Cameron 4K Controversy

At Beyond Fest last September, James Cameron screened a new transfer of the Abyss and confirmed that the 4K home video release was imminent. Soon after, it was announced that True Lies and Aliens were also getting the 4K treatment. Then it was revealed that the remastering process heavily leveraged AI digital noise reduction techniques, and the digital streaming releases lead to some rather unflattering screenshots, particularly for True Lies. The internet, being a model of restraint and understatement, had a real normal one with this news.

To be fair, I also tend to prefer a more unvarnished approach to 4K scans. These movies were shot on photochemical film and a true transfer to digital will include things like film grain. Some of the boutique physical media peddlers, like Vinegar Syndrome or Arrow, are pretty good at doing a simple transfer based off of poorly preserved film (given their metier of cinematic schlock, that is most certainly the case for the movies they’re rescuing from obscurity). Sure the film grain is noticeable and sometimes you even get a nick or scratch or even a cigarette burn showing up, but that’s not a terrible thing in my book and I’d rather that than something that looks like it was filmed on digital last week. The process used on these Cameron 4Ks does create new data that was not there on the original print. There’s something to be said for preserving the film, warts and all (I’m looking at you, George Lucas).

On the other hand, the controversy and hate surrounding these three releases has gotten out of hand. In the case of The Abyss and True Lies, the last official US release was on DVD, and no matter how you slice it, the 4K looks much, much better than the DVD. It’s also worth noting that the process of doing a 4K scan is more complicated than I’m making it out to be, especially once you start throwing in things like color grading/timing and HDR. Folks who know what they’re talking about have technical complaints about these releases that are notable, but on the other hand, most (nearly all?) viewers won’t be able to notice the difference while actually watching the film in motion. It’s easy to look at a screenshot comparison and say it looks bad, but that’s not how you actually watch a movie.

One last bit of apologia, the 4K digital streaming release is different than the 4K physical disc release. There are some exceptions here, but as a general rule, the file size and bitrate of a 4K stream are going to be significantly smaller than the disc. A lot of the times, when you are streaming 4K, you’re not even really getting a blu-ray quality picture. Those unflattering screenshots I mentioned earlier? It’s not an accident that they came out when the 4K scans were released on streaming. The discs are not perfect, to be sure, but they’re better than the streams.

This sort of technical analysis is worth doing and has value, but I can’t help but agree with Jeff Rauseo: some people are taking this all way too seriously. I’ll give specific thoughts on each release below, but my overall feeling is that these movies look pretty good and are worth buying if you, like me, love these movies and want the best possible experience of watching them at home. There are some imperfections and I’d prefer the more natural film look to the digitally processed look, but that’s not a deal breaker, and two of these releases (The Abyss and True Lies) are massive improvements over their respective DVD releases. For crying out loud, the last The Abyss DVD release wasn’t even anamorphic widescreen!

True Lies

Conventional wisdom is that this is the worst of the three releases and I agree with this. That being said, it’s not worth getting too worked up about (like, seriously, I know social media makes it easy to issue death threats from the comfort of your toilet, but that doesn’t mean you should do so). Um, anyway, skin textures sometimes appear waxy, especially in closeups (Tom Arnold, in particular, was done no favors here), and you get some obviously artificial smoothing effects throughout. The color grading sometimes feels unnatural as well. That being said? This is mostly not a distraction in watching the movie. I’m calling this out because I was specifically looking for defects in the appearance, and even then, I generally found myself caught up in the story and forgetting about any of the issues with the picture.

New Artwork for True Lies 4K

I forgot how much I enjoyed this movie, which I probably still consider to be one of Cameron’s more… for lack of a better term, “conventional” looking movies. It’s a super fun action movie and I love it, but it’s not quite the visual spectacle Cameron was known for, even at the time (not saying that Cameron doesn’t know how to frame or block a shot – the craft here is great, it’s just not as visually stunning as most of his other work.) Perhaps this is why I’m more forgiving of the 4K’s flaws, which do sometimes stick out, but are mostly (if not fully) offset by the incredible improvement over the previously available DVD. Supposedly there’s a Spanish Blu-Ray scan floating around out there, and I’ve seen conflicting reports of this. Some of the screenshot comparisons make the blu-ray look great, others do not. After having watched the 4K, I don’t think it really matters that much. The 4K looks good enough.

This Twin Flicks review of the disc goes into some of the background of why this movie appears the worst out of the three recent releases, including comments from people who actually worked on the disc. It has to do with the film stock and lenses used to shoot the film in the first place (some of the weirdness mentioned is due to this, not the AI processing), plus there was damage to the negatives that happened in storage. So this was apparently a “lesser of two evils” choice, not a deliberate or experimental choice (nor was it due to incompetence or laziness).

Yes, it looks a little processed, but the image is clearer and sharper than the previously available releases and it’s absolutely the best home video release of the film available. Even the packaging doesn’t look too bad (previous releases might be slightly better, but this is nothing egregious).


Generally looks better than True Lies, though you do still get the occasional distraction of a waxy face, especially in closeups, but that’s rare, and the improvements you get everywhere else, particularly when it comes to the blacks and shadows and detail in the Alien nest or the Alien queen scene. The level of detail is pretty astounding, and the colors tend to pop better too. Film grain has not completely disappeared, but it’s barely noticeable.

New Artwork for Aliens 4K

Aliens is the only one of these releases that had previously been available on blu-ray, so it’s probably the least important to upgrade, but it’s also one of my favorites and the upgrade is noticeable. The packaging artwork is a bit of a downgrade from previous releases, but that’s not the worst thing in the world (Update: in looking at the various posters for Aliens, this is clearly bottom tier and there have been tons of previous releases with much better artwork.)

The Abyss

This is probably the best looking of the three discs, and honestly, I didn’t really notice much in the way of flaws here at all. I mean, there’s very little film grain and it looks like the movie was shot on digital last week, but that’s not something that will be distracting or even noticeable to most folks. If you are really searching for something to dislike, you might be able to find some artificial smoothness or waxy complexions, but honestly, the only time I really noticed someone waxy was when a character had just drowned and their face looked a little waxy (trying not to spoil, but you know the scene if you’ve seen it), but, like, it’s kinda supposed to look that way. And you get so much improvement in everything else, especially in the underwater scenes or anything dealing with darkness or shadow. It’s more detailed, the colors more vibrant, everything looks significantly better.

As mentioned above, this is probably the biggest upgrade as well. The previous DVD release was non-anamorphic widescreen, which is almost unwatchable on a modern setup. If you like this movie, this disc upgrade is a no-brainer. The biggest flaw with this movie is the artwork on the packaging, which goes for that lazy floating heads photoshopped thing that just looks awful, especially when the original poster is so memorable (I tried using WordPress’ image compare block here, not sure I love it, but you can slide back and forth to see more of each poster).

(As an aside, I don’t always love the updated artwork that the boutique physical media shops use either, but they almost always have reversible artwork such that you can switch to the original movie poster artwork if you want, which is awesome.)

Ultimately, the only real disappointment here is the lack of film grain, something most viewers won’t even notice and which I got used to very quickly. If you’re a fan of Cameron, these are all definitely worth the upgrade.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *