“The way of water connects all things. Before your birth, and after your death.”Lo’ak
I eventually came to describe Avatar as the best fictional nature documentary I have ever seen. The Way of Water contains an exquisite hour in the middle which builds on this, introducing us to new areas of Pandora — with new tribes, bioluminescent flora and intelligent fauna — and showing off the underwater filming techniques Cameron has been developing with long, flowing takes and smooth transitions between water and surface. This exhilerating playful exploration is unfortunately sandwiched between two hours of ponderous exposition, po-faced spiritualism and largely uninspired miliatary action. Cameron still produces the best (and arguably only) cinematic experience worth seeing in 3D yet, without a compelling story, visual fidelity alone now faces stiffer competition from near photorealistic videogames and increasingly accessible 3D virtual reality. The family dynamic to the story is an improvement on the original, though it all still feels derivative and the most emotionally resonant moment — between father and son near the end — was ripped straight from How to Train Your Dragon. Cameron remains a master at spectacle, showing off lightweight exo-skeletons and crablike submersibles fighting giant whales, whilst firing a large bow and arrow through cockpit glass remains as rousing as it is unrealistic. The Way of Water is likely to be as divisive as its predecessor but, fifteen years on, the technology does not feel like a seismic shift in cinema and it is far harder to be as forgiving of the same flaws.
A technical note on frame rates: Depending on your screening, Cameron deploys a failed experiment with variable frame rates or VFR, seeking to have the benefits of 48fps HFR during fully digital sequences without the backlash received by The Hobbit through using the cinematic standard 24fps for sequences with human characters. Although there is considerable improvement in motion and the ability to follow action at 48fps, the transition is immediately noticeable and jarring every time. The step up feels like you are suddenly watching videogame footage and the step down (which is artificially achieved by doubling each frame) introduces perceptible jitter. It would have been far better to stick to 48fps throughout and let the audience adapt once.