Avatar: The Way of Water's biggest flaw shocked me

(L to R) Kate Winslet as Ronal and Cliff Curtis as Tonowari in Avatar: The Way of Water
(Image credit: Disney)

I went into Avatar: The Way of Water with expectations well above the ocean floor. While I am no fan of the original film (I recently rewatched Avatar on Disney Plus and I have nothing good to say about its plot), I heard the right things from the right people to convince me that this sequel was worth checking out. 

Avatar: The Way of Water, if you didn't know, is the 13-years-in-the-making sequel to 2009's movie where soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) infiltrates a tribe of Na'vi –a humanoid species indigenous to the Pandora planet. Why? Well, the army wants to mine the planet for a valuable material laughably named unobtanium. There, Sully realizes that the army's mission is wrong, and falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), one of the Na'vi. 

Avatar's special effects and use of 3D were pioneering-level good, and so people looked past its cornball story — except for when they mockingly called it Dances With 3D Wolves or Pocahontas in Space. Some people didn't need another movie where a colonizer becomes a hero. 

Well, now Avatar is back at the box office, looking to make a killing, as the army returns for revenge on Sully. I saw the trailers, and I laughed at them in theaters. Which wasn't the intended reaction. 

But then I got an invite to watch Avatar: The Way of Water in 3D at a Dolby Cinema theater here in New York City. This solved my issue of not wanting to spend money on the movie. I was set. Only James Cameron could let me down. And boy did he. With a cinematic trick he's bet big on, the way he bet on 3D in the original Avatar.

Avatar: The Way of Water looks fantastic — until it doesn't

There are many awe-inspiring moments in Avatar: The Way of Water. Cameron's CGI has evolved tremendously in the 13 years since the original's release. Often times, I was looking at the screen — especially during underwater scenes — and feeling truly impressed.

Even the mere wide shots of Pandora's floating mountains (it really looks like a Super Smash Bros. level come to life) impressed. But then, in what felt like less than 15 minutes into the movie, I almost thought about hunting down the projectionist. Something, I was sure, wasn't right: Avatar: The Way of Water looked plain wrong.

Trinity Jo-Li Bliss as Tuktirey Sully, swimming, in Avatar: The Way of Water

(Image credit: Disney)

I couldn't believe it. This was a very well-put together screening, on the Thursday of opening week. It couldn't be an unfinished copy. Dolby Cinema, I have to admit, was fantastic with its immersive sound. A crackling fire on the bottom left corner of the screen emanated from that part of the theater. 

The images simply moved too fast. As if the TV settings that create the "soap opera effect" (which speeds up TV shows). Then, I learned that at least some of the issues I had were intentional. As was announced at Cinemacon (opens in new tab) this year, Avatar: The Way of Water is often presented in high frame rate (HFR). And as Collider (opens in new tab) notes, you're getting a HFR experience when you see Avatar: The Way of Water in 3D. So, if you see the new Avatar in 3D, as most will want to (how many times did you hear the original should only be seen in 3D?), you're getting a HFR experience.

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, atop a flying animal in Avatar: The Way of Water

(Image credit: Disney)

That means that many scenes in Avatar: The Way of Water are running at 48 fps, twice as fast as the 24 fps standard that movies have been presented in since people first started going to the theater (Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is one of the few high-profile HFR movies you may remember).

How does this look in practice? Well, I first knew something was wrong when a group of Na'vi walking on land looked like they were sped up (anything shown at 2x speed — the 24 to 48fps jump can't be overlooked). Then, most of the time the Na'vi's human friend Spider (Jack Champion) moved on screen, it looked odd. This is likely down to my brain and eyes adjusting to the move back from 48 fps to a lower speed.

Yes, when I said "many scenes in Avatar: The Way of Water are running at 48 fps," I also meant that the movie contains 24 fps scenes. Because, as Yahoo (opens in new tab) learned from Cameron, the film switches between them. And once I learned this, I realized I understood why I was nearly getting a headache (fortunately, it didn't get painful). At a moment I felt like I was taking crazy pills (thank you for that line, Mugatu), I even walked out of the theater briefly to look for someone who could explain it. Nobody was around, so I went back. 

I just couldn't get used to Avatar 2's look

My notepad has a list of the many times when Avatar: The Way of Water's HFR mode (or something else going on) made things just look weird. Four spoiler-free moments include:

  • When humans in mech suits did anything
  • A scene when Spider boards a ship with Stephen Lang's new Na'vi character
  • One of the many times Sully's kids got into a fight
  • When one of Sully's sons is pulling metal out of a giant shark-like being

But then there was the other problem. For as much as The Way of Water speeds things up, the visuals also kind of stutter. Maybe this is how my eyes interpreted some of the 24 fps scenes, but any time there were a lot of Na'vi on screen at once — say in the start of the climactic final battle — or during the aforementioned Spider scenes, I was just confused.

(L to R) Sully (Sam Worthington) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) holding hands in Avatar: The Way of Water

(Image credit: Disney)

In fact, I stopped thinking about the movie I was watching during those scenes. Instead, I thought about the Nintendo Switch game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And how that game gets choppy when too many elements are on screen at the same time.

Outlook: How should you see Avatar: The Way of Water?

If you want to see Avatar: The Way of Water in 3D — and I can't blame anyone who wants to, I am no fan of 3D but it's Avatar, and my brain said "you gotta!" — then my best advice is to prepare your eyes for something different. Maybe if you go in more ready to relax your eyes and adjust, you'll get used to it. I wish I could have.

But if 3D doesn't matter to you? I'd try and avoid HFR screenings at all cost. I felt OK with the whole experience because I didn't pay for this, but if I'd have paid more money to see the version of the movie that I believe looks broken? (Sorry, Mr. Cameron) I'd have been pretty peeved. 

Jake (Sam Worthington) helps his child pull a bow in Avatar: The Way of Water

(Image credit: Disney)

That said, I'll (again) give credit to Dolby Cinemas. I haven't seen The Way of Water at a regular movie theater or IMAX, but the colors and contrast of film looked fantastic at our screening. And the sound was truly immersive, which Dolby Atmos is credited for providing. I know many will want to see the movie in IMAX, but if you can't, look for Dolby Cinemas. It's worth it.

I know I didn't write on the story of The Way of Water, but that's kind of because there's not much to say. It's better than the original, but that's clearing a low bar. When I wasn't annoyed about the frame rate of the movie, I actually cared about the characters. I won't spoil any of that here, but I have to give Cameron credit for making a better movie. I just wish someone could have talked him out of HFR.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.