Review in a Hurry: Believe the hype. James Cameron's decade-in-the-making sci-fi dream project is an immersive epic unlike any other. Yes, the story's pretty simple, but with so much else to take in, anything more complicated might have been tough to follow.
The Bigger Picture: Never count Cameron out. He may not be the actual king of the world, but in the realm of sci-fi action, he doesn't just rule, he reigns.
One-upping the kind of otherworldly landscapes George Lucas created for the Star Wars prequels, Avatar takes us to Pandora, a jungle-covered moon orbiting a gas giant, where human corporate interests seek out the rather stupidly named mineral "unobtainium." Hazards are plenty—the atmosphere isn't breathable by humans, all manner of six-legged beasts roam the forests and skies and the local humanoids, nine-foot-tall blue cat people called the Na'vi, are none too happy about their territory being encroached upon.
To that end, the Avatar program creates hybrid human-Na'vi bodies that people can download their consciousness into and better interact with the planet and its locals. But when one of the scientists trained for the program is murdered by a petty criminal, his less intellectual, battle-scarred twin brother Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), being the only DNA match for the expensive Avatar body, takes his place.
Though the science team, led by cigarette-puffing Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), have issues with Jake's general recklessness in his new skin, the Na'vi are impressed to finally meet a warrior, even one who's not quite of their caliber. Under the supervision of the chief's daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he learns their ways more intimately than any previous human—and gets particularly intimate with Neytiri herself.
This poses a dilemma, however, since Jake's actual assignment from the beginning has been to spy on the tribe on behalf of the Marines assigned to the mining project. With his loyalties torn between love and duty...well, you can guess the rest, and probably already have from the trailers.
Now, forget what you think you've seen via online videos or even theatrical 2D trailers—the visuals are realistic, fantastic and not remotely like Delgo, as early armchair pundits have been claiming (trust us, we actually sat through Delgo). Practically every Cameron sci-fi film has pushed the envelope of visual effects, and Avatar does so more than ever, from the vertiginous platform-game-style leaps across floating islands to a psychedelic night jungle that lights up underfoot like the sidewalk beneath Michael Jackson in "Billie Jean."
But it would be (mostly) for naught if the actors didn't compel, and thankfully, they do. As usual, Cameron casts based on the characters, not star power.
Worthington, whose next-big-thing status was starting to feel scarily undeserved after Terminator Salvation, delivers on the promise, believably segueing back and forth between crippled human and newly skilled jungle cat. Saldana, last seen romancing Spock in Star Trek, dons her own pointy ears and alien skin with aplomb, all sensuality and strength (it should be noted, parents, that the MPAA is apparently just fine with female nudity as long as it's on a computer-enhanced blue person).
Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi are ironically more cartoonish than the Na'vi in the villain roles, but Joel David Moore and Michelle Rodriguez give good support, and Weaver is effortlessly charming.
As for the 3D—after the first hour or so, you almost forget it's there on an overt level, feeling instead a kind of subconscious immersion in the world. And what a world.
If you're not silently saying "holy crap!" to yourself at least 10 times during the movie, you might not be human.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Like Titanic, Avatar demands you check your cynicism at the door. If you're determined to make "Dances With Smurfs" parallels, you can. If mockery of made-up words floats your boat, there's plenty of material for that, too.
(Originally published Tue., Dec. 15, 2009 at 12:51 p.m.)
Avatar's been nominted for Best Picture. Check out other noms our 2010 Golden Globes: Notable Nominees gallery