avatar such a success in 2009 – not just in the US, but all over the world – and why it works so much better at the cinema than viewed at home. However good Avatar: The Way of Water may be, it’s a shame that it will be missing Horner’s influence, as the composer passed away in 2015. Whoever takes up the baton for the sequel has big shoes to fill.
Overall, if you’re a fan of Avatar, or like me, never saw it at the cinema, this re-release is the perfect opportunity to experience the film as it was intended by the filmmakers. Its story may not be particularly original, but its unique combination of stunning visuals and an emotive score make it a great cinematic experience. See it on the biggest screen you can find.