Think back to those movies that truly changed the movies. The Jazz Singer introducing sound. Gone With the Wind bringing vivid color to the screen. Jurassic Park turning computer-generated images into something akin to real life. Toy Story sending animation on a digital trip beyond infinity.
What those movies had is what Avatar doesn't, although James Cameron's film is certainly a technological marvel on the level of those classics. It lacks the most essential element of any movie, and what the self-proclaimed king of the world will never admit to being his biggest creative flaw:
A story that doesn't merely proceed but propels, that doesn't just ladle obvious sci-fi metaphors to current events, that urges viewers to not only believe in what's occurring on screen but embrace it. A story worth following to the end, even when the end never seems near enough.
For all of its sensory thrills and gung-ho action, Avatar seldom uses Cameron's dreamscape know-how for anything except fanboy titillation since those are his peeps. This movie is a bored child's detention hall doodle come to near-life. The child has talent but to what worthy end?
Cameron does endlessly dazzle with his day-glo panorama of Pandora, its floating islands, fluorescent rain forests and sheer rocky cliffs digitally painted on the screen, like a Frank Frazetta canvas come to life. We're meant to be awed and entranced by Pandora, to more loudly boo the nasty things Earthlings are plotting to do to it.
In the 22nd century, a Blackwater-style army of mining contractors is raping the distant moon Pandora of a vital resource called unobtainium (oh, please!). A blue-skinned, indigenous species of humanoids called the Na'vi peacefully lives in a wowsah rain forest near the sacred Tree of Wisdom housing their goddess Eywa (mere earthlings call her Mother Nature). They're standing 10 feet tall in the way of human progress.
You see where this is going. Avatar is part Iraq War allegory, part green message flick, with both messages amplified by extraordinary special effects. This will probably be Al Gore's favorite action flick of all time.
Funny that with all of Cameron's visual imagination, the plot settles for reprising Dances With Wolves. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) volunteers to have his mind melded into a Na'vi body, so he can infiltrate and help destroy the tribe. Jake ends up sympathetic to the peaceful Na'vi, fighting back at his commanders, mainly to impress the lovely Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
But the plot isn't why Avatar's audience will buy tickets (and by all means pay the extra fee for 3-D). The flora, fauna and critters of Pandora astonish with their variety and vivid colors — although simply adding an extra set of legs or wings and a hippie van paint job to quasi-dinosaurs gets tiresome after the first two hours. Avatar loses its pacing with Jake and Neytiri's on-again, off-again romance, regaining momentum for a bombastic climax when Pandora itself rebels against the human intruders.
The Na'vi are amazing creations and Cameron's greatest techie advancement. Basically it's the motion capture animation used in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol but to the nth degree. The difference is found in the Na'vi's feline eyes, more expressive than any animated gazes before. Saldana is especially effective in that regard.
Yet after all of the stunning sights and sounds, Avatar left me shrugging with admiration and slightly cringing at the final shot's promise of a sequel to come. That's one advantage Cameron didn't have with Titanic, and you can bet he'll milk it.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.