THERE ARE, if you are so inclined, plenty of things to bitch, moan, snicker, and roll one's eyes about: Avatar is a movie about nine-foot-tall blue cat people who live in outer space. Avatar is one of the least subtle films ever made: The alien moon where said cat people reside is called Pandora (nope, nothing ominous about that!); a valuable mineral is named "unobtanium" (care to hazard a guess as to whether it's easily obtainable?); the end credits roll to a boner-killing theme song that makes Céline Dion's Titanic wailing seem tolerable. And Avatar is cheesy as hell—this sci-fi epic is James Cameron's first feature since 1997's Titanic, with which it shares both a bladder-bursting runtime and a penchant for unabashed melodrama. Cameron is still the world's most emo action director, and if you're unwilling to put up with his sometimes gooey sentimentality, or to get to know his frequently simplistic characters, or to spend three hours in the company of his giant blue cat people, you're hereby encouraged to watch something else this weekend.
But goddamn, you'll be missing out.
Because while there's plenty to complain about in Avatar, there's also an incredible amount of stuff that will enthrall, captivate, and amaze. His affinity for cheese aside, Cameron's still one of Hollywood's most badass visionaries—and when he cuts loose in Avatar, he crafts not only a hell of a popcorn movie, but also something that feels very much like the filmmaking revolution it's been hyped as.
For the majority of its runtime, Avatar lives up to its promise: Thanks to Cameron's off-the-rails imagination, some bleeding-edge special effects, and a preposterously huge budget, the live-action/CG blockbuster boasts exhilarating action sequences, stunning alien vistas, and an overwhelming sense of adventure. Avatar might be goofy, but when experienced as intended—on a big screen, in digital 3D—it's also astonishing. In a time of reboots, sequels, and cash-ins, Avatar feels bracingly original—while it channels the spirit of old sci-fi pulps, and while it thematically parallels Dances with Wolves and Princess Mononoke, there's still more creativity in a single frame of Avatar than most mainstream films have in their entirety.
In fact, Avatar's premise is so trippy that it's unlikely anyone but Cameron could've gotten the thing greenlit. It's 2154, and on Pandora, human explorers have discovered unobtanium—a "little gray rock" that, back on Earth, goes for $20 million a kilo. But: Pandora's atmosphere is toxic to humans. Its lush jungles are teeming with vicious predators. And Pandora's aboriginal people, the Na'vi—those aforementioned giant blue cats—aren't particularly keen on the idea of their forests being strip-mined.
As if we'd give a shit what they think. Led by the smarmy Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), Earth's imperialistic Resources Development Administration aims to loot Pandora for all it's worth. Selfridge is assisted by the trigger-happy Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, gleefully chewing through Pandora's alien scenery) and opposed by hippie anthropologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, solid as always); stuck in the middle is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former Marine. Jake's part of the avatar program, which lets humans transfer their consciousnesses into Na'vi bodies that can freely roam Pandora. For him, Pandora's "just another hellhole," and one where he's happy to do Quaritch's bidding—until he gets to know Neytiri (the excellent Zoe Saldana), a Na'vi tasked with teaching him her people's ways.
Jesus. As those last two paragraphs demonstrate, Avatar comes with an awful lot of conceptual setup. So it follows that, as Jake explores Pandora, the film's patient first hour plays like a kind of interplanetary Globe Trekker. There's more than enough to discover: In jaw-dropping detail, Cameron's almost entirely computer-generated world exists with breathtaking beauty and depth. Much has been made of Avatar's unprecedented use of CG and performance-capture technology; indeed, it's just about impossible to find a single shot that isn't partially or wholly computer generated. And yet: Cameron's high-tech tricks quickly fade. Avatar is exactly as visually arresting and technologically revolutionary as promised, but the CG and the artistry behind it are so good—Pandora's bizarre landscapes and inhabitants are so organic, complex, and emotive—that, remarkably, you'll forget you're watching one big special effect.
And so we're left with Avatar's story—which, thanks to its too-easy morality and stilted dialogue, isn't gonna impress anyone. (The plot also owes a few of its ideas, one suspects, to Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe"—a 1957 story in Astounding Science Fiction magazine that shares some striking similarities with Avatar.) What will impress, though, are the moments of holy-shit spectacle: Cameron takes his time introducing us to Pandora's flora and fauna, but once the pyrotechnics start, they don't stop. As Avatar continues, and as it builds, it consistently impresses—with its ambition, with its strangeness, with its thrills. Despite its flaws, this is storytelling like we've never quite seen before—Avatar isn't perfect, but it is extraordinary.