I will make it known early on: I have a strong bias against Avatar which I will explicate further very soon. Let me just begin by saying, as this review was being written, it is estimated that Avatar's worldwide gross is close to 2.25 billion dollars. I can't even begin to comprehend how much that is. That is probably like the GDP of a small country somewhere. While Avatar is visually stunning and the technology that went into creating that world has moved film making to a new level, it is completely unimaginative in all the other aspects of narrative cinema...and the hypocrisy is nauseating.
In the future, when we have destroyed our Earth, some galactic corporation and its mercenaries of former Army men and women go to the planet Pandora to exploit its resources and colonize its indigenous people, the Na'Vi, so that we might have its precious, precious mineral called unobtainium (such a clever play on words). It turns out that a particularly rich deposit sits under the Hometree, which is both sacred and home to the Na'Vi. One of the methods for colonization is the avatar, a hybrid of human and Na'Vi who is controlled mentally by a genetically linked human. Avatars can embed themselves in Na'Vi society.
Here is where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who has trouble deciding whether he wants to play an American GI with an Australian accent or an American accent) comes in. He is a paraplegic ex-Marine and as his avatar, Jake finds liberation in using his avatar's body again. As an avatar he is a body guard to the scientists-in-avatar-form, but is offered the chance for curing his paraplegia by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, who plays his character with great hypermasculine bravado) in exchange for information that would get the Na'Vi to move away. (For some reason, the possibility of forcible eviction, regardless of his success or failure, does not occur to Jake--and guess what happens). The rest of the plot is pretty conventional. If Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas got married and had a baby, it would be the plot of Avatar.
Visually and technologically, this film is stunning and imaginative. The world created in Avatar feels real and pops out at you. It is both familiar and exotic, like something you've seen pictures of, but never experienced. The use of 3-D is not at all gimmicky. Instead it enhances the world Cameron is trying to make, and although the story is conventional, the medium used for storytelling is anything but conventional. CGI technology was used to render the entire world. Actors wore CGI dots on their faces to make the detailed facial expressions rendered on the avatars' and Na'Vi's faces, lending an unimaginable level of realism to their animated expressions and bodies. This allowed the audience to connect to them the way we would to a human face. Pandora is supposed to be Eden: it is lush and harmonious, populated by animals and plants which look like they were inspired by those crazy products of evolution in the Cambrian explosion and the height of the dinosaurs, coupled with vivid colors and crazy names.
However, I found the pacing of this film to be exceedingly slow and the climax at the end to be rather anti-climactic. In terms of narrative structure, there was nothing. No character development, no nuanced approach to the Na'Vi or to the mercenaries: everyone and everything was a caricature. And the dialogue was just bad, but I guess that is expected from the guy who came up with Titanic. Besides the structural flaws, I found the idea of selling a message of environmentalism, uncritical anti-militarism, anti-corporatism and some convoluted sense of superiority for standing up for indigenous cultures, while simultaneously bastardizing indigenous practices, FOR PROFIT, deeply troubling. The film engages in the same colonization it purports so self-righteously to expose. My friend suggested that this film just wanted to play with technology. As such, it should have taken the art film approach and foregone plot entirely, focusing simply on why we love movies in the first place--because of the visual splendor they can create. But I guess a crappy plot is a safer bet than an artistic dive. The former guarantees you 2.25 billion dollars.