I would also lump into this category movies like The Matrix, which don't so much place me in another world with their story and characters, as with the technology they use to tell build the world. These films are more about world building than they are about storytelling. Avatar is a tremendous example of this - certainly the best since The Matrix, and maybe the best since The Wizard of Oz made color the technical standard of the future. Not only was the 3D experience completely immersive, but it seamlessly integrated the computer world with the cellulite.
There were a number of times when I truly felt like I was inside the world. There were the exquisite scenes where the main character was learning to fly, and the battle that included floating mountains in mist, aircraft and helicopters, and flying pterosaurs. But there was also a quality of depth to the faces during conversations which placed you right in the circle. Where past 3D films looked something like a diorama, with 2D cutouts at different 3D depths, there was a gradualism in the Avatar 3D world.
An then there was the story. Because you can make a great movie with only effects, but you cannot make a truly groundbreaking one without a story. On the one hand, I enjoyed the love story quite a bit (but then I'm a sap). It was felt natural, and I've got to say 'em are some hot aliens. I found the rest of the story to be vapid and empty, though. It retreaded ground already trod to death, and it did so with no shades of gray or ballsy plot twists or even depth of character. 3D movie, 1D characters was something I saw a lot on the internet - and it is true. The story itself is the same old Silent Spring re-telling about how humans of the future, and by metaphor the present, are ruled by large corporations which are driven solely by a profit motive that inexorably leads to the destruction of the environment and aboriginal cultures with the help of corrupt military mercenaries.
The best part about the movie’s “pantheism” or “gaiaism” or whatever is that it unwittingly (I presume) blows a fatal hole in its own metaphor. Obviously, if the biomass of Earth were sentient and communicative as the biomass on Pandora was, one would have to approach things like, say, mining and forestry, quite differently. In the context of the movie’s world, the response of the main characters is quite ethical and reasonable. Although, on the other hand, the response of the businesspeople is clearly allegorical and lacks any depth whatsoever… Giovanni Ribisi’s momentary pauses for effect notwithstanding, of course.
The problem for the holier than thou set is that it bears no parallel to reality. If you are not dealing with sentient plant life, then it makes perfect sense to cut down the tree. Likewise, it makes perfect sense to replant the tree and foster a diverse forest ecosystem around it once you are done with the area, provided of course you own the property and hope to continue to be able to make money off it for generations. And if you are mining, it makes a great deal of sense to reclaim the land when the mine closes, so you don’t get a bad rep for you company and therefore end up shut out of other rich resources by the people who live nearby. The fatal conceit is the idea that reality must support your faith, that ideally science must find a justification for your beliefs, when in fact the converse is true.
Likewise for the Na’Vi. We hear things like “We don’t have anything they want.” A perfectly true statement for a people who apparently never get sick thanks to the protection of their planetary organism and live quite fantastical lives flying on their neurologically-joined pets and not-breaking their “natural carbon fiber reinforced” bones and and living harmoniously within just heirarchical tribal structures and transferring their consciousness intact to the biomass organism when they do die. And if that was representative of the lives of pre-technical humans or, say, modern Islamic societies, then it would be a valid metaphor to the intrusions of the Western world into our developing neighbors.
But it’s not. The fact is, poor people do live brutal lives, both at the hands of nature and at the hands of their neighbors. They do want medicine, education, surplus food, and cell phones; regardless of whether they particularly like the people they are getting them from. And they are led by demagogues who twist their words, feed them false information, and promise things that they have no intention of delivering.It did not need to be this way. Star Wars was groundbreaking both for its technology and its story, as was The Wizard of Oz, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. If the stakeholders had had some balls, there were a lot of places to take the plot besides a dramatic re-telling of Silent Spring with some Little Bighorn mixed in. But in the end, Cameron et al. went the safe route. The produced a technical masterpiece on the bare minimum story, and it is still a great movie.