It’s been 12 years in the making but we are now only a few short weeks away from Avatar: The Way of Water finally appearing in cinemas. The sequel to 2009’s Avatar, director James Cameron has admitted that the film has cost so much to make and market that it will have to become the fourth or fifth biggest film of all time to make its money back. “The worst business case in movie history,” as he bluntly described it. However, as the original is still the biggest money-maker of all time, it does seem possible it could happen. While cynical types will have already decided they aren’t interested, having revisited the original for its recent remaster, I am fully on board the hype train for this one and will be there for the opening weekend come 16 December.

The question is then, which format should you choose to see it in?

For a movie such as this, I’d argue that it should be in a premium format, so at the top of the list is IMAX or Dolby Cinema. I should note straight away that these formats will likely already be sold out for the opening weekend, but if you’re only going to see it once, it’s worth waiting until you can get a seat in one of these formats.

Let’s tackle IMAX first. IMAX will be many people’s go-to as Avatar: The Way of Water was filmed with a Sony CineAlta Venice 3D camera which is IMAX certified, which means it’s a digital camera that meets IMAX standards for resolution and image quality. It also means it’s been captured natively in 3D, so unless you can’t see 3D for some medical reason, I’d suggest it will be worthwhile seeing it in stereoscopic.

Cameron has framed the image such that all IMAX theaters will show the movie in the 1.90:1 aspect ratio. This means it will offer a taller image than standard widescreen “scope” screens, and that alone will make IMAX the go-to choice for many.

However, not all IMAX theaters are made the same. First, only a select few have the latest laser-based projectors, and compared to older Xenon-lamp-based projectors, laser will be ideal as it offers a brighter picture (which is important for 3D), with richer colors and contrast.

To complicate things though there are two types of IMAX laser – a single laser system, normally for smaller screens, and a dual-laser, which is brighter, making it ideal for bigger IMAX screens. I’d normally suggest dual laser would be the way to go, but oddly, for Avatar: The Way of Water, it’s actually the single laser that will give you the superior experience.

The wrinkle is down to high frame rate or HFR technology. This is where the movie frame rate is increased over the standard 24 frames per second and has been used in the past on films such as The Hobbit series and Gemini Man. However, its use has proved divisive, due to creating an unnatural-looking image. For the Avatar remaster and Way of Water, Cameron has used a clever system that only increases the frame rate for fast action sequences, so you get all of the benefits of clearer motion, without any of the downsides. The issue then is that while all IMAX projectors can display HFR, dual laser can only do so at 2K resolution rather than 4K (allegedly due to overheating). This means that while single laser IMAX will net you 3D, 4K, and HFR, but dual laser will be limited to 2K, HFR.

The other advantage of IMAX Laser is that these screens will also come with 12-channel sound – so you get even more impact and overhead action – it’s always thunderously impressive.

If there isn’t an IMAX laser near you then you’ll be limited to a Xenon lamp-based projector. This will be limited to 2K resolution but can still do HFR – though whether it will or not will be difficult to ascertain – you’ll have to contact your local screen to find out.

So, any easy win for IMAX Single-Laser then? Not quite. Dolby Cinema will show the film in 3D, 4K, and HFR, and raise IMAX in two areas – it can do high dynamic range (HDR), giving even more contrast, deeper blacks, and color richness to the image, and also Dolby Atmos sound which delivers even more sonic precision. Where it loses out to IMAX is sheer scale – as the screens aren’t as large and you’ll be seeing less overall image at 1:85:1 than IMAX 1.90:1.

If neither is an option, then other large formats would be a good choice, which here in the UK would include Odeon iSense, Cineworld Superscreen, Empire IMPACT, and Vue Xtreme – which all offer above-average screen sizes, 4K projection, and Dolby Atmos.

For experience junkies, 4DX could be fun – you won’t get a large screen, Dolby Atmos sound, HDR, or HFR, but you will get seats that move up and down and water and air blasted at you at key moments, which could be fun during the flying sequences – or your worst nightmare – YMMV. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it for a first viewing, as it’s likely to be very distracting, but it could be fun for a follow-up.

Finally, you have your standard 2K screens with RealD 3D, or if you really have to, plain old 2D. These would be bottom of my list, but still a better option than “waiting for it to come to streaming”.

Ultimately then, for Avatar: The Way of Water it’s a choice between IMAX with single laser, IMAX Xenon or Dolby Cinema. If you can get to a Dolby Screen it’s a tough choice as there’s likely to be an IMAX screen nearby too, but if you would pick only one, I’d say Dolby sits at the top of the pile. The seats are always very comfortable too, whereas IMAX screens, while generally good in that regard, can be hit and miss – and at a run time of 3 hours 12 mins your posterior will thank you for choosing carefully. Or you could do what I’m doing – and book for both. I’ll see you at the BFI IMAX for opening weekend and the Odeon West End Dolby Cinema a few days later.


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