(Rated PG-13 for war-type combat violence, some profanity, sensuality): Hang on, folks, for the ride of the century. We've seen a lot of CGI work in the past, but what James Cameron has done here is a shock-&-awe tactic that allows the 160+ minutes to zip by - well, almost. (As with "Titanic" he doesn't know when to cut during the final overlong half hour or so.)
If an avatar, in Hindu myth, was a deity that descended to earth in human form - a savior of sorts - then Jake Sully (likable Sam Worthington) fits the term; he's an ex-marine now bereft of the use of both legs, who volunteers for a project - an avatar - on Pandora (magic box already opened, exposing terrible things about to happen on that planet to the native peoples - the Na'vi - remarkable creatures living in a remarkable paradise that is soon to be taken over by a powerful, greedy American corporation for its precious mineral. Part of the lush jungle has already been gouged into an open pit, but beyond there is more - more - of the precious stuff & it's for the taking. So who cares if it means ridding the area of the "blue monkeys?"
One guy cares. Jake, who operates within the manufactured body of a Na'vi, not only infiltrates, but becomes sympathetic, then empathetic, with their struggle to survive. He also melds with the daughter (beguiling Zoe Saldana) of a chief, much to the wrath (and jealousy) of a native who already has had eyes for her. (Beginning to sound familiar? From here on, the plot with every worn-out cliché takes over; there are no surprises.)
There's the test for manhood before the newcomer can be accepted into the tribe. Even the climactic battle sequence - stunningly presented - follows the pattern of earlier war (and Western) B-Plots. And even a variation on the final "walk into the sunset" is there.
But that's not why we go to see this flick. Not even the tongue-in-cheek dialog that rings more like today than the year 2154: "Shut yer pie-hole. Here's how we treat them roaches." "OK, buddy (to Jake in his wheel chair); meals on wheels." No, it's all in the visuals - the couple thousand people who created, not only CGI, but ILM (whatever it means) animation. Created in 3D for select theatres - a seamless mix of live action, animation, and whatever other techniques went into the final effects.
Pandora is something else: everything is BIG - floating islands in the sky; trees that extend upward, forever; monstrous mining equipment, weaponry, robots & other mechanical conveyances; James Horner's oversized orchestration that must have worn out dozens of timpani, and choral sighing & moaning that would have made Carl Orff jealous.
At the same time, there is breath-taking beauty: air-born tiny jelly-fish-like critters, large colorful mushrooms that vanish from touch, luminescent flora that light up the night, a blazingly white "tree of souls," - no clichés where the design is concerned - all reminiscent, yet stunningly original. Well, almost original, since Cameron, tongue-in-cheek again, dips globally for designs & customs worked into the script. The air-islands recall Japanese drawings; the Na'vi women in battle do the Arabic tongue twittering; the dogs, horses, etc., are all computer generated dogs & horses as we'd know them, but with futuristic variations. And the battle scenes! You don't have to be a Jughead to recognize the similarities in warship clashes and on-earth battles.
What I'm saying, like all others who have seen the film, is that the plot & dialog are (perhaps intentionally?) more than reminiscent of earlier films, but easily forgiven; it's the sumptuous eye feast that grips you. This film seems to close the book on electronic film techniques; one wonders how it can be topped. Or, if not topped, copied with far lower standards of excellence. But that's Hollywood for you. If you can't top 'em, then mimic 'em on ever lowering levels. (Grade: A)