Finally got around to seeing Avatar on Christmas. My impressions were much in line with the reviews I'd read...pretty to look at with a silly story.
First, the visuals: It's easy these days to get jaded when it comes to special effects. They've just gotten so good. I don't think Avatar revolutionizes film making (as some of the more hyperbolic reviewers have proclaimed), but it does take things up a notch. I hadn't seen a modern 3D movie, and it was done extremely well. No gimmicky scenes to point out to you that you are in a 3D movie, just an extra element to add to the already great visuals. The effects were good enough to help me suspend disbelief and make me feel like I really was looking at an alien world.
The culture and language of the Na'vi, the biology of the various species on the planet, and the technology of the humans were all very well thought out. I liked the way the Na'vi had co-evolved with the various species on Pandora to allow them to interface directly with them (I had used a similar idea in a novel that never really got off the ground). The various species on Pandora were inventive and fun to watch. The human tech wasn't as creative, but looked believable and created an immersive experience.
Unfortunately, the story was not nearly as original or well thought-out. It was also moralizing and preachy. Humans have traveled all the way to Pandora to rape and exploit its natural resources, in particular a ridiculously named mineral called "unobtainium". We never learn why humans want this stuff, only that it is insanely valuable. Might it have made the military-industrial cardboard cutouts seem a bit more human and made the story a bit more interesting if this mineral were vital for continued human survival? For all we know, rich people back on Earth just like to make earrings out of the stuff.
As it is, the corporate stooge is a generic bad guy. The military commander is an over-the-top bad guy with claw marks on his head. And the only humans with an ounce of decency are the protagonist, one military defector, and a few scientists. I don't mind simple stories with clearly-marked good guys and bad guys. If you're going to do this, I'd suggest divorcing it from any sort of thinly-veiled, half-baked political preachiness. Just make the bad guy wear black and look ominous and want something simple like ruling the entire galaxy. Cameron, unfortunately, didn't do this...he so obviously wanted to make some sort of commentary on the modern state of things (the loony military dude even gives a paranoid rant where he says something like "We gotta protect ourselves by launching a preemptive strike"). The phrase "shock and awe" was also used. The corporate honcho says things like "We've built them schools, hospitals, and roads...what more do they want?" This is not subtlety. This is stupidity. Pandora is not the Middle East...if only it were.
The politics of the film frankly made me want to barf. If you're going to make a film that says something interesting about colonization and exploitation, then make that film. If you want to make a fun, awesome sci-fi adventure, don't beat me over the fucking skull with your infantile geo-political caricatures of reality.
Direction, special effects, design: A
Still, it's worth seeing.