At this point, I wonder if there's even a point to writing about Avatar (2009, directed by James Cameron). I mean, I'm late to the party anyway (even though I saw it a couple of weeks ago), and what I have to say about the film has already been said. It's a technological wonder, no doubt. It's the Birth of a Nation for the new century. The 2001, even. Yada yada yada.
My own knee jerk reaction is this: there's a disconnect between the ideas expressed in the visuals and the ideas expressed in the plot. If one approaches the film only as a sensory experience--as, apparently, a majority of film-goers do--then Avatar is a wonder, and not just as a panoply of pretty colors and awesome special effects. The visuals represent world-building SF, which is a kind of SF that really hasn't appeared on movie screens before (in part because of the technological limits that Avatar makes a point of expanding). In building his world, Cameron has obviously put a lot of thought behind the science involved. Take this film's Maguffin: Unobtainium. Cameron didn't invent this name, he merely used it for his fictional stable, naturally occurring superconductor. Cameron places the properties of this in the background. The piece that Giovanni Riblisi is using as a desk ornament floats on a magnetic field. Now, I doubt seriously that Cameron started with an explanation of his floating mountains--he surely borrowed the concept from other sources, most probably Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky--but he has worked out how such a thing might actually exist, and he's really subtle about the visual explanation. The center of the mountains is a Na'vi holy place where the tree of souls resides (more on this in a moment). Here's what it looks like:
Notice a pattern? The rocks are aligned along the lines of magnetic force. The floating mountains are obviously laced with unobtanium, and they're floating on the planet's magnetic field. Similar explanations for, say, the bioluminescence of Pandora's ecology can also be seen in the background (Pandora orbits a gas giant in a double star system, so there will be periods of long night). There are countless other details that have obviously been worked out in detail. The most important of these to the movie's plot is the "connectedness" of Pandora's ecology. This might seem like a deus ex machina or a bunch of hippy-dippy bullshit, but the movie is careful about setting things up. It's established fairly early on that the life on Pandora functions as a global neural network. It's not too far to stretch this concept to assigning the ecology an intelligence, or at the very least a self-awareness, that will almost certainly defend itself. The tree of souls seems as if it functions as a kind of brain stem or, possibly, a corpus colossum for that intelligence, or, at the very least, an interface.
On a completely meta-level, the film's conceit of placing its characters in Avatars to explore this world functions nicely as a metaphor for the method of the film's own making. The Na'vi, after all, are performance capture avatars of the actors who perform them. You can extend this to the battle mechs at the end of the movie, which are also avatars of a kind. I find this neat.
In any event, this is all characteristic of world-building SF, and it has echoes of all kinds of sources. It reminds me most of Ursula Le Guin's "The Word for World is Forest," but you can see Dune here, too. And for cinematic sources, it strikes me as a kind of conflation of Terrence Malick's last two movies, The New World (which should be obvious) and The Thin Red Line (in which the filmmaker postulates that war is an affront to nature).
Unfortunately, Avatar also shares the common flaw of world-building SF: it's not really about people. The characters in Avatar are generally types, not people. It compounds this flaw by providing them with a fairly repugnant narrative. I was complaining about the "White Savior" archetype in District 9 a few weeks ago, and here it is again. What you have here is a narrative that wants to expiate the sins of colonialism after the fact. In this regard, the narrative is kind of reprehensible, and it certainly sours the experience of watching it once the thrill of the visuals and the adrenalin rush from the action wear off, which is unfortunate.
The exception to this is Sigourney Weaver's character, who manages a certain amount of humanity due to the actress's force of will, more than anything. Her Grace Augustine (a name loaded with Significance with a capital S, methinks) is a rare thing in movies: a scientist who actually behaves like a scientist! Weaver plays her as a more stable version of Diane Fossey, and gives her a credible world-weariness, even in the face of wonders undreamed of. Weaver provides me with my favorite moment in the movie, even amid the big special effects and blood and thunder. As she's dying and being brought to the tree of souls, she looks up at it and says "I should take some samples." It's a small moment, but it says everything about who she is. No one else in the movie manages that.
A word about 3-D. Cameron deploys his 3-D in an intelligent manner--no poking things at the eye of the audience--and at times, the effect does add to the vertiginous effect the movie is going for. Cameron even blocks his actors to take advantage (he has obviously studied the way Jack Arnold blocked his actors in 3-D for The Creature from the Black Lagoon). He also gives the audience time to get used to the effect in the early going before pulling out all the stops in the last seventy minutes or so. But on the whole, I'm not sold on 3-D. The glasses are still an annoyance. I'm more impressed with the way Cameron and Weta Digital manage to create photoreal CGI characters without straying into the valley of the uncanny. Good for them.