A cinematic spectacle worth watching again

It is known that James Cameron’s film AvatarThe film was first released in 2009 and became the highest grossing film of all time, with box office receipts currently standing at $2.905 billion. The sequel is due in cinemas next December, but with a gap of 13 years, it’s no surprise that the first one has been re-released in theaters, giving people a chance to remind themselves what all the fuss was about.

As the funds show, in 2009, Avatar was something of a phenomenon, single-handedly bringing 3D back from the dead – with stereoscopic films first appearing in the 1950s and then again briefly in the 1980s. These days it’s common to dismiss it as just a “Smurfs in Space movie”, which caused unwanted 3D in a cinema audience for the next 10 years or so.

Certainly, the 3D craze, both in cinemas and on television, was largely unnecessary and unwarranted. Also, there are some elements of the script that are downright scary – naming the mineral they mine for on Pandora as ‘Unobtanium’ is a standout.

Therefore, critics say that the sequel is likely to fail. They say it’s been a long time. nobody cares about it anymore. Well, I think they are wrong. Having arrived at London’s Cineworld IMAX in Leicester Square to see it on one of the country’s largest screens in 3D with laser projections and high frame rate (HFR) technology, I will say that I have no time for anyone who has no time for Avatar – It is amazing.

In the excellent Light and Magic documentary about the creation of the first visual effects studio, Industrial Light and Magic, (available on Disney+), George Lucas states that going to the movies is such a powerful experience because it is a place where you can see things you can’t see anywhere else. Avatar is undoubtedly a shining example of this and lives up to its reputation as a glorious cinematic spectacle.

Story-wise, the ecological message is strong, and with man-made climate change a reality, it hits harder than it did in 2009. The core sci-fi ideas within it are also notable. Avatars are bodies composed of human and alien DNA grown in a tank, the brain of which a human “guide” has infiltrated it. The film isn’t interested in explaining how any of this is achieved, but I couldn’t help but wonder about these bodies before the human brain was placed inside – presumably just a brain-dead corpse. It could be horrible, but Cameron presents it as a miracle that you just accept.

As an experience, it is a film that cannot be separated from its technology. There are few films where 3D really enhances the narrative, and it does so here by almost sucking you into the world. So you believe what you see is possible. You can see the world naturally, and when things look like in front of the camera, like when Sully’s injuries are healed by the floating wood elves “atokirina” it feels organic and natural.

For this remaster, everything is enhanced by technologies that weren’t available when the film was first released. The first is laser projection. The dual-laser IMAX GT system in Leicester Square is great, and even with 3D glasses, everything looks bright, clear and sharp.

Next is a new technology called, high-frame rate or HFR. Movies are normally shown at 24 frames per second (fps), but those on the cutting edge want to go beyond that. Peter Jackson shot it Hobbit films at 48 fps and was filmed by Ang Lee Gemini man at 120 fps, although many places could only display it at 60 fps. I wrote about it extensively when it came out and although I liked the concept I found it unnatural. Taking advantage of their bravery, James Cameron used technology in a very clever way. Using “TrueCut Motion” technology, the film switches to HFR at 48 fps only for certain sections of the film – especially those with very fast action, which can often become blurry with 3D. There was no such problem here and it made the series more visceral when Sully was hunted by the native Pandoran jungle dogs. Having twice the frame rate means your eyes receive twice as much information every second, which will also boost perceived brightness, making it easier to watch.

HFR is always criticized for giving an “uncanny valley” feel to proceedings, but since Pandora already has an uncanny otherworldly look to it, that issue automatically goes away.

Cameron has also remastered the film in 4K, but it turns out that the IMAX dual laser projector can’t do the triple whammy of 3D, HFR and 4K – it overheats the projectors, so it was only 2K for my viewing – but the graphics were so strong that I didn’t feel them diminishing.

One format that can do all three – is Dolby Cinema, which also adds two new technologies that didn’t exist in 2009. The first is high dynamic range (HDR), which means an even brighter picture (up to 14 feet lamberts) will make the colors pop, while the second is Dolby Atmos, which was first introduced in 2012. I didn’t get a chance to see Avatar in Dolby Cinema, but if I don’t do it for a second viewing, I will definitely do it for the Continuity, The Water Roadcoming on December 16th.

That said, I certainly didn’t feel short-changed by IMAX’s 12-channel sound: James Horner’s soundtrack sounded bold and majestic.

In terms of extras, the remaster is the same as the original theatrical version (minus the extra footage seen in the extended version), but you’re treated to a short teaser sequence from The Water Road. Screenings of different formats of the film have different clips – I was treated to a teenage Na’vi helping to remove a weapon from the fin of an alien whale. The second it appeared on the screen my eyes opened even more as I saw how far technology has come in the 13 year wait. If Avatar was state-of-the-art CGI, this felt like a real documentary.

Whatever the half-assed critics think, I’ll be there on day one Avatar: The Way of Waterand if you get a chance to catch the former in the next few days after its release, then I highly recommend you do.

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