So to dispense with the critique of dismissal, yes, you could say Avatar is Dances with Wolves in 3-D, or any other narrative of the imperialist-gone-native with the beautiful native informant love interest. In face, one can go back to the Crusades to find Knights Templar "going native." More interestingly though, one can situate that familiar narrative in a deeper mythic tradition regarding the outside or stranger. In these ways, Avatar is a story we've heard before. What is maybe more interesting is that the movie is a story we haven't seen before…
My thoughts on Avatar resonate with some of my writing about the Matrix trilogy in my book. The Matrix, too, was a familiar story told through a revolution in digital cinema. And there are some sci-fi similarities as well in terms of plugging in and shifting consciousness. The resonance for me is in the connections across the film's production, the content of the film, and its reception/consumption as a viewer. That's how I looked at The Matrix and it is how I am seeing Avatar.
Within the movie, there are two obvious forms of plugging in. The humans plug into their Na'vi avatars. The Na'vi in turn are plugged into symbiotic relations with other creatures on Pandora, as well as with the broad network of the planet itself. Plugging in, one might say, is a matter of exposure and immersion. It is perhaps an error to think of it, instead, as penetration. Penetration into what? Think instead of diving into water. We could say that is penetration, but hopefully the water doesn't get inside you and you are not really inside the water either. I mean, where would inside be? Between the molecular bonds of oxygen and hydrogen? No, you are exposed to the water and immersed with the water. Similarly, with the narrative's plugging-in there is exposure between human and avatar, between Na'vi and Pandoran creature. There is even immersion. And finally, here is the ongoing process of becoming, through the exposure and immersion of thresholds.
Meanwhile, one can see related activity in the fim's production. Using motion capture technology, the actors' movements and facial expressions are mapped onto the virtual Na'Vi characters. Cameron employs a virtual camera that allows him to fly through the virtual, 3-d landscape. The actors and director are also plugged in. The interact with the film through relations of exposure and immersion. The surface of the actors' bodies touch the surfaces of motion detectors and through these exposures, virtual characters come to life. Just as the film's avatars are genetically coded to match up with specific human users, the Na'Vi faces map onto specific actors' faces to pass along facial expressions.
And what of us, the gentle viewers? Well, we are clearly exposed and immersed. Such is the case with all movies, after all. But Avatar does offer something different, What is interesting about it is that after the first few minutes, for most of the movie, one forgets that one is watching "3-D." That is, generally the 3-D doesn't call attention to itself too much. At least it didn't for me. However that doesn't mean that it simply reverted to being the same as the conventional film either. It is instead the depth of vision in the film that gives the sense of immersion.