There are two thoughts that you never want to cross your mind at a movie theater. One is “Did I just step in gum?” The other is “Is this supposed to look this way?”
Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s fundamentally enjoyable and exciting sequel to the 2009 blockbuster Avatar, is meant to represent a major technological advance in cinematic exhibition. Time will tell whether that’s the case. But the fact is that many viewers will have a vexing experience if they see the picture in what’s considered the optimum format.
The first press screenings of the long-delayed 192-minute opus, which reportedly cost somewhere between $250 million and $400 million to make, were held at theaters equipped to project the film in a high frame rate (HFR). You may have experienced this with Gemini Man, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It’s fair to say that HFR hasn’t really taken off, unlike the wave of 3D that temporarily changed the cinema landscape when Avatar was released. But director/explorer Cameron boasted in October that he’d found a “simple hack” that would work as a game-changer. In short, he used advanced technology to essentially toggle The Way of Water between 48 frames per second and the traditional 24.
On paper, this sounds like a nice compromise. But three-plus hours of the shifting dynamic, without the ability to just settle into one or the other, is actually worse than simply watching an entire HFR movie. To use an old expression, you can’t ride two horses with one behind. And this is all the more upsetting because so much of the film is truly splendid.
Avatar: The Way of Water tells a simple but engaging story in an imaginative, beautiful environment. It’s more than three hours long, and it unfortunately takes close to a full third of that time to get rolling. But once it does — once former human Marine turned Pandoran native Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), his Na’vi mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), and their brood of four half-Na’vi, half-Avatar children take refuge from the forest in a watery part of the world — the sense of wonder hits like a tidal wave.
The story setup is simple: Sky People (the rapacious, militarized humans of the Resources Development Administration) are back on Pandora after the events of Avatar, and this time, they want something even more unobtainable than the element unobtainium. No spoilers, but let’s say that extracting this stuff from Pandora isn’t just dangerous, it’s a crime against everything the Na’vi hold dear. Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), reborn in a cloned Na’vi Avatar body, is leading the charge to kill that turncoat/insurgent Jake Sully, and won’t let anything stand in his way. Oorah!
In the second hour, the action picks up. Jake and Neytiri’s family becomes a collective fish out of water, almost literally, moving in with an aquatic tribe of Na’vi and adapting to its aquatic lifestyle. This is where Cameron’s rich soak in his invented world is most fulfilling. There’s about an hour of just floatin’ around a reef. The Sully kids have scuffles with the local bullies; the oddball daughter learns how to plug her hair into sponges and reefs; the adorable runt puts on translucent floaty wings and zooms around. It goes on for a quite a while, and the display of visual creativity is breathtaking.
Hour three is when things get wild. Cameron, an action director with few equals, is in conversation with himself, upping the stakes and testing his own resume. There’s a thrilling, emotional chase, and then a daylight battle sequence that’s propulsive, energetic, and original. It involves a gargantuan sea beast coming in off the top rope in a way that left my theater cheering.
Cameron isn’t generally known as a comic director, but there’s always been a humorous element to his action sequences. Think of Jamie Lee Curtis caterwauling and mugging during the causeway rescue in True Lies, or Robert Patrick’s T-1000 rising up from behind a soda machine as killer checker-patterned goop in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. What, we weren’t supposed to laugh at that first reveal of Sigourney Weaver in the mech suit in Aliens? But the battle in the last third of The Way of Water is different.
Maybe Cameron reacquainted himself with the work of Sam Raimi. Maybe he’s drinking from the same cup as S.S. Rajamouli, who made the magnificent, absolutely ludicrous Indian import RRR. In The Way of Water, Cameron leans all the way into manic mayhem, smash-cutting from one outrageous image to the next. The final act of this movie shows off a freeing attitude he’s never fully embraced before in his action — even action that’s strikingly similar, like the massive sinking ship sequence in Titanic. James Cameron has some expertise in this arena, but this time out, it feels like he’s having a lot more fun.
It’s unlikely that The Way of Water will be a financial watershed on the same level as 2009’s Avatar. The 3D tech was so new back then, and the world-building and the use of CGI environments were both so unprecedented. It was a once-in-a-lifetime move forward for film technology and immersive storytelling. Much like Disney’s recent sequel Disenchanted, The Way of Water is arriving in a cinematic environment that was completely reshaped by its predecessor — and there are no tricks here that move filmmaking forward in the same way.
The closest Cameron comes is that shifting HFR trick, which winds up being more of a distraction than a bonus. Think about the change you notice at the perimeter of the screen when watching a Christopher Nolan or Mission: Impossible movie in an IMAX theater. The material shot in the large IMAX format blows out to fill the whole frame, changing the aspect ratio. The back and forth of the masking at the top and bottom can be intrusive. Eventually, you get used to it, or you recognize it isn’t that big a deal. The change back and forth with HFR — an enormous screen toggling with a “motion smoothing” effect — is not something the eye and brain can get used to.
What’s more, this is Avatar. Most of the time, what’s in the frame is computer-generated imagery (a telepathic alien whale the size of an aircraft carrier, primed for vengeance!), so it already looks unusual. If the whole movie were in HFR, perhaps one would settle in, but jumping between the two — often from shot to shot in the same action sequence, or even within the same shot, as it is being projected in some cinemas — is simply an aesthetic experiment that fails.
This is not just being picky. The changes mean that the tempo of the action on screen looks either sped up or slowed down as the switches occur. Shots in higher frame rate couched between ones that are lower (and there are many) look like a computer game that gets stuck on a render, which then spits something out super fast. To put it an old-school way, it looks like The Benny Hill Show.
It’s just fascinating that Captain Technology, James Cameron, would want it this way. And it’s unfortunate. Because the entire message of the Avatar films is about environmentalism and preservation, about respecting the world as it is. It seems like Pandora’s creator would recognize that sometimes the best move is to leave well enough alone, instead of looking for ways to fix something that didn’t need fixing in the first place.
Avatar: The Way of Water will be released Dec. 16 in theaters.