I have never been a regular movie watcher. I've never owned a television, so I only rarely see movies on home video. I used to see movies every now and then in the theater, but my inner cheapskate almost always thought they were too expensive. And then they brought commercials (not trailers for other upcoming movies, but ads for cars, beverages, or whatever) in, and that pissed me off so much that I went from going rarely to just about never going. I think the last thing I saw in the theater was The Two Towers. So the fact that I'd heard enough about James Cameron's Avatar to be seriously interested in going, only through NPR and conversation with friends on line and in person, should be an indication that there's a lot of buzz about this movie.
Part of the reason I wanted to see this film is that I've never seen a modern 3D movie. I've seen a little (I don't think ever a whole movie) with the red and green goggles, and I never had anything good to say about it. But I'd heard that this technology was better. I had some trepidation, because I had heard that a few people have motion sickness problems, and I thought I could be one. I have a little trouble with Imax. And I was worried that the 3D would still be a gimmick, something to try to make you jump. I'm pleased to report that I didn't have either of these problems. The 3D effect was very definitely real for me, and it brought me into the world, but not so far into it that I got sick.
Another part of the reason I wanted to see this movie is that it's almost entirely done in CGI. A very long time ago, I worked professionally on state of the art PC graphics, and I knew something about the more advanced stuff that ran on dedicated systems. I haven't kept up with it, but I like to at least see what people are doing these days. I stand absolutely amazed. All of the rendered scenes, from the whole planet view from space through the scenic panoramas to the background of the close up action to the occasional close shot of an alien jungle plant, were heartbreakingly beautiful and, at least from my perspective just watching the movie, not really trying to see through the illusion, utterly realistic.
I have to divide my feelings about the movie into two parts. The movie gives us a world where the story happens, and a story. The world is incredible. Despite being a long film, there's very little exposition of the (pseudo) science behind it, and we're left just trying to see it. It is a little weak in terms of fundamental believability, but it seems to be fairly consistent given its basic assumptions. I don't think it holds up as hard SF, but as a fantasy with spaceships, I'm not going to complain. The visual realization of the world is so rich, and the animals in it are so beautifully done, that I'm writing this post as therapy because I think it's probably better than crying myself to sleep on the couch because it's so beautiful, and I can't go there because it's just a movie. The story told in that world, the movie at the level of the individual characters, is not so perfect. If you want to dislike it, you'll certainly be able to; it's preachy, it's trite, and a lot of the characters are just too pat to be satisfying. To me, it feels as though somebody put a whole lot of effort into making a really wonderful world, and then Hollywood came along and dumbed down the plot.
I've tried to be pretty vague and general, but I have so say a few things that I would probably have rather not heard yesterday.
The best thing about this movie, even better than the scenery, is the DRAGONS! They never call them that, and they don't breathe fire, but that's what they are. They're not the prettiest dragons ever, but they move and fly amazingly well, and they look like real creatures, obviously alien, but convincing. The land-based animals are equally well done. All of these vertebrate-analogs are 6 limbed and breathe through big holes in their upper bodies, rather than through their mouths. Not only do the individual animals look more real than most alien creatures we get shown, they look convincingly related to each other. So why the hell do the Na'vi, the native sapients, have only four limbs and breathe through their noses and mouths just like humans? And while all the animals have two horn-things with the magical interface, the Na'vi only have a single magic ponytail? With the rest of the ecology so good and consistent, it's frustrating to have this one species made so man-like. But I suppose they have to look that human (and make out like humans, too), or the average movie goer wouldn't identify with them. So instead, they're human enough to be sexy. It would have worked much better for me if, instead of kissing, the lead couple had joined their magic ponytails.
The antigravity rock really needs to be explained, when it's just assumed, it's laughable. Once I'm looking at the plot critically, I'm wondering why the evil corporation was so hot for the deposit under ground under the Home Tree, when they knew about the mountains floating in midair that had to be made of the stuff. And I'm also wondering what keeps the floating mountains from floating all the way into space.
Some of the people who don't like this movie are complaining that the message is too heavy handed, that it's preachy. I suspect that many of those people are people who don't like to face the reality that the way the evil corporation acts in the movie is EXACTLY THE SAME as the way today's evil corporations treat the natural world and the natives who live there. A number of people who've commented on this movie have said that it's about redemption. Yeah, well, the hero is personally redeemed, but I thought it was pretty depressing that humanity was not. The corporation is sent home in defeat. It's nice that Pandora was saved, but if you really wanted me to leave happy (in addition to in awe of the visual spectacle and crying my heart out that the movie is all there is and I can't go there), you needed to show some hope that humans might survive too. Oh well. If this movie earns out its mind-boggling production costs ($300M, right? that makes it the most expensive movie ever made, right?), then I guess a sequel is likely. If there is one, I hope they actually use the opportunity.