Avatar (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Jun 15, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Avatar (4K UHD Review)


James Cameron

Release Date(s)

2009 (June 20, 2023)


Lightstorm/20th Century Fox/Dune/Ingenious Film (20th Century Studios Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A+
  • Extras Grade: B

Avatar (4K Ultra HD)




A hundred and thirty years in the future, the Earth’s biosphere has been degraded and its natural resources depleted. But though the planet is overpopulated, civilization remains hungry for energy and raw materials, so humanity has searched deep space and discovered Pandora, a lush and habitable moon orbiting a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri system just 4.3 light years away. To begin extracting the moon’s mineral wealth—including a remarkable room-temperature superconductor called “unobtanium”—the Resources Development Administration (RDA) has launched a massive expedition to Pandora, but they’ve had to include a substantial military force in the effort. This is due to the fact that Pandora is already (and inconveniently) inhabited by an intelligent species of indigenous humanoids called the Na’vi, who aren’t terribly happy with the idea of their homeworld being exploited by “sky people” from a distant star.

Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine whose twin brother, an RDA scientist, was preparing to leave for Pandora to study the Na’vi. But when his brother is killed before departure, Jake is offered his contact instead. It seems that his brother was meant to serve as an “avatar” pilot, and the avatar in question—a Na’vi host body grown in a lab—is genetically compatible with Jake. When he arrives on Pandora after a six-year trip in cryosleep, Jake is seen as a nuisance by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the avatar program, but an asset by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the man in charge of security on the planet. Jakes surprises everyone by thriving in his avatar and gaining the trust of the local tribe, particularly Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who teaches him the way of her people. But when Quaritch and the RDA lose patience with the Na’vi and decide to take what they want by force, Jake is forced to choose between loyalty to his own people or the natives who’ve accepted him as family.

Arguably the most technically advanced and groundbreaking film ever made at the time of its release, Avatar is the culmination of James Cameron’s entire personal and professional life. Combining his appreciation of nature with his love of sci-fi, filmmaking, the sciences, and complex problem-solving, its production has evolved over time from a simple film project, to a franchise, and finally a kind of obsession that’s engaged him creatively for the past two decades and seems likely to do so for at least a decade more. (The final planned sequel, Avatar 5, is currently slated to arrive in theaters in 2031!) Cameron first shared the scriptment for the project with producer Jon Landau while the pair was making Titanic, but it would take years for visual effects technology to catch up with his ambition. An obvious cautionary about the misfortunes of environmental degradation and the exploitation of indigenous cultures, Avatar’s plot is disarmingly simple—two parts Dances with Wolves and one part Aliens, with a dash of The Lion King added for good measure. But that simplicity is also key to the film’s extraordinary cross-cultural appeal: People of goodwill everywhere, in virtually every corner of the globe, can see with their own eyes the damage being done to the environment, and the paralysis of governments to stop it, and come to the same conclusion: We can and must do better.

Of course, the other key to Avatar’s appeal is equally simple: It’s a genuinely compelling visual experience. When the film debuted in theaters, the sheer immersiveness of its 3D environments was startling—no one had ever seen motion capture and CG artistry so seamlessly blended with live action photography before, all in service of an almost unparalleled act of cinematic world-building. Every detail of Pandora was conceived in Cameron’s imagination, then fully developed and realized with the help of hundreds of animators, designers, sculptors, biologists, linguists, programmers, and engineers. Even some of those who claimed to hate the film returned to see it multiple times in theaters simply to absorb its wonders. As Chicago Reader film critic J. R. Jones noted in his review at the time: “Watching it, I began to understand how people in 1933 must have felt when they saw King Kong.” That’s right on the money. Let’s face it—as modern moviegoers have grown ever more jaded, fed on a steady diet of bloated Hollywood blockbusters, it takes a truly remarkable film to remind them why the big screen experience remains so special and vital. And in December of 2009, Avatar embodied that experience like nothing else before it.

Avatar’s live action elements were captured digitally in HDCAM SR format (at 1080p/24 resolution) by cinematographer Mauro Fiore and his team using PACE Fusion 3D and Sony CineAlta F23, HDC-1500, and HDC-F950 cameras, with Canon and Fujinon 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 animatic imagery all at once, allowing Cameron and Fiore to “shoot” the film 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 2K Digital Intermediate master framed in a variety of aspect ratios (including 1.78:1 for IMAX, 1.85:1 for 3D, and 2.39:1 for wide-release theatrical exhibition).

For its first appearance on Ultra HD, the 162-minute theatrical cut of Avatar only has been AI-upsampled from the original master files to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate, complete with grading 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). It should be noted that this release does not include the 170-minute Special Edition version or the 178-minute Collector’s Extended Cut, nor is the Blu-ray 3D version of the theatrical cut included. (These, I’m told, were decisions made by Lightstorm, and it remains very possible that the longer versions could be released in 4K at a later date.) As was the case with the original Blu-ray release, the film is framed here at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The Avatar theatrical cut does, however, now include a new line of dialogue at the end of the film from Parker Selfridge to Jake Sully: “You know this isn’t over, right?” The 20th Century Studios logo also replaces the original Fox logo. (These changes were added for the recent 4K theatrical re-release earlier this year.)

