Let's get the quibbles out of the way first. No one has ever called Mr. James "King of the World" Cameron a subtle filmaker. And nothing about Avatar or its plot's thinly velied allegory to the plight of Native Americans is subtle in the slightest. The characters are pretty and do cool stuff but most of them aren't particularly memorable. The "villain" of the piece in particular lacks any kind of backstory or human qualities. And let's be honest. It's a little jarring to see American soldiers get killed with abandon (and in a variety of gruesome ways, including impaling by giant arrows of death) in the film's climatic fight scene and have it be portrayed as a good thing.
Yet the remarkable thing about Avatar is that despite all of that, despite a heavy handed narrative and a whole lot of preachiness, this movie about blue people on a far away planet was the single most transformative movie going experience I have had in years. When the lights came out and we filed out of the theater, I was momentarily suprised to realize I was at MovieLand. I had forgotten what movie theater I was in. For three hours I was somewhere else. And all of the flaws I mentioned were rendered irrelevant, because the beauty of Avatar, what makes this movie so revolutionary, is that it does more than tell a story. It transports. You can't watch this movie in 3D without forgetting where you are or what you're doing for dinner later that night. Your mind doesn't wander. You don't start thinking about groceries. We were in a packed theater for three hours, full of people with Cokes the size of small barrells, and I think I saw ONE person leave to pee. I didn't see that telling blue glow of someone sending a text or checking for missed calls. We weren't killing time or staying in our seats to get our money's worth.
We, as an audience, were removed, taken out of ourselves to someplace new and strange and beautiful. I could not begin to tell you how James Cameron made Avatar. I do not understand what I saw in that theater, how the combination of the newness of the technology and the newness of the fictional Pandora planet combined to create an entirely different landscape from anything we've seen in movies before. I could not begin to explain how when those strange animals and plants and peoples that populated the movie's world popped up on screen they weren't flat or contained within a screen; they were there and they were somehow, impossibly, breathtakingly real.
I think in some ways we've become jaded by technology. We're over it. We're no longer in awe of what can appear on a movie screen, because we can probably see that same thing on our phones. Do you remember what it was like to go online for the first time, that beep, whirr, beep of AOL kicking into gear? Do you remember the first time you went to an IMAX movie? Do you remember the last time you asked "how did they do that?" Do you remember the last time you genuinely wondered? We've become too smart for our own good, too complacent with our gadgets and our smart phones and our kindles (don't even get me started on these harbingers of the apocaplyse).
And so imagine the surprise, the wonder of going to a movie and feeling blissfully, happily ignorant. There's nothing ironic or cynical about Avatar. Everything about the experience of Avatar as a viewer is about that genuine, so often forgotten thing called wonder. It's strange that a movie so firmly embedded in new technology and whiz-bang modern film-making innovations ultimately works because it is such an old-fashioned throwback, to the days of claymation and puppets and King Kong wreaking havoc on a miniature Tokyo, to a time when we saw things in a theater so extraordinary that all we could do was sit back and watch, wondering how they did it, knowing deep down that we'd rather not know.