Sam Worthington as Jake Sully
Zoe Saldana as Neytiri
Sigourney Weaver as Grace
Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch
Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon
Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge
Joel Moore as Norm Spellman
CCH Pounder as Moat
Wes Studi as Eytukan
Laz Alonso as Tsu’tey
Dileep Rao as Dr. Max Patel
Matt Gerald as Corporal Lyle Wainfleet
Sean Anthony Moran as Private Fike
Jason Whyte as Cryo Vault Med Tech
Scott Lawrence as Venture Star Crew Chief

I’m going to state right off the bat; I did not see this film in IMAX 3D. If you get the chance to see it that way you probably should. But considering that most of the screens it will be playing on–not mention it’s future life online, in video and on television–will be in 2D, it seems likely that most people will experience it that way, so that seemed to be the most relevant way to review it.

And experience is the right word. “Avatar” is first in foremost an experience. It’s got characters, it’s got a story, but its main strength is in immersion. In sheer visceral, visual thrill.

In the year 2154, mankind has spread out to the stars, specifically to the verdant world of Pandora. Filled with a dazzling array of unspoiled plant and animal life, Pandora is a biologists dream. Unfortunately it’s also filled with the extremely accurately named Unobtanium, the most valuable mineral in the universe, making it industrial miners’ (and their mercenary guards) dream as well. And Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled marine who happens to be genetically compatible to an artificially created Avatar used to interact with the planet’s indigenous people, may be the means for both groups to get what they want.

At its heart, “Avatar” is very much a man-going-native story; a little bit “Dances with Wolves,” a little bit “Last Samurai,” that sort of thing. But the story’s not really what “Avatar” is about, which is probably its one real weakness, but more on that later.

First and foremost, “Avatar” is about its look, about the world it is creating and how immersive that world is. And it does look spectacular. The thing that sells fantasy is detail; all the little bits and bobs that we have to deal with in every day life and which James Cameron goes to the time and trouble of figuring out and filling his screen with. From lab techs that have to spray down Avatar tanks to the beetles and insects that fill Pandora. It’s the little things that matter and Cameron has put as much effort into his little things as the big stuff. And he’s put a lot of effort into the big stuff.

The scale of “Avatar” is truly impressive: the gigantic, solar-paneled cryo-ship approaching Pandora from orbit, Jake’s first venture into Pandora’s forests, the flying mountains and the gunship armada the heroes must face at the end. All are memorable and beautiful and about as realistic as effects have been able to make them so far.

But Cameron’s real strength as a filmmaker is how he’s been able to turn his images into more than that, to find real poetry in devastation and visual effects, like tears floating in zero gravity or an alien horse on fire. A lot of filmmakers are content with the coolness of the shot design and motion, and never push it to the level of real cinema. It’s unfortunate that sort of focus and skill tends to stop at his camera lens, but it does provide some great moments of pure cinema.

The downside to those visuals is that a lot, and I mean A LOT, of that immersion is lost outside of IMAX, or even just 3D. In standard 2D it still looks great. Maybe not better than any film ever, but it definitely looks great.

The effects are by and large the best I’ve seen, particularly the Na’vi’s (Native? Na’vi? wellÂ… whatever) faces. They’re full of life and spirit and you believe the emotion coming out of the faces. The work the actors behind them are doing is evident and carries through the translation. It’s particularly true of the Avatar Na’vi, who must be able to stay emotionally connected to their human counterparts throughout for the audience. That’s been a trick films like “The Incredible Hulk” haven’t really been able to pull off, there’s been a disconnect between the real and unreal, but that hurdle seems to have largely been covered here.

And the world itself, once Jake is brought into the Na’vi tribe by chieftain’s daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and is introduced to the planet proper, is amazing looking. The only time the effects fell of a little was the walking tank suits. They frequently move more fluidly than they look like they should, but that’s just a quibble.

All that said, however, you don’t exactly get lost in the world in 2D, either. It looks very well thought out and designed, but it still looks like a movie.

And here’s the other downside. Almost all of the effort in “Avatar” has gone into its look, and it clearly shows. That sort of thing really plays into Cameron’s strengths as a filmmaker, but it’s also all “Avatar” has to offer. Granted, it’s a lot, but visuals alone don’t make an entire film, unless you’re making some sort of avant garde cinema installation. I’d say it might make a better silent film with just visuals and music, but James Horner’s score tends to be a bit too annoying. It plays over the moments, not with them.

As a filmmaker, Cameron has always seemed like a sort of George Lucas on steroids. His visuals are beautiful and intricate and quite often poetic. But when his characters open their mouths to speak, you never really know what you’re going to get.

It’s usually nothing howlingly bad, but his characters have always suffered from a degree of cool-itis, and that is certainly the case in “Avatar.” Especially the members of the military. Sometimes you can come up with something memorable or quotable that way, but hardly ever anything genuinely affecting, because it’s all affected.

Worse, it puts the characters who act that way at a remove from the audience, like puppets instead of real people. It does help build the realism of the Na’vi who, with their earth-mother spiritualism, are the only ones who actually sound like they believe what they’re saying. But it doesn’t do much for the human characters who aren’t particularly well-developed to begin with.

Most of them, like Michelle Rodriguez’s pilot, Trudy, only show up when the plot requires action, like a button to be pressed. How can you feel anything for a button? Only Jake and Neytiri are given any sort of real development but insight is still elusive. It makes the middle section, as Jake learns what it means to be a Na’vi, drag considerably (in 2D anyway) as Cameron has saved most of the action beats in his two hour and forty minute opus for the end. The climax is quite thrilling, but it takes quite some time get there.

Cameron’s goal with his characters is to have someone to tread through his environments. There’s some real artistry in some of the storytelling and he clearly understands how to fit his characters into the story he his telling. He’s made a movie about literally being an Avatar in a medium that has built itself by the very idea. But he also only seems willing to go so far.

Some might say the story and the dialogue isn’t the point of “Avatar” and they may well be right. But that doesn’t make it a complete film either.

As a fantasy epic, “Avatar” is an undeniable victory. Lots of people have tried to create a world on screen this way but few have managed with such success. But outside of the narrow confines immersion he’s managed, it’s also quite limited. To compare apples to apples, IMAX was the best way to experience “The Dark Knight” but it lost none of its power as a story and overall film outside of it, even on television. “Avatar” outside of its preferred delivery, is still good, but not great.