Set on the physics-defying jungle world of Pandora, the movie stars Sam Worthington (Marcus, Terminator: Salvation) as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine recruited for a science project that projects human minds into cloned bodies that mix human DNA with genetic material from the Na’vi, a race of 10-foot-tall blue, cat-like people who inhabit Pandora. A sociology team is studying Na’vi, while a military-industrial conglomeration is mining the world for a valuable mineral (an obvious McGuffin with the unlikely name Unobtianium). Jake is also recruited by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to gather intel on the Na’vi in case the military ever needs to take action. Jake does his job — for Dr. Augustine’s science team and Quaritch – but perhaps a little too well. More than merely learning from the Na’vi, he goes native. And falls in love with Neytiri (Zoë Saldana, who played Uhura in this summer’s Star Trek).
Cameron is a master at world-building. Part of the reason the running time is so long is because he is willing to devote time to exploring Na’vi culture. Jake’s assimilation is not covered in a quick montage; he spends months there, and we explore the planet right alongside him as he becomes immersed in Na’vi spiritual culture. Cameron understands that it is important to like the Na’vi if we are going to root for them. And you will cheer for them.