When I first saw Avatar in the theaters, I experienced it the way it was supposed to be seen, in full-blown IMAX 3D. Seen that way, it was a visual and aural experience unlike any I’d had before or since in the movie theater. James Cameron had eschewed the usual 3-D gimmickry of objects seeming to fly over the audience’s heads, and used the tools at his disposal to create an all-encompassing fantasy environment that seemed real enough to touch.

Some people even reported feelings of depression after the movie because they preferred the alternate reality of the movie to their own.1 While I think such people were already in need of serious therapy and possible medication, I can understand how this movie, more than any other, would be the one to inspire that kind of “separation anxiety.”

As a visual spectacle, this film has thrown down an intimidating gauntlet that will be hard to top for the sheer exhilaration factor. Even “King of the World” Cameron himself might be feeling a little performance anxiety as he prepares Avatar 2, because even he might be hard-pressed to top his own creation.

But, about that story…

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Take away 3-D, and some of that visual awesomeness is stripped away. At that point, it’s possible to view Avatar as you would any other movie, and that’s where the problems start. In 3-D, Cameron’s epic might be a visual orgasm on par with eating chocolate Häagen-Dazs ice cream while sliding naked down a mink-covered mountainside. In 2-D, it’s a fairly straightforward science-fiction story filled with innumerable elements we’ve all seen before. None of these elements are done particularly badly, but that doesn’t diminish their familiarity.

The movie takes place on a planet called Pandora, where a company called RDA is seeking a rare mineral called “unobtainium,” found only on that planet. There is a parallel scientific project, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Siguorney Weaver) to study the indigenous flora and fauna, including an intelligent race of nine-foot-tall blue-skinned tree-dwellers known as the Navi. Security for the mining operation is handled by a Blackwater-like company led by a battle-scarred former colonel named Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wheelchair-bound former marine whose twin brother was part of Dr. Augustine’s project to contact the Navi using “avatars,” genetically engineered human/Navi hybrids that are remote-controlled by a human that sees and experiences everything through its eyes and other senses. Since the avatars are coded to one person’s DNA, and Jake’s brother has died, the only alternative to destroying a valuable avatar is to bring in the dead scientist’s jarhead brother, even though Jake has no scientific training to speak of.

I was hoping for some kind of tactical plan that didn't involve martyrdom.

Grace is extremely skeptical that the ex-marine can be of any use, but when he gets separated from one of her exploration parties, he has far more success at making contact with the Navi than anyone else. Apparently, the jarhead has more in common with their warrior culture than the eggheads on Grace’s staff. He also enjoys the fact that his avatar has legs that still work.

Suddenly, Jake is the most popular man on Pandora. Grace is suitably impressed by his progress assimilating into the Navi culture, while the weaselly head of the RDA operation (Giovanni Ribisi) wants him to help negotiate the rights to mine unobtanium from under the Navi sacred home tree. Failing that, Col. Quaritch wants intelligence on the Navi in case he’s called upon to move them off their tree by force (and you get the feeling that the colonel would much rather it came to exactly that).

Jake is somewhat less popular with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the Navi chieftain. She thinks he’s an ignorant klutz, just like all of the other “sky people.” Of course, when two characters get off to such a bad start, you’re pretty much certain that they’re destined to fall in love. That could be an awkward first meeting with his parents. “Mom, Dad, I know she’s nine feet tall, blue, and looks like a cat. Don’t worry. We’ll adopt.”

You also know that the nature-goddess-loving Navi will not just bend over and let the strip-mining humans defile their sacred “home-tree,” and once Col. Quaritch starts the dogs o’war to barking, you can guess just whose side Jake will come down on. But predictability is only one of this movie’s problems. Most of the supporting cast beyond Jake, Grace and Neytiri are just cardboard stand-ins for actual characters. Col. Quaritch is a fire-breathing, gung-ho, “kill-em-all-and-let-God-sort-it-out” warmonger because the story needs one, not because he has any motivation to be that way. Giovanni Ribisi’s character is craven, greedy, and callous because that’s his only reason for existing, making him nothing more than a less interesting fraternal twin to Paul Reiser’s character in Aliens.

And midway through the action, when Michelle Rodriguez’s chopper pilot suddenly switches sides, it comes as a genuine surprise because, until that point, she’s never been enough of a factor in the story for the audience to care whose side she’s on.

Avatar is at its best when avatar-Sully and Neytiri are getting acquainted while swinging through the Pandoran trees like a Navi Tarzan and Jane. In the theater, the three-dimensional effects during these scenes had me grabbing my armrests to steady myself. If you can force yourself to swallow the molasses-sweet river of saccharine, sophomoric tree-huggery, the movie is quite entertaining down this stretch. It’s not terribly deep and, without the 3-D to distract you, you find yourself thinking about the story, which is a mistake.

The overall arc of the story should be familiar to anyone whose seen Dances with Wolves. I know comparisons between Avatar and Kevin Costner’s Best Picture winner might be getting tiresome by now, as would calling the film Pocahontas in Space, but some things get repeated over and over simply because they’re true.

  1. Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues, CNN.com, January 11, 2010 []

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