James Cameron doesn’t miss.

This has been a movie-industry mantra for many years. You heard it not long after the director’s Titanic sailed from its primo 1997 Independence Day release date into December because visual effects were not complete. You heard it when, after Titanic’s Oscar coronation, Cameron disappeared for a decade-plus and returned with 2009’s Avatar, his foray into the motion-capture mania that swallowed and spat out fellow image innovator Robert Zemeckis.

The film told the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine given a new opportunity to serve by transferring his consciousness into the body of an alien race known as the Na’vi. Embedding himself with native Na’vi on the alien moon of Pandora is his mission — all the better to ingratiate himself before ravaging the ecosystem and exploit its resources. Of course, the love, physical freedom and family Jake finds there complicates his objectives. Much like Cameron’s finest film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Avatar explored the obligation to seek a soul in a synthetic body. The action sequences that are Cameron’s stock in trade felt more wounding than wowing. The environs of Pandora dazzled with their phosphorescent flora, hybridized fauna, floating mountains and biological USB ports of sorts to access a centralized Gaia-like spirit. Of course, the story was familiar. Sci-fi pulp should feel familiar. That’s why it endures.

Most of all, Avatar stood tall as Cameron’s technological magnum opus, in regard to both the capabilities of contemporary motion-capture performance and the presentation format of digital 3D. The influence of the former has been unmistakable to anyone who has seen a blockbuster in the ensuing 13 years. And while the latter gimmick waned largely due to lousy work from lesser craftsmen, Avatar remains among 3D filmmaking’s few crown jewels. It was fully immersive, majestically detailed, indelibly composed and, of greatest importance, infrequently disorienting in a way that was unmatched by any 3D film before and by precious few since.

So, yeah. “James Cameron doesn’t miss.” It’s been true for nearly four decades and seven films. If the phrase is not already printed on a commercially available shirt, it soon will be. “James Cameron doesn’t miss” will certainly be a cornerstone of any Oscar campaign for Avatar: The Way of Water, his first film in 13 years and the first of four planned sequels to a film that defied its doubters to become one of the financially successful productions of all time.

Alas, James Cameron can miss. And boy, does he ever with The Way of Water — early, often and across nearly every one of these excruciating 192 minutes. Unmistakably the worst film over which Cameron has had complete creative control, The Way of Water piddles away early promise on a thin plot, repetitive story beats and weak new characters. Worse yet, the “infrequent disorientation” from the 3D of Avatar has been nuked from orbit. A rigorous command of inimitable spectacle and technological aptitude is Cameron’s signature. But The Way of Water represents a distracting, distressing and disheartening detachment from both.

If you were surprised by how much talk of frame rate factored into The Fabelmans, it’s impossible to discuss The Way of Water without a similar conversation. Most films you see in a movie theatre are presented at 24 frames per second. That applies to some moments in The Way of Water. But a majority is presented at 48 frames per second. 

So, what does that mean? Envision a giant 3D 4K TV screen set to torch-mode brightness, and with the motion-smoothing (or soap-opera effect) cranked all the way up. On this screen is 192 minutes that cut back and forth — from one shot to the next, and with no discernible rhyme or reason — between a familiar, filmic feel of 24 fps to 48 fps. At its very occasional best, 48 fps feels like gazing through immaculately clean aquarium windows. At The Way of Water’s far more frequent worst, it feels like enduring feature-length bright, shiny Xbox cutscenes. The moments in 24 fps transfer the transfixing, tactile weight of Avatar, further refined 13 years on for realism that rivals a nature documentary. The moments in 48 fps feel captured by a camcorder.

As cobbled together by five people (Cameron among them), the script for The Way of Water positions its subtitle as a Gumpian homily about interconnectedness amid extremes of existence (life and death, light and darkness, etc.). The real way of water is the hard, choppy undertow of this film’s visual flow. What’s the point of having taught all these flesh-and-blood actors how to free-dive and, in Kate Winslet’s case, break a world record for holding breath underwater if the primary presentation erases any pretense that you’re watching a flesh-and-blood creature? It’s baffling how anyone among the thousands involved in this film — least of all Cameron — believed this to be a superior presentation, and it will only prove a boon to those who would prop up motion-smoothed imagery — the true bane of any digitally presented image. The following will sound insane for anyone who understands the typical suitability of Cameron’s spectacle to super-sized screens: If you can’t see it in 2D, you might as well wait to watch it at home.

There’s certainly nothing about the story that you will sacrifice by doing so. Trailers for The Way of Water have revealed little because … well, there is both so much story and yet so little meaning. Its narrative picks up years after the conclusion of Avatar — in which Jake and his native Na’vi love, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), successfully fended off an attack by the evil Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). They sent humans eager to strip-mine Pandora back to Earth, and Jake permanently embedded himself in the Na’vi body to become the Na’vi’s Toruk Makto, or tribal leader.

Jake and Neytiri are now parents to essentially five children, a suspiciously high amount that successfully predicts some of their dramatic uselessness and narrative dispensability. Three are biological: Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), their eldest teenaged son whom Jake is grooming as a next-gen leader; Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), the mischievous middle child who indulges his impulses to purposefully bristle against his parents; and Tuktirey or “Tuk” (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), a young daughter who … well, smiles, laughs and basically tags along to be endangered for the entirety. 

