Avatar is James Cameron's box-office-record-shattering, 3D special effects extravaganza. A crippled ex-marine named Jake (Sam Worthington) volunteers to work in a sort of virtual reality-controlled alien body to negotiate with the natives of the large moon Pandora. Jake works for an evil Earth corporation that wants to mine a rare mineral with a stupid name, and they have come into conflict with the natives, called Na'vi, as a result. Jake must eventually choose sides in this fight.
I already wrote an apologia of sorts for Avatar back in Oscar season, but it does feel like any positive review of the film these days has to be defensive. Honestly, I don't think the film will win the Hugo; I get the sense that the conventional wisdom on the film has shifted from "it's an awesome game-changer" to "it's an overrated, derivative, and stupid spectacle." I think a backlash was inevitable when a movie with some glaring flaws was that successful ($2.5 billion+ worldwide, and still growing). I, however, still like it quite a bit, and after watching it again for this review, I even think it holds up on the small screen in 2D, though the experience was certainly diminished.
Let me start with those glaring flaws. I've seen the film called everything from anti-American to racist. I don't have a lot of time for these political arguments, though I do think the "the white guy saves the day, yet again" issue does have some traction. I think there are strong narrative reasons to have a POV character, especially in a film about aliens, so I don't mind nearly as much as I mind, say, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, or Glory (I usually call this the "Zwick effect" after the director of the latter two examples). I also think that while the Na'vi are obvious analogues for earthbound indigenous peoples, especially Native Americans, you can't think of them as more than analogues. The Na'vi may comment on the historical treatment of Native Americans, but you shouldn't see them in any way as realistic depictions of Native Americans themselves. You could get into a whole debate about portraying Native Americans as "children of nature," and the implications, both good and bad, of that stereotype. But the Na'vi are literally linked into nature in a way that Native Americans never were. The analogies do break down eventually.
And yes, Avatar is also derivative. It's Dances with Smurfs + Disney's Pocahontas + Ferngully x LeGuin's "The Word for World is Forest." Yes, and Star Trek=Wagon Train + Horatio Hornblower x Forbidden Planet. And Star Wars=The Searchers + Hidden Fortress x Buck Rogers. And so on. Of course, lots of science fiction classics are re-imaginings of historical events or classic stories in a new context. Cameron at least combines his influences in some interesting ways.
And there are more complaints. The plot is predictable? Well, yes, but at least it makes sense, which is apparently asking a lot of a blockbuster film in the age of Michael Bay's Transformer movies. The dialogue is flat? Check. The characters are static archetypes? I'm afraid so; that's the film's greatest weakness as far as I'm concerned...
Okay, it's not perfect!
It is, however, visually stunning and wonderfully imaginative. It's thrilling, and the world-building is meticulous. And, while there are a lot of fantastic elements, there's also a solid grounding in science from richly-conceived ecosystems to astronomical details. There's a blend here of planetary romance, hard sf, and computer age ideas that I think is really fascinating. Plus, it's all in service of a story that does relate (albeit, perhaps too simplistically) to issues of environment, neo-colonialism, and indigenous rights. It builds a new world that illuminates our own, and it uses groundbreaking special effects not just for cheap thrills, but to further engross us in that world. This film is pure, classic science fiction on a scale that I don't think we see that often.