Avatar is spectacular and corny at the same time

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

We first posted this review a week ago, following the world premiere in London. We're reposting it today, when Avatar opens wide, in case you may have missed it.

Avatar, James Cameron's much-hyped sci-fi epic, is many things: a mind-blowing technical achievement, a lyrically beautiful paean to nature (albeit alien), a rousing adventure story and an overly familiar, cliche-ridden hero's journey, but there's one thing it's not. Simple.

The movie premiered to rapturous applause in London on Thursday night, and early reviews have been similarly glowing. We appreciate the film's good qualities—and there are many of them—but we came away troubled by the story's problems. Still, it's hard not to like Avatar for a lot of reasons.

The main thing, though, is that early buzz about the movie's look and feel—that it looks too cartoony or video-game-like—are completely off the mark. It took us about five minutes to get used to the masterful 3-D (starting with a floating water droplet that slowly coalesces right in front of our and Sam Worthington's faces). Once we're on the completely computer-generated surface of the alien moon of Pandora, it also took us about five minutes to believe that what we were seeing was completely photo-real, including the performances of the giant blue natives, which were achieved through extremely accurate and subtle motion-capture technology.

From then on, it was easy to become completely swept up in the sci-fi fantasy world of Avatar. The story kicks off aboard a giant floating starship, kind of the next generation of the Sulaco from Cameron's own Aliens (there are other callbacks and echoes of that great movie throughout). It's not long before we and hero Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, are downloaded into the consciousness of his giant blue "avatar," designed to resemble Pandora's native Na'vi humanoids, and are literally and figuratively running in an adventure that is equal parts Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas and Braveheart.

Jake finds himself overmatched by Pandora's native beasts, including a giant Thanator, and by the Na'vi themselves, personified by the lissome warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). She despises him and his kind, the "Sky People," who have come to the planet to mine a valuable mineral and see the Na'vi as a nuisance. But he quickly ingratiates himself into the tribe, in part because (we are led to believe) the planet itself seems to think there's something special about Jake.

Jake, meanwhile, is co-opted by the nefarious Col. Quaritch (a growling Stephen Lang), who sees in Jake an opportunity to infiltrate the enemy and learn its secrets. Jake initially agrees, but he finds his allegiances in question the closer he gets both to Neytiri and to the Na'vi. The scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Aliens' awesome Sigourney Weaver), meanwhile, worry that the corporation in charge of the mission to Pandora will ignore her team's attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Na'vi and instead take the planet by force.

If the story sounds familiar, it is, and it's one of the largely computer-animated film's ironies that the only cartoon-like thing about it is its plot. The dialogue often lapses into real cornball—Lang's Quaritch actually says "You're not in Kansas anymore"—and the situations and events are predictable almost from the first frame. Cameron has argued that the story is necessarily familiar because of its mythic roots, but there's practically nothing in Avatar that isn't telegraphed from the word go.

That familiarity is compounded by the one-dimensional nature of most of the characters, with the notable exception of Jake and Neytiri. There's the venal corporate executive, the wise medicine woman, the noble chief, and on and on.

But the film works on many levels, owing to Cameron's virtuosic filmmaking abilities. We've mentioned the technical achievements, but Cameron has also succeeded on an aesthetic level: The vistas and jungles, flora and fauna, of Pandora are truly breathtakingly beautiful (you gotta really like the color blue). The action is balls-out great, especially when Jake and his fellow Na'vi take to the air aboard their dragonlike Banshees, soaring over and around massive floating mountains. Again, it's easy to get swept away by the romance of the adventure, and Cameron knows how to stage and pace the action so that the two-hour-and-40-minute film seems to race by.

Jake and Neytiri's relationship is plausibly romantic, owing mainly to Saldana's deliciously alien performance as the catlike Neytiri, but key scenes feel a bit underwritten.

Cameron has been saying over and over again that Avatar will change the way movies are made. That's also ironic, considering how old-fashioned it is in many ways. But it's certainly worth a return trip, just to immerse oneself in the complete universe that Cameron and his company have created.

(Avatar opens Dec. 18. We are publishing this early review with the permission of 20th Century Fox.)