Does James Cameron’s “Avatar” hold up 13 years later?

Looking back at the no. 1 highest grossing film of all time in preparation for the sequel

“Avatar” is James Cameron’s sci-fi epic from 2009, which recently received a remastered, theatrical re-release in 4K HDR. The film stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver. The story follows a group of humans who are colonizing the planet of Pandora and mining for a rare mineral called unobtanium while receiving hostility from the native race known as the Na’vi. The titular avatars are Na’vi bodies genetically engineered to be remotely controlled by humans.

I would like to note that this is a film I watched as a 7-year-old in 2009 when it came out, but not in theaters. I always had a lot of fun with this movie, and even now, I’d say that it’s still really good. This film has phenomenal visuals, great music from the late James Horner and solid performances. The film’s story is generic (“Dances With Wolves” in space), and the white savior narrative is iffy. But overall, the movie’s focus is on spectacle, and that’s where it excels. After all, that massive spectacle was pretty inviting to audiences back in 2009, explaining why “Avatar” is still the highest grossing film of all time.

However, I don’t want to review the film as a whole. I want to instead discuss the theatrical experience, as this re-release gave me the opportunity to finally watch this film in theaters (IMAX 3D, to be specific) and inhabit the world of Pandora in the way that Cameron intended.

As expected, the film still looks gorgeous 13 years later. Pandora is impressively rendered and everything looks as realistic as could be. There’s a scene where protagonist Jake Sully has to tame and ride a flying creature called an Ikran. I was already aware that everything onscreen in this scene was digital, but it was still impressive that everything looked as good as it did. There are films where the CGI doesn’t age very well, so it’s pretty impressive that the visual effects still look great 13 years later. Jake’s character model felt incredibly realistic in terms of how it moved; when his avatar opens his mouth, you can see his muscles move exactly the way they would on a human. The Ikran itself also looks really great with its colorful design and natural movements. Whenever the creature breathes, we can see the nostrils flaring on its neck while being perfectly timed with the sound effects. It was all just breathtaking.

The film is also colorful, with the wildlife, vegetation, people and technology all looking extremely vibrant. This is helped by the lighting in the remastered version: while the original had more dramatic and dark lighting, the remaster uses more natural-looking light. Plus, the newer version also makes everything look a bit clearer visually, allowing the audience to bask in the film’s visual effects.

This remastered film also takes advantage of advanced audio technology. Throughout the film, there were moments where the surround sound was pretty awesome. At one point in the film, Jake is in the forest surrounded by some sort of bug that makes cicada-like noises. There was a moment in this scene where I felt like I could hear the noises coming from the left of me before hearing them right behind me. This use of surround sound made me almost feel like I was actually in the world rather than just observing it.

Speaking of which, the use of 3D also added to the experience. While a lot of filmmakers use 3D to make objects pop out and look like they’re heading towards the audience, Cameron uses it to create a sense of depth to his worlds. Not only did everything in “Avatar” look beautiful, but the 3D made it feel like there was so much more to the world than was being shown. It’s hard to fully put into words, but it was such an insane experience.

I will admit that I had a few nitpicks at certain points. While most of the effects have aged well, the textures on creatures and certain objects looked a bit too smooth for my liking. There were also a few moments that were played in 48 frames-per-second (whereas everything else ran at 24), and it felt weird; the images were moving twice as fast as they were in the rest of the film and it didn’t look right to me. But again, these are simply nitpicks, and they ultimately didn’t ruin my experience.

Overall, this remaster of “Avatar” was pretty enlightening. Seeing the film in IMAX 3D upscaled the film a lot, especially when compared to watching it on a widescreen TV. The visuals mostly hold up, and the audio felt almost enveloping. I can’t wait to see how Cameron uses even more advanced technology to his advantage in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” his long-awaited sequel set to be released in December.