Who’s In It: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder, Joel David Moore, Laz Alonso
The Basics: Crippled Marine Jake Sully (Terminator: Salvation’s Sam Worthington) takes a job with a government-run science program on the planet Pandora, where members of the indigenous Na’vi race exist in harmony with the natural world around them – and, rather inconveniently, live right on top of valuable mineral deposits. With the promise of brand-new legs dangling like a carrot, Jake uses a 10-foot-tall native hybrid “avatar” body to gain the trust of the Na’vi and help the humans force out the Na’vi. That is, until he falls for a Na’vi princess (Zoe Saldana) and chooses to fight to protect his adopted culture from extinction. You’ll see the plot twists coming, but it’ll be so pretty you won’t mind.
What’s The Deal: James Cameron’s attempt to follow up the highest grossing film ever made (Titanic) with The Movie That Will Change Cinema Forever is an epic, visually resplendent and immersive 3D remake of Dances with Wolves, only with sexy, half-nude blue monkey-people instead of Native Americans. So while Avatar’s story seems a bit too familiar (seriously, exactly like Dances with Wolves), when transplanted into the vast and beautiful world that Cameron has created, where lush jungle flora and fauna vibrate with life and turn Day-Glo colors at night and Na’vi warriors tame six-legged alien horses and screeching pterodactyls like cowboys breaking wild mustangs, plot conventions don’t really matter much.
Cameron’s Cutting-Edge Filmmaking: Every scene in Avatar feels designed to take advantage of Cameron’s technological strengths. Clarity in depth of field is an under-appreciated asset of 3D filmmaking, and here it’s used to draw us into the picture. (Cameron’s lens lingers in close-up on Worthington’s hunky face frequently throughout the movie, which is absolutely the best tool to draw the ladies into the audience.) When all hell breaks loose and war erupts in the air and on the ground, the ensuing skirmishes are breathtakingly manufactured symphonies, like the computer-generated battles in the later Star Wars films -- only they don’t suck and you can follow the action.
CG Characters That Feel Real, Mostly: The motion capture technology used to transfer the actors’ performances to their CG bodies is so spot on, it looks and feels as if Zoe Saldana is wearing a seamless Neytiri suit. However, you wonder why a film that could throw together humans and CG actors believably into the same shot can’t seem to get the intricacies of Na’vi-on-Na’vi lip-locking down quite right. (Yes, the Na’vi get down.)
What’s Kind Of Weird, After A While: Avatar’s obvious boner for Native American-style spiritualism and the endless number of cultural and visual signposts taken from native Indian culture. Laz Alonso’s permanent CGI scowl as Jake’s Na’vi rival, Tsu’tey. Sigourney Weaver’s shockingly stiff line delivery, which lasts for a good third of the film until she warms up and comes to terms with the fact that Ripley’s not in this one. James Horner’s sweeping score, which sounds at times like Titanic, the theme from The Legend of Zelda, and every other James Horner score wrapped into one.
Specialty Shot Of The House: The Slow-Motion Jump Shot, in which a nubile and war-painted Na’vi warrior body cuts through the air in glorious, arrow-shooting action, gets repeated several times through the film just because it looks so cool.