Well, it's all up there on screen. Whether the budget for James Cameron's decade-in-the-making Avatar was the $300 million they'd like you to believe, the $500 million that seems much more likely, or the $900 million that factors in advertising and innovation, every cent of it would appear to be well-spent. Will it make the money back? Time will tell. But for now, they said it would change everything, and it kinda does.
Avatar takes us—as wholly as any film has ever taken us anywhere—to the lush moon of Pandora, home to a race of 15-foot humanoid felines called the Na'vi, as well as the priceless mineral unobtanium. (Really.) As corporations and the military plot the best way to wrest mining rights from the Na'vi, a group of scientists has developed human/Na'vi hybrid "avatars" into which they can insert the consciousness of human "drivers" to study the Na'vi civilization.
When a key researcher is murdered, his paraplegic twin Jake (Sam Worthington) is enlisted to salvage his brother's expensive, DNA-specific avatar, then shipped off to Pandora. Jake, a former Marine, is quickly enlisted by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to treat his time with the Na'vi as reconnaissance, but when a spiritual sign gets Jake unprecedented access to the Na'vi, he—you guessed it—begins to question his mission.
It goes on from there (for like two more hours) but from the first time we lay eyes on Pandora, everything else is just background noise. Cameron takes the 3D achievements of the past few years and integrates them entirely into the look of the film, giving Pandora's bioluminescent forests, floating mountains, and beyond-your-dreams wildlife a peerlessly immersive texture. Avatar is, as intended by Cameron and the tech companies who helped pay his bills, the film that finally transforms 3D from a marketing gimmick into the first-class way to see an event film.
Still, this commercial leap for 3D is eclipsed by a separate and more substantial technological achievement. Cameron's superficial design for the Na'vi has been a serious sticking point for potential audiences since the trailer premiered this summer, but seeing his big blue Thundercats in action is a revelation for both the motion-capture process and computer animation as a whole. The psychological concept of the "uncanny valley" refers to the mounting revulsion in our minds as artificial forms—originally robots, in this case photorealistic CGI—get too close to a full replication of human life; last weekend Cameron, with help from the Na'vi's familiar cat-like qualities, narrowed the uncanny valley significantly.
Impossibly sophisticated as its visuals are, though, Avatar is a bloated dinosaur of a sci-fi epic. Cameron has been off the action scene since 1994's True Lies, and since then has apparently been too preoccupied with his toys to notice how far the genre he helped define has come. It starts with his startlingly unpolished script, top-heavy thanks to a numbing blast of exposition and filled with oversold themes and bland would-be laugh lines. The characters—even the few he doesn't shelve for extended stretches—lack nuance, as do their relationships, which are conspicuously inconsistent, whether it has any bearing on the story or not. Did the solo writer/director credit matter that much, Jim? Surely any screenwriter in Hollywood would have been thrilled to take a crack at Avatar. Or maybe each and every one of them did, and that's the problem?
Either way, the script's early-'90s vibe is part of a larger problem plaguing Avatar. With so much on the line, the brilliant but rusty Cameron seems afraid to take even the slightest chance. The film's overt environmental, spiritual, and anti-war themes have nothing to say that hasn't been said better elsewhere, and the indictment of military-industrial profit motive is lifted noisily from Cameron's own Aliens. Meanwhile, Avatar's rarefied scale (perhaps a weakness in itself, though I suppose you gotta show off what you paid for) is the only thing keeping the dust off the dramatic beats. In a film full of things we've never seen, it's a sad realization that we've seen it all before.
In the end, though, the uncomfortable discord between the cutting edge and the stubbornly old-fashioned isn't nearly enough to deter a recommendation. Avatar is a milestone, and a singular experience. See it in the fanciest digs you can, lose yourself in what you see, and know the future of film starts right here.