Reviewing James Cameron's Avatar (20th Century Fox) seems somehow beside the point. The film's arrival has been heralded for so long, and hyped so furiously, that making evaluative statements about Avatar is sort of like the three wise men reviewing the birth of Jesus: "At last, a baby for the new millennium!"Avatar is a baby both for and of the new millennium. It will change the way blockbuster epics are conceived and made, and the way we think about technologies like 3D and motion capture, and it will likely break box-office records around the world. Of course, this is separate from the question of whether it's a great movie.
Is The Matrix a great movie? Is The Terminator? Is RoboCop? All of theseseemed like popcorn releases, crowd-pleasing high-tech spectacles that looked cool as hell and were just smart enough to spark dorm-room philosophical speculation. But with 10 or 20 years of distance, they look smarter. The dystopic visions of interchangeable time-space continuums and replaceable cyborg bodies now seem like diagnoses of the time in which they were made, a moment when technology was just starting to invade our bodies, in the form of interactive video games and personal computers. But cyborgs and time travel are still so analog, so '90s. TheMatrix, from 1999, came closest to diagnosing the present. It's an Internet-age movie, but it only has dialup access.
Avatar could be thought of as the first mega-blockbuster that's fully broadband. Its hero is literally an avatar, the virtual representation of a live human being who manipulates its adventures remotely, like the player of a video game. (The original Sanskrit meaning of "avatar"—the bodily form taken by a deity descending to earth—is also suggested in this movie's quasi-religious cosmology.) Far from the millennial bleakness of The Matrix, Avatar is an end-of-the-world fantasy that's sanguine about the prospects for virtual reality. Cameron cheerfully concedes that the human race may be bound for extinction—he sets his story in 2154, when earth's resources will already have been depleted, turning our species into rapacious galactic colonialists. But his confidence in technology is boundless. Memo to Al Gore: If we can just bio-engineer large blue representations of ourselves and hook them up to our brains via isolation pods, climate change is not going to be a problem.
But this is exactly what you don't want to hear: critics gassing on about the freighted meanings of Avatar. You, dear reader, want to know: Is it or is it not stupendously friggin' rad? And the answer is yes. For most of the first hour, a good portion of the second, and even many of the 40 minutes left after that, Avatar is stupendously friggin' rad. Like Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings, it's a conventional adventure story, but one that's set in a world so richly and specifically imagined that it's thrilling just to dwell inside it.
That world is a planet called Pandora, where said rapacious human colonialists (all, curiously, American—no Starfleet internationalism here) have set up military posts from which to mine a precious mineral called "unobtainium" (fantastic name, but Cameron didn't coin it—scientists have used the term since the '50s for rare or nonexistent materials.) But Pandora is also inhabited by the Na'vi, a race of blue-skinned, forest-dwelling giants who don't take kindly to the invaders razing their planet and disrupting their age-old (yet distinctly New Agey) communion with nature.
A science lab under the direction of Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is experimenting with "avatar" technology, which creates human/Na'vi genetic hybrids that float lifelessly in tanks until animated remotely by human brains. Operating an avatar body requires years of specialized training, but when a carefully groomed trainee suddenly dies, his identical twin brother, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is hastily conscripted and sent to Pandora in his place. Jake, a Marine, has been left paraplegic after a war injury, but he finds freedom in his avatar body—so much freedom that his blue avatar self wanders off during an exploration mission and winds up a prisoner of the Na'vi. Jake begins an existence as a double agent, learning the Na'vi ways as an avatar by day, then returning to inhabit his own human body while his avatar sleeps. But in the grand tradition of colonialist impostors, Jake starts to go native, falling for a Na'vi girl, Neytiri (a motion-captured Zoe Saldana), even as he colludes with the scarily gung-ho Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) in the destruction of the Na'vi people.
For a movie so stuffed with plot, Avatar feels surprisingly spacious. Instead of the usual action-blockbuster pacing, in which brief spurts of expository downtime alternate with a crescendo of ever-more-spectacular battle scenes, Cameron spends the first hour lingering over the wonders of Pandora, which we experience by proxy through Jake's avatar's eyes. It's a spectacular place, with a range of "floating mountains" that hang mysteriously in midair (must be the unobtainium!) and bioluminescent jungles with peacock-feather colors and animals out of Jurassic Park by way of a medieval bestiary.
There are pterodactyl-like winged reptiles and horselike creatures that bond with their Na'vi riders by connecting to frondlike attachments on their bodies. (This frond business is frankly, if not explicitly, sexual, and is one of the coolest things in the film.) Fanboys expecting a Transformers-style burst of violence every 15 minutes may find this luxuriant middle section hopelessly fruity, but I watched it in a fugue state of pleasure. It's in this section, too, that Cameron uses 3-D to its most innovative effect; to cite just one example, the jellyfish-like floating seeds that drift through Pandora's night sky seemed to extend from the deep background of the image all the way out into the theater seats. (And I swear I was completely straight the whole time.) At its best, Avatar does seem like a substantively different experience than watching a regular 2-D movie. The effects feel immersive and legitimately "special." They take us to an alternate reality not unlike what Jake must experience when inhabiting his avatar body.
I'm not saying Avatar is a timeless masterpiece, nor do I want to see James Cameron re-crowned King of the World at the next Oscars. (I'm hoping for a coup d'état from his erstwhile queen, Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker.) The movie is too long, the score by James Horner is hopelessly bombastic, and the battle royale of the third act relies too heavily on "into the valley of death rode the six hundred" cliché. But if you believe special-effects blockbusters have the right to exist at all, if you respect the genre that brought us Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and yes, Titanic, then Avatar is something that needs to be seen. Lord knows it's something to see.