The story concerns a crippled former Marine named Jake Sully (played with spotty accent by Australian newcomer Sam Worthington) who goes to the tropical world of Pandora and interacts with the native people, the Na'vi, through an organically grown copy of the natives (the avatar of the title), which he can control from a pod on the human base. As he interacts with the Na'vi, he begins to learn more about them, fall in love with one of them, and eventually fight against the human invasion of the planet. If you're thinking you've seen this storyline before, it's because you have. You saw it just a few years ago in the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai, and about 20 years ago in Kevin Costner's Oscar-winning epic Dances with Wolves. So since originality of story is not going to be Cameron's forte, which I knew going into it, he'd need to wow me with the technology.
The movie is beautiful to look at, with many wonderful sights that I'd not technically seen before, but which didn't smack of an amazing newness. All the same, it's gorgeously made. The special effects that Cameron also spent so much time developing are flawless and the best I've ever seen in a movie. I was never once questioning that the human actors and the CGI were occupying the same space and came to view the Na'vi as I would a human actor. With the majority of the movie taking place in this new world of Pandora with all its new sights and sounds, I had hoped for something to wow me, to really give me a sense of awe the way Spielberg did in Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Cameron himself had done in the sinking of the Titanic. Sadly, this was not the case for me. I wasn't wowed once, not when Jake is flying on a dragon-like creature through the air, nor when he's taken to an ancient tree that connects the Na'vi to their ancestors, nor during any of the movie's many action sequences. The closest I came to feeling anything like that was during the collapsing of a giant tree, but even that failed to achieve the level of awe I'd hoped for.
Sadly, I think part of the problem is that the 3-D adds absolutely nothing to the experience, and likely took away that special something that I was missing. Cameron's "revolutionary" work didn't make me see anything differently on screen. As far as 3-D goes, it was terrifically done, but wholly unnecessary and distracting from the movie, as 3-D always is and always will be. I had to wear these stupid glasses (which admittedly are light years better than the old cardboard ones) which gave me a physical barrier to see through in addition to the distracting and occasionally headache inducing effect that 3-D has anyway.
I had hoped, even with my pre-existing aversion to 3-D, that Cameron would be able to make an extraordinary movie to thrill me despite having seen this type of story before. The most negative side to recycling a standard story is that I couldn't help think about when it was done better. What came off as thoughtful curiosity in Dances with Wolves, while learning from the natives and becoming one of them, here comes off as monotonous exposition. There is the wonderful sequence when the handicapped Jake first uses his avatar and wonders at being able to move his toes and stand on his feet and even run. With that sequence, I thought I was in the right hands with Cameron, but I'm not sure why so much else felt so uninspired.
Now sure, that's a lot of complaining (without even mentioning that it's at least 45 minutes to an hour too long), but I did enjoy the movie overall. Although it felt like nothing too much new, it was done in an enjoyable way, and without much of the pretentiousness that you get from hearing Cameron talk about it in interviews. Although none of the actors do anything special, none really do anything to ruin it either. So it doesn't reach the highs that I had hoped it would, and that judging by its record breaking box office that many others think it does, it's still an enjoyable if overlong experience. It's a good action movie, it does succeed there. I guess I was hoping for more than that.