Photo courtesy 20th Century Studios

Over the past 25 years, James Cameron hasn’t been in much of a rush to make feature films; but, when he has, they have become the highest grossing movies of all time.

In 1997, he released “Titanic” and then waited 12 years (a couple of documentaries aside) before releasing “Avatar” in 2009.

“Avatar” was a visually revolutionary film that started Hollywood’s 3D craze that has come and gone since the time of its release.

Now 13 years later, Cameron has been patiently waiting for technology to catch up to his ambition and now we have the sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” which marks another leap forward in cinematic visual spectacle.

The story picks back up on the alien planet of Pandora, where former human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has become fully immersed in the ways of the Na’vi people and started a family with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

When humans return to Pandora, the threat they pose forces Jake and his family to flee the jungle and relocate to the ocean with a tribe of sea-going Na’vi.

If I had seen “Avatar: The Way of Water” at home on my television, I would have regarded it as simply a slightly above-average sci-fi/action flick and gone on my way.

But on the big screen in 3D, it is the most visually spectacular film I’ve ever seen, especially when the action hits the water.

As it was in “Avatar,” most of what you see on screen is digitally rendered and the acting performances of the Na’vi characters are all done via motion capture, but now the line between what’s “real” and what’s “fake” is as blurry as its ever been.

One of the reasons that 3D fell out of favor is that few directors made their movies with 3D in mind, and the effect was slapped on after the fact to become little more than a gimmick that added little to the enjoyment of the film. Here, Cameron practically demands you see “Avatar: The Way of Water” in 3D and uses the effect with intentionality to fully immerse you in the oceans of Pandora.

While the story did more than enough to hold my attention, I’ll admit that most of my enjoyment and wonder at seeing this movie came from simply watching Pandora fish swim around.  

Another technical advancement employed by Cameron is the use of a higher frame rate. For you non-fellow-AV-Club-nerd alumni, the average movie is projected at 24 frames-per-second (fps) where “Avatar: The Way of Water” is shown in 48 fps. Cameron is not the first filmmaker to use this trick, but here he uses it much more successfully than other directors have.

As a viewer, the higher frame rate comes down to a matter of personal choice. Some people feel it gives the movie a smoother and more realistic sheen, while others find it jarring to the point that it actually takes them out of the action of the movie. I tend to fall in the latter camp, but the underwater scenes made me believer.

If you want to accuse Cameron of anything here, it’s probably for going back to his greatest-hits bag of tricks once too often.

People in robot suits and ships that are sinking. Three-hour runtimes and submarines blinking. Sigourney Weaver and Kate Winslet’s castings, these are a few of James Cameron’s favorite things.

Even still, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is one of those films that reminds you of why we go to the movies: to be transported into another world and marvel at the larger-than-life images flickering on the screen. That’s about as primal as it gets.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language.

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