Now here's a movie that's been talked to Pandora and back. The only way you might have missed this one is if you either live under a rock, or somewhere beyond this galaxy. I'm not about to proclaim it as the new "Citizen Kane", but, I am going to be fair and say that when it comes to epic cinematic spectacle, James Cameron definitely knows his business, and his latest behemoth is no exception.
I'm sure the story is familiar even to those who haven't seen the movie yet, unlikely as it may be, so I won't go into details. A paraplegic marine is enlisted in the Avatar program after his twin brother dies. Arriving on the alien planet of Pandora, he must transfer his self to a genetically engineered alien body and make contact with the natives, the Na'vi (appropriately named) and convince them to evacuate their homeland so an evil mining corporation can move in and start drilling. The more he learns about the Na'vi culture, the more he learns to respect the environment which inevitably leads to his siding with the Na'vi against the human invaders.
What "Avatar" does really well is entertain and astonish. Indeed the visuals are unprecedented. Not because of the 3D technology, but because of how the entire world of Pandora is designed and presented before our eyes. There are spectacular otherworldly vistas throughout, each and every one, postcard material. Lush vegetation, fascinating creatures, amazing landscapes, all revealed with a sense of wonder that is literarly infectious. You would have to be made out of stone to not be in awe at what unfolds onscreen, and that's what makes "Avatar" an unforgettable adventure. Never mind visual effects and animation, there's just so much beauty on Pandora that you forget it's not real.
The major drawback of the plot is that it feels as if the scripts from "Dancing with Wolves" or "The Last Samurai" were at some point used as for a first draft, then rewritten to fit the Sci-Fi bill (the Na'vi even resemble Native Americans, only oversized and blue). Plus a lot of stuff gets recycled from previous other sources. There's the mix of greedy corporations and the military that Cameron seems to love in his movies. The mechanized armored suits seem teleported straight from "Aliens", or "The Matrix". Not to mention the theme of love beyond race and social status that "Titanic" made so popular in the modern movie industry. If you're not a fan of James Cameron and are looking for any excuse to pick on him, these might be valid arguments. However, in the movie's defense, the ideas blend well, creating a modern sci-fi/fantasy tale that has just enough consistency to support all the fancy visual effects. So, what James Cameron has created is not necessarily ground-breaking, but certainly fascinating edge-of-your seat entertainment. It's one of the biggest blockbusters ever made (not to mention the highest grossing ever, thanks to 3D theater tickets) and has raised the expectations for every other mega-budget cinematic adventure out there.
The eco-friendly message of the movie is perhaps laid a bit thick at times. It made me feel like being rubbed in the face with tree bark just to make a point, but in the end the focus is on epic visuals and action, not grand statements. It also aims for some deeper understanding of life, but there's not much room for that once the bullets and missiles start flying. And when that happens, particularly during the final showdown between the Na'vi and the Marines, that's when Cameron is really in his element. So chase the clunky dialogue and forced metaphors away from your mind and just let yourself get carried away by what happens onscreen.
20th Century Fox has recently released an Extended Collector's Edition on DVD and Blu-Ray. As a whole, the package is OK, and it certainly makes for an awesome gift. The 16 extra minutes of never-before-seen footage are not quite remarkable and only about half of that extra time was actually worth being reinserted. The extra features are decent, but all this could have been done at the time of the first home video release, instead of greedily attempting to squeeze more money out of it.