You know that brief, horrible moment when you’re visiting an older relative’s house, and you sit down in front of the TV and realize that they have yet to disable motion smoothing? Even if you’ve never heard the term before, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the look of it–suddenly your favorite show looks like it’s a soap opera or shot as a home movie and all the actors look just this side of uncanny–not enough to look totally inhuman but enough that it’s distracting. Avatar: The Way Of Water dares to ask the question that was on absolutely no one’s mind: What if you got stuck in that uncanny motion smoothing nightmare zone for over three hours and could not turn it off? In fact, what if all those too-smooth, almost-but-not-quite unreal looking actors were rendered in 3D and a couple dozen feet tall?
To be fair, not all of Avatar 2 looks like it’s buffered with artificial frames for that motion smoothing effect. The uncanniness sticks solely to the human cast members, who don’t make up the bulk of the movie by any shot–but when they do come around (and they’re around for a large chunk of the too-long first act), it’s hard to be anything but distracted by just how odd it all looks. And, for a movie franchise that owes the whole of its notoriety to the fact that it lives on the absolute bleeding edge of technology, this is a rough way to kick things off.
And things, regrettably, stay pretty rough. Even once the human actors’ uncanniness dissipates (it never fully goes away, but it does become less pronounced the fewer live-action scenes there are) the bizarrely uneven visual effects start to become more and more prominent. Make no mistake: huge chunks of this movie are absolutely gorgeous. Just about all of the water and underwater effects are rendered immaculately, and there is some genuinely incredible animation at work to capture little micro expressions in the acting which make the Na’vi characters look and feel very real. These moments are just chopped up between other considerably longer and more obtrusive ones that look and feel like they’ve been torn out of the cut-scene of a PS5 game. Sure, PS5 cut-scenes do look very good, but they really don’t hold up to the sort of scrutiny they need to withstand when they’re both in IMAX and in 3D.