Those that have gone before have enthused about the sheer gorgeosity and immersiveness of Cameron’s Pandora, so I don’t need to do that. There is another aesthetic, however, that should be explored, and that is the sheer fannish coolness factor, which is both a gift and a flaw in the film. (Rather spoileriffic analysis follows)
Writer Steven Brust has explicated the “Cool Stuff Theory of Literature,” which states that “All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool, and the reader will enjoy the work to the degree that the reader and writer agree about what's cool -- and this functions all the way from the external trappings to deepest level of theme and to the way the writer uses words. The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.” Cameron has obviously adopted this Theory wholesale for his movie, by cramming in every cool thing he can think of. Interstellar travel—cool. Beautiful but dangerous alien planet—cool. High-tech flying machines and man-amplification suits—cool. Beautiful but dangerous aliens who are deeply in tune with their environment—cool. Dragon surfing—very cool. Floating mountains—cool-kind of.
The floating mountains were the one-cool-thing-crammed-in too many for me. I understand that floating mountains have been an icon of coolness at least since the Roger Dean album covers of the 60’s and 70’s and probably before, but throwing them into the movie for no particular plot purpose screws up both the science and the logic of the story.
You see, despite the fact that Earth is apparently dying, instead of moving to Pandora, the earthmen are intent on strip-mining the planet for an anti-gravity ore ironically designated “Unobtainium,” which apparently exhibits contra-gravity effects in a relatively low energy field. Supposedly, a large deposit underlies the Home Tree of the local native tribe, and the humans are intent on getting it. Now, a short distance away are these floating mountains where no one lives and which MUST be lousy with the stuff, and would be really easy to extract, too. Just tow a hunk of rock to the edge of the vortex, let it crash, and process the rubble. Voila! (And why don’t the floating rocks drift out of the vortex area on their own just due to air currents?) Instead, the humans, whose leaders represent the worst of the corporate and militaristic mindsets just have to grab for the biggest deposit first, instead of the low-hanging (so to speak) fruit. The energy vortex, which exists as a plot device to make the ultimate battle a fair one, screws up the humans’ airborne radar but no other avionics or electronics systems including radio, and permits the perfect function of the ultra-tech Avatar system even right inside it. Arg! Add to that the fact that Pandora is a moon of a gas-giant planet, yet never seems to experience an eclipse of the primary star, and it’s pretty clear that we’re actually in the realm of science-fantasy. (For my purposes, science fiction=this could happen, but we don’t know how yet. Science fantasy=this could never happen, but we’re going to do it anyway because it’s cool.)
There is a bit more to James Cameron’s plot than a clone of “Dances With Wolves”/”Last Samurai,” especially if you consider the multiple implications of the title “Avatar.” Of course everyone who is a bit tech-savvy knows that “avatar” is the term used for a person’s on-line representation, especially in game worlds, and that is the most simple and direct application that applies to the film also. I heard a probably apocryphal rumor that some Hindus were confused by the title, since in the Hindu religion, from which the term comes, an avatar is a mortal being embodying an aspect of a higher being. Now, the humans in the story might well have thought that that is what they are doing: the “higher”, more advanced humans inhabiting the less advanced Na’vi bodies. However, as Jake experiences, in fact, the Na’vi are aspects of a multi-faceted and ancient god(ess)-like consciousness. There may be another layer as well: the otherwise one-sided characters of Quarich and Selfridge could easily be taken for Avatars of the God of Destruction in his worse aspects; Dr. Augustine embodies the Preserver; Jake is the warrior prince Krishna, who was fostered out as a child, found his true family, and overthrew the wicked and murderous demon king Khamsa. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Krishna is usually portrayed with blue skin--.
My assessment is that “Avatar” will be noted historically as a very substantial achievement in the visual art of cinema and will undoubtedly be the further impetus toward the making of spectacular films that could not have been done only a few years ago. I don’t see it as energizing the science-fiction community in the same way that “2001”, “Star Wars,” or even “Serenity” did. A very good, but not great, movie.