Fortunately, the first film has received a major makeover ahead of today's rerelease, less than three months before its highly-anticipated sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, hits theaters on Dec. 16. The newly remastered Avatar looks significantly better than it did 13 years ago after being upgraded to 4K High Dynamic Range.
"I went into that screening worried that it was going to be a bit cringe-worthy relative to the new film, which looks pretty spectacular," Cameron told EW about his experience of seeing the original film remastered for the first time.
"As the film ended, I went, 'Hmm, I don't know. I'm now worried about the new film,'" the director joked, before quickly clarifying, "That's not true. I'm not worried about the new film. It looks pretty amazing. But I am hopeful that people will get out to the cinema and either discover or rediscover that experience so that they know what an Avatar movie's all about."
Twentieth Century Fox Neytiri and Jake Sully in 2009's 'Avatar.'
Among those rediscovering the film in theaters were Cameron's own children. "I got to watch it with my kids, who are 15, 18, and 21, recently. And they hadn't seen it in 3D in a theater, certainly not in the state that it's in right now because it's more gorgeous than it's ever been."
Rewatching the film now, the director found a new sense of appreciation for what he and his team accomplished at the time: "It's remastered in 4K, it's remastered in an Atmos 9.1 sound, which wasn't available at the time. We judiciously used high frame rates to smooth out some of the 3D. So it looks better than I've ever seen it. I was sitting there going, 'We did that? Wow.'"
As groundbreaking as Avatar was at the time of its 2009 release, Cameron said the sequel is even "more ambitious" than its predecessor. "Certainly, water is much more difficult to realize in CG," he noted. "And our water is mostly CG water, but you won't be able to tell. It looks photo-real. It looks like we just went out to the ocean in Pandora and shot it."
20th Century Studios The Na'vi prepare for battle in 'Avatar: The Way of Water.'
For Cameron, the goal with visual effects is for audiences to feel like they're experiencing a lucid dream. "In dreams, we believe we're in the situation while we're dreaming," explained the director. "And that's what I wanted to accomplish with the new film. That's what I wanted to accomplish with the first Avatar, and what I think we did."
He added, "Through the world-building and through the presentation and bright laser 3D and so on, you're there. You can see every leaf on the tree. You feel like you can reach out and touch it. But it's a new story with new characters, new stakes, new jeopardy, et cetera."
As important as the visuals are to Cameron and Avatar, the most important element to any film remains storytelling. "It's all about: Do I care about these people?" says Cameron. "It doesn't matter how beautiful the film is, how breathtaking the visuals are. Do I care? Am I having an emotional reaction? Resonating with their sense of loss or tragedy or love or whatever it is? That's what movies are all about. It doesn't matter how big or how small they are — they have to succeed on that level first."
A remastered Avatar hits theaters worldwide Sept 23 before Avatar: The Way of Water splashes down Dec. 16.
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