1. It doesn’t take long for you to realize just how different Avatar is from anything you’ve ever seen. The opening scene shows Marine grunt Jake Sully waking from suspended animation into zero gravity, and the “camera,” as it were — you spend a lot of time in this film wondering whether something was shot with a camera or just created from whole computer cloth — is handheld, floating and completely disorienting. It’s an entirely new experience, not just for 3-D, but for movies in general: You’re thrown in the middle of a scene, with no understanding of perspective, space constraints or even fundamental narrative. You are, in the most basic way, in the movie. It took me 20 seconds or so just to orient myself. This is still a movie, right? It took me another minute-and-a-half to pull my jaw up off the floor.
2. Eventually, Avatar does turn into an actual movie, but that doesn’t mean you’ll ever feel much more oriented. There is some sort of plot, I suppose, and there’s a standard-issue fear of technological advancement and unfettered corporate greed metaphor that even Cameron must be giggling at, considering he’s made the most expensive movie of all time. The actors emote as much as they can, in both their online and offline versions: After a while you won’t be able to tell the difference. Avatar has some amazing CGI set pieces, but it’s most impressive CGI is in the quiet scenes, in which the N’Avi are interacting with humans and you can’t tell what’s animated and what isn’t. I’ll just quote Bilge Ebiri: “It was made for, what, $300 million? It looked like $2 billion.” Perhaps the most impressive spectacles are the ones that don’t seem like spectacles at all.
3. That said: Pandora. Cameron might have his issues with story, but for pure inventiveness, come on, he has created an entire whole planet here, a living breathing thing with more personality than anyone in the movie. This is a world beamed directly from Cameron’s crazy brain, with floating mountains, rocks that light up when you step on them and “hometree,” a sort of central processing unit of the planet that reaches miles into the sky. For such a natural, green planet, though, there sure are lots of mean nasty creatures. Why are there mean nasty creatures there? Because they are awesome. Why are you asking so many questions? Look at this place.
4. As a story, Avatar doesn’t even have as much to recommend it as Titanic. Say what you will about that film, but it at least had a dynamic, if cheesy, love story. You had to wait 2 1/2 hours for the boat to sink, and, the first time you saw it anyway, you hung in. If you had to wait 2 1/2 hours to see Pandora here, listening to evil imperialists prattle on about “unobtainiam” and “indigenous people,” you’d chew through your seat. He might have been misguided, but James Cameron deeply cared about his characters in Titanic. I suspect it’s more of a surface level this time. Cameron knows what side his bread is buttered on: He piles on the awe early, and often. He knows his story isn’t as strong this time, he knows the narration is lazy, he knows the dialogue is made of oak … and I doubt he really considers it that big of a deal. You won’t either.
5. Scott Tobias, the excellent film critic for The Onion A/V Club, says once the breakthrough technology of this film becomes commonplace, Avatar will seem like “a Captain EO for our time.” I see his point — take away the special effects, and this is an empty shell of a film — but I am far from certain future filmmakers will use Cameron’s technique with the precision and meticulousness that he does. The comparisons with Star Wars, I suspect, are apt. (It makes one feel a little old that parents are comparing their children’s reactions to this film with theirs with Star Wars.) Avatar doesn’t have the icons of Lucas’ film, and it’s certainly less epic and eternal in nature. But it showed me something I have never seen before. It reminded me of what movies can do, of what they’re capable of, of what the experience of sitting down for three hours in a dark room can really mean. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. Time will never change that. I might look back at Avatar in 20 years and, as the technology evolves, see through a lot of its tricks. That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t always remember what it meant to see it for the first time, to see what the future might hold, to feel like, no matter how many movies you see, you can always be amazed, you can always go back to that first experience, again, and ever. My jaw is still on the floor.
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