What Is the Best Format in Which to See ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’?

“Mabel, let’s you and I go to the pictures, whaddya say?” 

This is how your grandparents decided on seeing a movie back in the day. (Yes, your grandmother was named Mabel.) For wise consumers looking to see Avatar: The Way of Water (and, by all accounts, it looks as if there will be many doing so on opening weekend), it’s not quite that simple. Yes, by all means, get thee to the cinema and return to the gorgeous fantasy realm of Pandora, where cerulean bipeds save on gas by riding winged beasts for transport, but the question remains: Just how should you see this film? As it turns out, there are many options when it comes to format for this movie, some complicated, but here are the ways of water.

Thus far, members of the press who have seen the movie in major markets, with most (but not all) having liked it, did so in Dolby 3D HFR. One would surmise that director James Cameron himself signed off on allowing the press to view it this way, so a case can be made that this is his preferred experience. (Though putting words in the King of the World’s mouth is a fool’s errand.)

But wait, what’s 3D HFR? Surely you know what 3D is (the grubby glasses are back, folks!), but the “HFR” part may have you scratching your head. It stands for “high frame rate,” a technique you may recall from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy or Ang Lee’s Gemini Man and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The literal use of extra frames in the capture and projection of the image makes for an immediately noticeable change in how you perceive the film. A good way to describe it is seeing state-of-the-art televisions at Best Buy with the “motion smoothing” function turned on, but at an absolutely enormous scale and with blue aliens. 

But Cameron—being Cameron—took it one step further. Some scenes in Avatar: The Way of Water plunge into this new technology. All those otherworldly creatures floating around the azure seas of Pandora (and, let there be no doubt, there is a surfeit of those in this 192-minute movie) practically drip off the screen. In contrast, shots of those nefarious sky people (also known as humans) are rendered in the traditional 24 frames-per-second format we’re used to. (Technically, the film’s still running at 48fps, but the images are doubled at times to recreate the look of 24. This “simple hack,” as Cameron calls it, actually makes sense, even if it sounds like I’m babbling right now.)

As such, some sequences toggle back and forth from shot to shot (even in speedy action scenes), and some critics—myself included—found this too much for their minds to process, just too jarring. There’s a ramping-up effect during the switch-over that makes it look like a video game catching itself mid-render, and sometimes it looks like the gag from The Benny Hill Show.

My personal suggestion is to not see it this way. But the truth is that if someone else described the situation to me, I would likely say, “Oh, sounds weird, I’ve gotta check that out!” I guess I’m the guy who eagerly says “okay” when asked to sniff a carton of milk to determine if it is rotten.

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