Kaleidescape vs. Streaming – Avatar: The Way of Water

We started this blog last October to explore a different way of experiencing movies at home — one that doesn’t involve spinning 4K Blu-ray discs or streaming movies from Netflix and other services. I’m talking about the server-based Kaleidescape movie system. You can read my impressions of the system in A Marriage Made in Movie Heaven) and my previous Kaleidescape-based movie reviews here.)

Kaleidescape Scenes

James Cameron’s epic sci-fi film Avatar changed the landscape of movie-making when it debuted in 2010. Fans of the celebrated director flocked to theaters, ultimately producing box office receipts that topped $2.9 billion worldwide and making it the top lifetime grossing film of all-time. Now, 13 years later, Avatar: The Way of Water is enjoying the same mega-blockbuster success, having grossed over $2.3 billion since it was released to theaters in December, making it the third highest grossing film in history behind 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which raked in $2.8 billion.

The sequel begins 15 years after the events depicted in the original film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now living as a Na’vi and has started a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). When the humans return to Pandora looking for revenge and profit, the Sully family is forced to go into hiding and seeks refuge with the Metkayina clan. But the oceanic clan’s way of life is much different than what the Sully’s are accustomed to, so they must learn how to swim, forage from the ocean, and bond with sea creatures, all while knowing the humans are coming.

Though many of the thematic elements are the same as the first film, the sequel carries added emotional weight as Jake struggles to be a good father while fighting for their survival. With a running time in excess of 3 hours, Avatar: The Way of Water is filled with computer-generated scenes that, while visually stunning and technically amazing, do little to move the plot forward, making the film feel a little long at times. It could be shortened by a good 30 minutes or so without disturbing the storyline.

The film has been available for streaming since late March but the studio has yet to announce a date for its release on physical media. So, although I wasn’t able to compare the quality of Kaleidescape’s full-bandwidth download with the movie on 4k Blu-ray as I have done in the past, I was able to do a direct comparison with the online stream through the Movies Anywhere app.

I was blown away by Way of Water’s striking presentation in the theater so I fully expected to be wowed by Kaleidescape’s 4K download — and I was. Comparing the download with the Movies Anywhere stream turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. I cued up the Movies Anywhere stream on my Nvidia Shield and about 30 seconds later hit Play on the Kaleidescape, which let me compare images by switching between inputs on my reference-level JVC DLA-RS3100 projector. The HDMI handshake wouldn’t allow for an instantaneous back-and-forth, but the delay was less than 7 seconds when I switched inputs, which enabled me to make valid comparisons between the two formats.

First off, I have to say right up front that streaming has come a long way over the past five years thanks to the steady evolution of compression algorithms. In all honestly, if streaming over Movies Anywhere was my only option for watching this film, I wouldn’t have much to complain about. Differences between the two formats were subtle. Backgrounds were a bit clearer on Kaleidescape, but the foreground was razor sharp and teeming with detail in both presentations. Another minor difference was the superior depth conveyed in the K-scape download, which I presume has to do with the sharper backgrounds, especially in fast-moving scenes. Colors popped in both presentations, though the K-scape download was a tad bit darker than the streaming version, which gave images a less harsh and more nuanced appearance — especially during the bright daylight scenes. Finally, black levels were a bit more stable in the K-scape presentation, but if I wasn’t doing a direct comparison I doubt I would have noticed the difference.

While neither of the services support 3D, I’m hoping for a 3D release on disc. Yes, I know the format is all but dead (again), but the original Avatar is such a visual feast that it’s one of the few films I enjoy watching in 3D. I’m sure the sequel would look just as good. Another thing I’d like to see on disc is a 2.39:1 framed image versus the 1.85:1 presented here. Cameron shot the film with both aspect ratios in mind for its theatrical release, so I hope the studio decides to pull the trigger. Regardless of the formatting, the video presentation is simply marvelous in the way its reveals the rich color palette of Pandora.

Both the K-scape and Movies Anywhere presentations feature a Dolby Atmos soundtrack but the sound in the streamed version is much more compressed than in the full-bandwidth download. Can you tell the difference between the two? Absolutely. The uncompressed presentation had much more heft and presence, especially in the low end. Overall, I found the Kaleidescape-delivered sound to be more enveloping and engaging. That’s not to say that the sound on the Movies Anywhere stream was bad — it wasn’t, not by a stretch — just not as good as it could be.

One thing you get with the Kaleidescape download (and on disc) that you don’t always get with streaming is extras — and they are plentiful in the K-scape download. More than 3 hours of supplemental material is broken into three segments: “Inside Pandora’s Box,” “More from Pandora’s Box,” and “Marketing Materials and Music Video.” The first two segments dive deep into the filmmaking process and visual effects, including a behind-the-scenes look at the extensive design work that went into the various vehicles and creatures in the film and how the magnificent underwater sequences were created. The final segment includes a music video from The Weeknd of “Nothing is Lost (You Give Me strength).”

Ten Kaleidescape Scenes are on tap, all of which do a fantastic job highlighting the film’s topnotch audio and video. My personal favorite is “A Raiding party,” which gives the low-frequency effects (LFE) channel a serious workout and uses high dynamic range (HDR) to great effect as the Na’vi harass the human invaders. Here’s the rundown of the scenes:

• A Raiding Party
• An Old Enemy Returns
• Trouble at Three Brothers Rocks
• Lo’ak and Payakan
• Return of the Tulkun
• New Wrath of the Sky People
• Saving Payakan
• Fighting Back
• Sullys Fight Together
• Kiri Lights the Way

Avatar: Way of Water is not the best film I’ve seen over the past year, but it is an undeniable audio/visual treat. My only real complaint is that the studio has yet to make the 2.39:1 CinemaScope version of the film available in any format, so I’m hoping the ultra-widescreen presentation will find its way onto UHD Blu-ray. In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the fantastic 1.85:1 presentation Kaleidescape delivers.

Studio: Twentieth Century
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Download Size: 103.4GB (4K UHD)
HDR Format: 4K HDR
Audio Format: Dolby Atmos
Length: 3 hours, 12 mins
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis

Sound & Vision

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