A technical groundbreaker, if not a cinematic one, James Cameron's long-awaited return delivers on its promise to be a fully immersive, rousing spectacle. The early labels of "Dances with 'Space' Wolves" are oversimplified but not unfair as the story treads familiar ground that Cameron still paints in very rough strokes. As a director though he's lost none of his skill which often more than makes up for any narrative deficiencies.
Where "Avatar" truly succeeds is its seamlessness. While at times it looks like a computer animated film, not a single shot in the entire film's runtime stands out as blatant green screen. Live-action and digital elements are so throughly well integrated into each other that where the practical ends and the visual effects begin is impossible to determine, so the illusion is never broken. Even scenes where the human actors interact with this alien environment are just so polished that picking apart the film on a visual level is an almost futile act.
The photo-realism hasn't crossed the 'uncanny valley' all the way as yet, but the film easily comes the closest of any to do so. The world of Pandora itself is almost entirely there - the countless ferns of the jungle swaying in the breeze, the floating mountains, the millenia old giant trees, the waterfall cascades, even the bioluminescent nighttime landscapes which bathe the landscape in turquoise and fuscia shades completely sell themselves with only a few bits of wild fauna ever seeming less than authentic.
The animals on the other hand more often seem to have spawned from a workstation than from an alien kingdom. An obvious amount of time has been spent developing a complicated ecosystem for this world and the results are often inspired riffs on various Earth creatures - from some insects that turn into fluorescent helicopters, to a heart-breaking slo-mo shot late in the game of an alien horse on fire. The Na'vi physically look and feel animated, but the detail level is astonishing and often seem more convincing and real in close-up than they do in wider angle distance shots.
Though the story is broad enough to apply to any indigenous race under threat from a superior external imperialist force, the various customs and beliefs of the Na'vi distinctly call up Native American parallels. Much of the middle act where the Avatar body of our paraplegic hero Jake Sully learns to become one of the Na'vi tribe has him going through various familiar rites of passage from learning to ride a horse to communing with the spirits of the forest.
There's a lot of Gaia-style environmental theology bandied about which is commendable, but does drag events to a bit of a halt on more than one occasion in the film's middle hour. Otherwise it's astonishing how well-paced the daunting sounding 161-minute runtime is, while the broad fantasy tone with frequent bouts of intense but almost entirely bloodless action make this a more family-friendly effort than Cameron's grittier and violent early sci-fi features like "Aliens" and "The Terminator".
Like any broad fantasy though, things are generally simplified and script wise this is among Cameron's most ambitious but less engaging works with heavy borrowing from a variety of genre staples. The story evokes many past genre hallmarks ranging from epic sci-fi like "John Carter of Mars" and "Dune", numerous indigenous culture myths, even some of the wild imaginative animated efforts from Miyazaki (more than a few scenes in this made me dream of a live-action "Laputa: Castle in the Sky").
The two bad guys are cartoonish figures of pure capitalism and militarism, while all the soldiers are eager to commit genocide bar one sympathetic pilot. The scientists are barely there characters with a couple of good one-liners, and the hero is essentially a blank slate with a good heart whom the audience is supposed to project onto. Even the Na'vi have a wise leader, a chief's daughter that our hero falls for, and a macho rival originally betrothed to said daughter.
Such familiar story elements means narrative tension and suspense aren't exactly high on the agenda. The fact that there is any at all is a testament to Cameron's skill at working the formula with a dexterity that very few can match (his dialogue could use a polish though). Plenty of time is spent developing the personal stories and emotional connection of our two leads which does make us come to care about what happens to them and the tribe, quite a feat in itself. With their elongated bodies and zebra striping, the odd looking creatures eventually become quite appealing, maybe even alluring to some of the male audience (there's a surprising amount of gratuitous blue side boob).
When the action begins, no-one can really top Cameron. From being chased by a giant beast off a cliff top to flying a winged creature for the first time, the action is properly integrated into the story and doesn't really feel perfunctory. The half-hour climactic showdown between human and Na'vi forces are a battle royale of excitement, thrills and tragedy that really demonstrates to many of today's filmmakers how it should be done. They should also be taking notes on his judicious use of 3D which is only seen as an enhancement, never once garishly breaking the fourth wall. It's a classy, restrained and proper use of the technology.
Performances are quite strong. Zoe Saldana is the standout as the love interest Neytiri. Stuck entirely behind a blue face as the native with easily the most screen time, Saldana makes her into a multi-dimensional character with a varied and fully conveyed emotional personality. It's an utter joy to see Sigourney Weaver teaming with Cameron again as the pair work such magic together. Even if it's only a side role, Weaver as the chief scientist strikes a distinct personality and often gets the best lines of the film. Michelle Rodriguez also fares well as the aforementioned sympathetic pilot.
Over on the male side, Sam Worthington proves strong but a tad uneven. The character itself is rather thin with only a few distinct traits, and in his human scenes the rising Aussie thesp nails it just right and adds more than what was probably on the page. In his Na'vi scenes though both the character and voice work come off a touch flat which makes certain sequences, such as the call to fight speech, not convey as much impact and convincing character growth as it should have.
Stephen Lang obviously relishes his bad guy role and plays up the almost unstoppable Col. Quaritch as a violent brute with the single-minded dedication only the best movie bad guys can have. Giovanni Ribisi is also fun as the snivelling corporate goon who cares only for the bottom line. James Horner's score is atmospheric and appropriate, the various pan pipe music and native themes evoking South American jungles and far off lands of exotic beauty but never really giving us a memorable underlying theme as a hook like the film's various trailers managed to do in only a few minutes.
As time passes and the spectacle fades, "Avatar" will prove very interesting in retrospect. In terms of sheer storytelling its a solid if familiar tale, satisfying and generally well done but not as engrossing as Cameron's pre-"Titanic" work. In terms of filmmaking it is a delight and a ride that does set the bar for spectacle stratospherically high, scale wise nothing has been attempted like this since "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. In terms of satisfaction, it's a blockbuster of superb manufacture with more weight and heart than many of its ilk. Definitely one to see on the big screen.