cartel's writeup above, dated 2004, gives a good idea of the scope of the Avatar project. James Cameron got his wish, and spent four and a half years developing Avatar, using technology that wasn't available when he first envisaged it over a decade ago. The result: well worth the wait, particularly when watching it in 3D.
The film itself runs for two and a half hours. The plot - slightly different to that of five years ago - revolves around an ex-Marine - Jake - who lost leg functionality in combat on Earth, and has been picked for the Avatar project. He is picked as he is genetically compatible with his dead brother, who did significant work on the project. The project involves combining human DNA with that of the Na'vi and creating "avatars" of humans in the shape of the Na'vi; these avatars can be controlled remotely by people involved in the project. On the first journey into the forests of Pandora, Jake gets separated from his fellows. He is found by one of the Na'vi and taken back to their Hometree - their home, and their spiritual centre - where he is reluctantly accepted. Through the next few months, he learns about the Na'vi, the forest, and a completely new way of life. Things would be just peachy if the humans on Pandora didn't want to excavate for unobtainium - a Macguffin plot device - right underneath the Hometree...
Review (spoilers follow)
As a standalone plot, it fails. Not because of the drama (or, more correctly, lack thereof), but because it seems to follow the Hollywood Action Movie Template1 and becomes very predictable by the end. As Jake learns about the forest he rebels against his seniors who are trying to rape it. Jake's love interest is mighty pissed off when she learns that he was originally sent there to relocate them. Jake rises up against the humans and the humans lose. In the process, Jake rekindles his love life and becomes one of the Na'vi himself.
What makes the movie truly magnificent is the main reason four and a half years were spent on production: the visual effects. In 2D, it's impressive. In 3D, it's incredible. At IMAX, it's electrifying2. Not only was the film optimised for 3D, but the CGI used is pretty much impossible to differentiate from the live action, despite the 60%/40% ratio of CGI to live action. The colours and effects thereof are vivid, beautiful and appropriately chosen to complement each other. The creatures were beautiful (well, as beautiful as you can get, being a dinosaur on an alien planet) and I've heard some people describe the Na'vi as being "hot". I don't disagree. The sequences where there nothing but humans were a bit bland by comparison, however, it's apparent that a lot of thought has gone into the design, and the special effects do extend somewhat to the computer "screens" that are in the lab.
Of course, there were a few clever parts. There is a massive bond between the Na'vi and the forest, which gets all but destroyed when the humans move in and wreck the natural landscape. They survive through bonding as one, and their desire to keep the forest alive remains solidly implanted in their minds. This, to me, is a metaphor for several other incidents in the past where humans from a more civilised society have pretty much nicked all the land from the natives (being Australian, the first thing that comes to my head is the Aboriginies, YMMV) and the film seems to be a commentary on this action, putting it in a negative light. I say "civilised society" somewhat ironically here: firstly in the sense that this action is hardly civilised, depending on the circumstances (it's certainly not civilised in Avatar), secondly because it is clear that despite mankind's advances in technology, the Na'vi are much more advanced than humans in the sense that they are very strongly connected to everything in the forest (metaphorically in the case of their god Eywa, literally in the case of their hair). IMHO the Na'vi are not savages. If that was true, we would have to admit that we were descended from savages. They are peace-loving folk that have fallen victim to capitalism and mankind's capitalistic desires.
But I digress. I was impressed at a lot of the movie, if not the plot. I give it seven out of ten, but I stress that this is only because of the predictable and hackneyed plot. I refuse to shift this rating any lower because of the special effects. I realise that the effects are all that everyone is raving about (and I've probably mentioned it too many times in this review), but the ravers are dead right. Avatar must be seen to be believed (and must be seen in 3D, or at an IMAX if there's one nearby).
1I remember reading somewhere about the Hollywood Action Movie Template, to which almost all Hollywood action movie plots conform. If this is your writing, let me know, but for the moment, here is a brief description: trouble's a-brewin', and the hero is either hand-picked to solve the problem or gets caught up in the mess anyway. The hero investigates a little more, and finds a love interest. Somehow, he screws up, and the trouble advances to the stage where it's nearly armageddon. Somehow the hero gets blamed and the love interest now hates him for it, so he starts cleaning up the pieces and going after the core of the trouble, be it a ruthless money-grubbing CEO or a gun-totin' sheriff-gone-bad, or just plain meteors coming to hit the Earth. Anyway, the trouble starts killing people or inflicting some kind of pain upon them, the hero and the antagonist/trouble undergo a final battle where the hero is nearly killed, but turns the table around, mostly thanks to the love interest. The hero saves the day, the love interest loves the hero again, and everyone is incredibly happy. The end.
2Honestly, I haven't seen it at IMAX yet. However, I have two backups for my claim: firstly, everything I've seen at IMAX is awesome; secondly, those who have seen Avatar at IMAX have come out with nothing but raves.