They have also adopted the teenaged Na’vi Kiri, whose birth circumstances are as curious as her communion with Eywa, the guiding force of life on Pandora. If you think bringing Sigourney Weaver back as the voice of teenaged Kiri is bizarre, well … wait until Kiri is talking to another version of Sigourney Weaver. Last, there’s the latchkey Lost Boy in a loincloth named Spider (Jack Champion), a human born on Pandora and largely raised by the Na’vi, to whose customs and culture he clings. Spider, Neteyam and Lo’ak call each other “bro.” A lot. As in “a drinking game that would kill you” a lot.

Early on, this assortment of biological outcasts and misfits seems like Cameron taking on the familiar, but primal and potentially powerful, notion of parental nature versus nature. This is particularly true of Spider and Kiri, on whose bond Neytiri casts suspicion despite her own focus on her chosen family. These would be easy clashes to set up and pay off, and yet Cameron continually bungles them until he simply forgets about them altogether. He also retreats into absurdly reductive gender dynamics of parenting and protection, particularly given his previous track record of penning physically strong female characters in the past; so fierce in Avatar, Saldaña is essentially reduced here to tears and wails, save a third-act moment that brings physicality to Neytiri’s howling rage … that also needlessly cuts away from her emotional catharsis to the face of a secondary character. (Upside: At least those cutaways are at 24 fps!)

But before that, life is good and, moreover, safe. However, RDA, the private company seeking to plunder Pandora, is back — this time to eradicate all native life on Pandora and port over everyone from Earth, which is dying. After just a year, RDA has established an advanced occupational infrastructure, against which Jake, Neytiri and the Na’vi lead increasingly destructive attacks. As a last ditch, RDA releases the Recombinants — Na’vi bodies into which the memories and skills of hardened Marines have been implanted. This includes Quaritch, who remembers everything but his death although he knows Jake and Neytiri were responsible for it.

In lieu of his larger mission, and with no reprimand from his new commanding officer (Edie Falco, hilariously slumming), Quaritch embarks on a myopic mission of revenge. And after a close call involving their kids, Jake and Neytiri abandon their tribe and flee, claiming the people will be safer somehow without the warrior who has protected them for nearly 20 years. It’s one of many things that just happen in The Way of Water without much context, conflict or, in this case, concern among the people Jake leads. Instead, the Sullys nope out after Jake abdicates his throne, claim “family as their fortress” and fly off to Ava’atlu, a village of the water-based Metkayina clan. There, Jake figures, Quaritch won’t find them, and they can, with time and humility, learn Metkayina custom and become productive contributors to their way of life. 

Pretty good plan, right? Ah, but Quaritch has kidnapped Spider, who knows a lot about the Sullys’ strategies and where they might go. Spider puts up a good fight at first, lobbing insults like “butthole” more often than you’d expect. But he becomes strangely compelled to assist Quaritch, in perhaps the most risible development Cameron has ever conceived (and one that hinges on minor-character canon from an Avatar comic next to no one has read).

Meanwhile, the Metkayina are Na’vi, too, as led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), his pregnant wife, Ronal (Winslet) and their teenage kids, Tsireya (Bailey Bass) and Aonung (Filip Geljo). The difference is that the Metkayina carry a more turquoise tint, larger tails and a spiritual connection to tulkun, whale-like creatures with whom they exchange such Papyrus-subtitled pleasantries. The Way of Water’s poor dialogue extends even to whale warbling; after Ronal initiates conversation with a tulkun, the animal replies: “I see you, Sister. I am happy. Thank you. How is your baby?” Certainly, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home remains the best sci-fi film to put such a premium on whale comfort.

From there, The Way of Water lurches between world-building of the Metkayina people (an intended bliss-out during which your attention will dip out) and Quaritch’s gradual advance toward a cataclysmic confrontation with the Sully family and the Metkayina. As the Sullys learn the Metkayina ways, it’s a remedial reskinning of Avatar’s middle 90 minutes — a long Blue Planet special. On the flipside, Lang’s menace is a welcome presence; at one point he crushes human Quaritch’s skull like it were a pupa from which to emerge a more purely evil warrior. But there is not enough context for what happens on Recombinant Quaritch’s journey for a crucial third-act decision of his to make any sense at all.

Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) also turns up as Dr. Ian Garvin, a human marine biologist hunting tulkun to harvest a chemical whose function and value are explained in a scene during which you can sense a small piece of Jemaine dying. (What also passes for humor, I guess, in The Way of Water is casting New Zealander Clement alongside an Australian cohort and forcing Clement into an American accent.)

As for the action, well, the final hour is predictably mammoth in the classic Cameron fashion. But the creativity is as low as the frame rate is high. There is impressive mech-tech fetishism and a terrific, five-minute stretch in which a wounded tulkun exacts its revenge (again, mostly in 24 fps). But the big finish is a static, single-location siege in which Cameron apes The Abysstwice, as if to gaffle that film’s same scenario in a movie that millions more people will see.

The Way of Water would like to think it ends with tragic reverberation that motivates its characters, but it’s just anticlimactic life support for whatever ecosystem Cameron has cooked up for the next installment. Moreover, it’s almost impossible to feel an emotional connection to any of these characters, or their fates, when the high frame rate so actively initiates, and insists upon, your cognitive separation. Frankly, if the Avatar films continue in this vein, Cameron’s intent to go out making as many as three more represents a depressing directorial epitaph.

Cameron always pushes the envelope. With The Way of Water, he has sealed himself inside.