In Avatar, an ex-marine leaves his body and enters an alien world. And James Cameron hopes the same thing will happen to you, thanks to totally-immersive CG and 3-D. By that measure, Avatar fails. But it delivers a fantastic ride.
And here's your spoiler warning. Spoilers ahead!
So in Avatar, Jake Sully is a marine who's suffered a spinal injury (someone "blew a hole in my life," as he puts it) and his life is going nowhere. Until he gets a chance to go to the far-off Pandora and take his dead brother's place, piloting a genetically engineered "avatar." Built out of alien DNA, the avatar allows Sully to walk among the Na'Vi, the giant blue natives of Pandora, and look like one of them. Because Sully is a warrior, like the Na'Vi tribespeople, he finds acceptance in their ranks — even as he knows his fellow humans are preparing to relocate the Na'Vi by force, to get at a rich supply of a rare substance called Unobtanium.
As Jake learns to use his new alien body, leaping from treetops and clifftops, romancing the chief's sexy daughter (Zoe Saldana) and bonding with a flying dragon for life, you'll discover your new favorite escapist fantasy. Jake falls in love with the excitement and the nobility and yes, the biodiversity, of Pandora, and you're right there with him. Avatar's journey really does feel magical and transformative, for Jake and for the audience.
It's hard to imagine a movie where medium and story are so closely married. Even as Jake Sully climbs into a coffin and abandons his human body for a spry alien one, Cameron is hoping to pull you into his alien world to a much greater degree than the usual movie immersion. Cameron has spent untold millions of Fox's dollars to make you forget you're really in a movie theater, instead of on an alien planet. The whole exercise is a metaphor for the experience of watching any movie, with Cameron's camera lens represented by the beds that transfer people's minds into alien bodies.
And the film's 3-D, CG and motion-capture really are all they're cracked up to be. The scenes which look trifling on your little computer window become etched on your mind's eye, when you see them on the big screen in 3-D. The transition from live-action to animation feels like a costume change, and when live-action people are on the screen with CG characters, it's miles away from Roger Rabbit, or even from Andy Serkis' Gollum.
Cameron is clearly saying: Look what technology can do. It can tight-beam your consciousness into a totally foreign time and place. And just maybe, like Jake Sully, you'll find yourself going native.
There's only one problem with this notion, and it nearly wrecks an otherwise nearly perfect movie: The further we venture into Pandora's heart, the more unconvincing it is. At first, the forest moon is heart-breakingly beautiful and well-realized, and every weird creature on the planet stands out in its own way. When Jake gets chased by big dinosaur-like monsters, it's tons more thrilling than your standard Roland Emmerich/Michael Bay CG spectacle. But once Jake gets himself embedded among the alien Na'Vi people, the illusion starts to fall apart.
This is partly because once you're surrounded by Pandora's fantasy-land, it starts to get just a bit too pretty, and certainly too rich. About the time hundreds of glowing tree-spirits land on Jake's blue avatar body, the animation starts to feel a bit... cartoony.
But more than that, we never really see the Na'Vi as a convincing society — instead we see a ludicrous "noble savage" stereotype, that only gets cruder and more ridiculous the deeper into it we go. When Jake is only interacting with Saldana's character, Neytiri, their interaction feels natural enough. But once you're in the middle of a Na'Vi crowd scene, you have a harder time believing in these people. And that, in turn, may pull you right out of the movie.
Cameron has clearly thought endlessly about every aspect of this movie's worldbuilding, but it never seems to have occurred to him that populating his planet with Pocohontas/Tarzan ooga-booga people would be a mistake. The Na'Vi are animalistic and in tune with nature, and they're good-hearted in direct proportion to their simplicity. They worship a mystical world-mind and its messengers, magic happy tree spirits that connect them to their ancestors — through their magical native-people hair. (Their tree/ancestor religion turns out to have a scientific basis, to be fair.)
By the time the Na'Vi's matriarch is leading the whole tribe in a hippie ritual, with lots of swaying in front of the sacred tree, you'll be rolling your eyes so much, it may interfere with the 3-D stereoscopy.
(When I mentioned the term "forest moon" a little while ago, it may have created an association in your mind. That association was not entirely unintentional.)
In a way, Cameron's strengths work against him a little bit here. The humans' world feels completely lived-in. Pandora's soldiers could have stepped right out of the first reel of Aliens. Cameron is in love with all of the toys, from the Huey-helicopter-inspired flying machines to the "avatar" chambers. His human characters are mostly well-worn archetypes, from the weaselly evil corporate guy (Giovanni Ribisi, channeling Aliens' Paul Reiser) to Stephen Lang's brutal Col. Quaritch (bringing the George C. Scott) to Sigourney Weaver's tough scientist with a heart of gold. The human world isn't as original as Pandora, but it feels a lot more fully inhabited. The contrast doesn't do the dragon-riding, hissing, deeply spiritual tree people any favors.
It's likely that if the Na'Vi felt as real as the human society — if you could feel the dirt under your fingernails after a day's bow-hunting and chafe under the patriarchal tribal leadership — then the escapism of running off to join the clan might not seem as alluring. In his earlier movies, Cameron never had to try and make us fall in love with Skynet, or the Alien queen. So it's not surprising that he stumbles when he tries to create an "other" that's lovable rather than scary.
The movie's other big problem is somewhat related: It gets preachy about environmentalism, to an extent that may grate on your nerves. Early on, when Jake is learning about the nature-loving ways of the Na'Vi, he grumbles that he hopes this "tree-hugger crap" won't be on the final exam. And it totally is.
But like I said, Avatar is otherwise a nearly perfect movie. (It's up to you whether stereotypical native peoples or eco-lectures are a deal-breaker.) As an action-adventure movie, it's vastly superior to pretty much any you've seen in the past few years. As science fiction, it's thrilling, because it's pro-exploration and its most unambiguously heroic character is Weaver's character, Dr. Grace Augustine. It shouldn't feel so refreshing, to have a smart, heroic scientist whose scientific explanations are cool and important to the movie, but it is. Weaver has lost none of her fire, and is a joy to watch.
Sam Worthington, as Jake, does a great job of selling his slow transformation from cynical wise-ass human to a warrior of the Na'Vi people, without overplaying it. Worthington has that rare gift, of seeming totally down-to-Earth even when he's in the middle of a totally outlandish scene, and it keeps him completely relatable even as he's embracing a totally alien culture. He really does carry the movie, in both his human and alien bodies.
And you have to admire a movie whose central message is that only by becoming a wholly artificial life form can you touch something true and natural. This contradiction is at the heart of the movie — a luddite fable made with technology so advanced, Cameron had to create it from scratch.
Cameron deliberately avoids any of the usual cop-outs you'd see with this kind of story. The natives know from the first time they lay eyes on Jake that he's a "dream walker" (their word for alien meat-puppets operated by sleeping humans. And they call humans the "sky people.") When they come to accept Jake as one of them, it's with the knowledge that he's actually a tiny pink-skin in a tank somewhere. And the movie's arc isn't the standard one, of Jake realizing that he's "really" a human and should stop trying to pretend to be one of the aliens. Rather, becoming a genetically engineered, and hence synthetic, creature allows Jake to discover who he really is.
So, to sum up, everything you've heard or thought about Avatar is true. It's one of the most vivid, visceral movies you've ever seen. It's cheesy enough for ten Swiss villages. It's James Cameron delivering an action thrill ride, at the top of his game. It's a schlocky Dances With Wolves rip-off. It will transform the way you think about movies forever.