Avatar isn't the future of movies; it's the past. Telling a story as old as Westerns and swashbucklers and epics and, hell, Greek mythology, it's a classical adventure story that happens to look very, very different from anything we've seen before. That revolutionary look is the reason people are rightly calling the movie a game-changer, but don't be fooled-- Avatar is as old-fashioned and romantic as Titanic, and thrillingly, just as wonderful to watch.
A rousing, play-it-to-the-rafters adventure story wrapped around a deep romance, Avatar is the exactly the James Cameron movie you would expect after 11 years in the making, a masterful combination of technology and the kind of storytelling that's made movies work since the beginning. Yes it's hokey and at times unoriginal, but with so much going on in the background of both the Pandoran forest and the advanced human technology, you'll want the simplest story possible in order for Cameron to play some more in this world. From the floating Hallelujah Mountains to the iridescent Tree of Souls, Pandora is so thoroughly realized that it feels quite literally like a transporting experience. Never before have 3D glasses felt less intrusive between the viewer and the screen; never before has CGI felt so natural, so necessary, or so alive.
In the future, earth has been destroyed, and an anonymous corporation has set upon Pandora to mine something called unobtanium (Cameron has a thing for obvious names, but that's a real scientific term). In one ignored corner of the corporation headquarters, scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has invented avatars fused with DNA from both humans and the native culture, the Na'vi. While the company execs, led by Giovanni Ribisi's weasel-faced Parker Selfridge (what'd I tell you about the obvious names?) want to obliterate the native cultures, Grace's unit is aiming for humanitarian outreach and cross-cultural understanding.
Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), brought to Grace's lab to replace his dead twin brother, and bringing a bullheaded ex-Marine's attitude that clashes immediately, and wonderfully, with Grace's own no-nonsense ways. Having lost use of his legs in combat years earlier, Jake takes to life within his avatar as a chance to experience the world again, and the minute he's out in the Pandoran forest, finds himself stranded after a chase with a particularly nasty local creature.
Coming to his rescue is Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), princess of the local Na'vi clan with pretty much no patience for Jake and his arrogance, having saved him only thanks to a symbol from their god figure, Eywah. Neytiri takes him home and the tribe is convinced to teach Jake their ways; as soon as he goes to sleep, though, he wakes up in his own body back in lab, sharing details about the Na'vi tribe with Grace as Selfridge, who along with tough military type Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is anxious to use all this insider knowledge to tear down the Na'vi from the inside.
You know how it goes from here-- Jake is dazzled by the Na'vi way of life, especially since that's where he gets to use his legs, but the human threat is approaching, and before too long you know they'll figure out he's been leaking information to the bad guys. But the story is there to make you feel familiar enough for the visuals to utterly blow you away. The bioluminescent Pandoran forest, from the giant palm fronds to the packs of dog-weasel beasts to the massive Home Tree that the Na'vi make their home, is so well-crafted, so gorgeous, that the line between CGI and reality simply disappears. It's impossible to overstate how real the Na'vi and avatar characters look, how every flick of their eyes or wrinkle in their faces seems organic. These alien creatures, their skills and their physicality and wild natures, are the best argument ever seen for motion-capture performances. There's never been anything like them.
For all the gaps in character motivation and underdeveloped side characters, Cameron introduces us to Pandora perfectly, so that when it comes time for the final battle, every peak and monstrous creature is a familiar friend. The CGI in those scenes is stunning, of course, but what's better is Cameron's handle on the cutting and camerawork required for battle scenes. In a decade where fight choreography is frequently masked by frantic editing, and you're lucky to know which side is where in an epic battle, Cameron shows himself, once again, as the old-school master.
Many of the big parts of the story are disappointments-- the Na'vi, with their feathered headdresses and braids, resemble far too closely the racist "noble savages" of past Westerns, and the lesson of environmental tolerance attached to them feels rote at best, insulting at the worst. The corporate and military characters are so transparently evil that they often feel like the real cartoons, while Jake Sully, despite getting in a good zinger once in a while, is essentially a blank slate on which to project our own notions of how heroic we could be, too. But it's all the details that will make you go "wow"; the way the Na'vi literally connect with the earth and animals around them, Neytiri's cries of anguish, or even the technology in Grace's lab. After all, it's not Odysseus's journey and his character we remember; it's all the cool stuff he got to see along the way.
Had Cameron not stuck so closely to a simple story, or replaced some of his notoriously awful dialogue with something slightly less tin-eared, he might have truly had a masterpiece. But then, Avatar might not have felt like such a return to classic epics, and probably wouldn't have been nearly as fun. Over the past decade we've preferred our adventures with a twinge of darkness or irony, be it Johnny Depp's Pirates swagger or the many existential crises of Batman. Cameron has returned to tell us that all we need is a slight and earnest story, a few good characters to carry it along, and thrilling visuals to sweep us all away. Avatar has it all. It's great to have him back.