I have to say, the new 4K presentation is pretty extraordinary. The entire image is cleaner and crisper looking, with notably more precise detail, though it does lack the truly fine detailing that you’d expect from a native 4K image. It also has a slightly digitally-processed appearance, in that what fine detail does exists appears a tad noisy on occasion (noticeable, for example, in the walls of the open-pit mine when the shuttle first lands on Pandora, in the leaves of distant trees, etc.) But wow—this is definitely a better looking image than the original Blu-ray release, even before you consider HDR. Once you do add HDR, however, there’s no contest. The palette is noticeably richer, deeper, and more nuanced in 10-bit color, and everything is bolder looking thanks to the expanded contrast. Shadows are darker, yet retain greater detail than before, while the highlights are more naturally bright. Note that average video data rates are on the order of 50 Mbps. It should be noted that the new Blu-ray version is also sourced from the 4K DI, so it retains some of the remaster’s benefits even in HD, including cleaner overall detail, deeper shadows, and more saturated coloring. The Blu-ray also benefits from improvements in image compression made over the last 13 years. (To give you some sense of the comparative image quality, if the original Blu-ray—which was reference for its day—was a 6 out of 10, the new Blu-ray would be a 7, and the 4K is an 8.5. The remastering is impressive.)

Audio-wise, the 4K UHD includes a home theater port of the new English Dolby Atmos mix created for the film’s 2022 theatrical re-release. And it’s absolutely fantastic from start to finish. The stage is big, wide, and highly immersive, with constant engagement from the surround and height channels, deep and dimensional object placement, and smooth, lively movement. Bass is exceptional, notably more robust than it sounds in some of the film’s streaming incarnations. The mix goes from softly nuanced one moment to thunderous and muscular the next with complete ease. Dialogue is clean and discernible at all time, while James Horner’s score is layered in with pleasing fidelity and musicality. This is an outstanding 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), and French, Spanish, and Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital. Optional subtitles are available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Japanese. (Note that the Blu-ray version swaps the Atmos for the previous 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix released on disc in 2010.)

Fox’s 4K Ultra HD package includes the film in 4K on UHD and 1080p HD on Blu-ray (again, also sourced from the 4K remaster). There are no special features on either, however you also get a dedicated Blu-ray of Bonus features, which include:

  • Memories from Avatar (HD – 21:20)
  • Avatar: A Look Back (HD – 10:03)
  • Capturing Avatar (HD – 4 parts – 98:25 in all)
  • Featurettes
    • Sculpting Avatar (HD – 3:46)
    • Creating the Banshee (HD – 9:51)
    • Creating the Thanator (HD – 3:20)
    • The AMP Suit (HD – 4:31)
    • Flying Vehicles (HD – 5:13)
    • Na’vi Costumes (HD – 4:14)
    • Speaking Na’vi (HD – 6:37)
    • Pandora Flora (HD – 5:40)
    • Stunts (HD – 5:14)
    • Performance Capture (HD – 6:32)
    • Virtual Camera (HD – 3:21)
    • The 3D Fusion Camera (HD – 3:43)
    • The Simul-Cam (HD – 2:18)
    • Editing Avatar (HD – 6:59)
    • Scoring Avatar (HD – 6:06)
    • Sound Design (HD – 8:50)
    • The Haka: The Spirit of New Zealand (HD – 5:17)

The first two features are brand new, essentially retrospectives featuring producer Jon Landau talking with members of the cast and also Cameron and company looking back at their experiences on this film. And while the original theatrical cut Blu-ray and 3D editions had no special features whatsoever, the Bonus disc carries over substantial content from the elaborate 2010 Extended Collector’s Edition Blu-ray (reviewed here), including the feature-length Capturing Avatar documentary and all of the featurettes from Disc Three of that set, which focus on various aspects of the film’s design and production. Altogether, it’s just shy of four hours of content, and all of it is interesting and worth your time. For you younger disc fans, this release should be eye-opening in that it gives you a taste of what Blu-ray special editions used to be like all the time, with many hours of thoughtful bonus content, all of it created by the filmmakers themselves for diehard fans, as opposed to marketing fluff created by EPK teams to promote the film for the studio. This content is detailed, highly illuminating, and it rewards your time and attention. A Movies Anywhere Digital copy code is also available in the packaging.

All of that said, there’s also a great deal of content from the 2010 Extended Collector’s Edition Blu-ray that doesn’t carry over here, including the two longer versions of the film, well over an hour of deleted scenes, A Message from Pandora, the Brother Termite test footage, all of the screen tests, VFX progressions, Cameron’s message to the crew at the start of filming, over an hour of scene deconstructions, the theatrical and teaser trailers, and extensive galleries (featuring thousands of images of the film’s production design artwork, the Pandorapedia, the film’s original scriptment, and Cameron’s complete screenplay). So if you have that 3-disc set, it’s definitely worth keeping for now. However, I’m hopeful that—when and if Lightstorm and Fox decide to release the extended versions of the film in 4K—all of that additional content will eventually carry over as well.

Setting aside one’s politics—which folks seem to have a harder and harder time doing these days—Avatar remains a compelling and cinematic audio/visual experience. It’s also the logical culmination of virtually every project James Cameron has been involved in, from films like The Terminator and The Abyss, to his dives to Titanic’s wreckage and the ocean’s deepest depths. Cameron’s curiosity and passion for engineering have been in evidence at every step, and they’re clearly driving both his current environmentalism (Why fuck up the planet if the technology exists to do things in a better way?) and his determination to complete the story he introduced in this film (which represents a seismic shift in the technology of cinema). 20th Century Studios’ release of Avatar in 4K UHD is an impressive demonstration of just how good digital remastering has gotten, not to mention a reminder of the kinds of elaborate special editions we all used to take for granted. The film has simply never looked or sounded better, so for those who truly love it this Ultra HD package is highly recommended.

- Bill Hunt

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