The film begins in 2154 and focuses on an epic conflict on Pandora, an inhabited Earth-sized moon of Polyphemus, one of three fictional gas giants orbiting Alpha Centauri A. On Pandora, human colonists and the sapient humanoid indigenous inhabitants of Pandora, the Na'vi, engage in a war over the planet's resources and the latter's continued existence. The film's title refers to the remotely controlled, genetically engineered human-Na'vi bodies used by the film's human characters to interact with the natives.
But what Cameron gives us is nothing short of sublime. He creates “alien” characters that I could actually care about. He knows how to right a love story that is universally appealing- it is more than a chick flick. The plant Pandora is a beautiful and imaginative creation. From its floating islands to its luminescent plains, Pandora is exotic and appealing. Its wild animals are vicious, and they don’t stretch our credulity. The aliens themselves are beautifully broad shouldered and narrow hipped. They are about 10 feet tall, lithe, and blue skinned- there are no fatties on Pandora. Cameron has managed, for the most part, to make the CGI visuals believable. There is an occasional background or billow of smoke that looks digitally generated, but for the most part it doesn’t take a lot of suspension of belief to perceive that the Na’vi and Pandora as real. This movie will be noted for the ability of Cameron to graft human faces onto computer-generated creatures. There is nary a misstep in this process. When a head turns, the creature’s body adjusts in a way that is perfectly realistic and its face doesn’t shake or shiver because of the camera’s instability. This movie shows that soon we will be able to watch a movie composed of computer-generated people and we may not know the difference. Regardless of how the creature’s were created, I still could have empathy for their plight and for the human-Na’vi love story.
Cameron also understands how to use 3-D in a way that heightens the intimacy between the audience and the characters on the screen. This is not the “poke-you-in-the-eye “3-D movie making. In “Avatar” I am an eaves dropper into the world of Pandora. I am able to sit in the relative comfort of the movie theater yet fly to Pandora and experience its beauty and the horrors done to its inhabitants in a way that I have never experienced before. This subtle use of the 3-D effect may cause it to be used more frequently in non-animation features in the future. I can only imagine what “Alien” would have been like in 3-D, with the Nostromo’s dark, closed in hallways and underbelly. But, I also think that 3-D might be used in regular dramatic movies if used as masterfully as Cameron uses it in “Avatar.”
The actors, on average, are quite good. I was less impressed with Sam Worthington (who?) as a human than as a Na’vi. Zoe Saldana was stunning as the female lead even though she only appears as a Pandoran native. Sigourney Weaver is always a strong actor and she looks good either as a human or alien. She has an uncomfortable role, along with Giovanni Ribisi, of providing a lot of exposition in the beginning in order to orient the viewers to Pandora and the Na’vi. She even looked out of sorts with this role. I appreciated Cameron using his “Aliens” star as another strong female character. Stephen Lang plays the bad guy. These are somewhat thankless roles, in part because they tend to require exaggeration so as to make us really dislike them. Kurt Russell had the same problem in “Stargate”, where he was called on to play a not so likeable military officer and he also overacted. I was surprised to see CCH Pounder’s name in the ending credits. I couldn’t identify her in the movie so successful was her Na’vi transformation.
The movie score was by James Horner who wrote the score for Cameron’s “Titantic. There was nothing in this movie that equaled that magnificent music, but I quibble. At least the music didn’t have to sustain or underscore the drama in “Avatar” like it does in so many mediocre movies.
My one major criticism of the movie was the 3-D glasses. They were big, bulky, and uncomfortable. They were a major distraction.
In sum, I highly recommend this movie and plan to see it again myself. Do see it in 3-D and if possible at an Imax theater. The extra cost is worth it.