Plot: Corporal Jake Sully is a paraplegic ex-Marine whose twin brother was killed on Earth during a mugging. Because he is genetically compatible with his brother, Jake is chosen by the Resources Development Administration (RDA) to replace him on Pandora. It's quickly revealed through a fast and dirty expository lump that the RDA is on Pandora (a pristine jungle moon orbiting a gas giant where the story takes place) in order to mine an extremely valuable mineral used in superconductor manufacturing, mining which is violently opposed by the tribal Na'vi, ten foot tall blue cat-people. Jake's brother was a part of the RDA's Avatar Project which combined Human DNA with that of the native Na'vi, allowing human controllers to telepathically link with the avatar containing their DNA and to 'drive' their avatar. The hope is that by taking the form of the natives, it would be easier for the RDA to come to a diplomatic solution over the mining of the mineral.
Over time, Jake (using his avatar body) becomes involved with the local tribe of Na'vi whose hometree just happens to be on top of the largest known mineral deposit on the moon. He agrees to use his position in the clan to try and convince the Na'vi to leave their hometree and to provide military intelligence in the event that a diplomatic solution is impossible. When he is unable to convince the Na'vi to leave, the RDA launches an attack, driving the Na'vi from their homes and felling the hometree. At this point, Jake, who had become more sympathetic to the Na'vi as he learned about their culture, switches his allegiance entirely and begins to fight for the Na'vi and their world.
Jake begins to collect an army, allying the various tribes of the Na'vi from across Pandora. Fearing retribution for their earlier attack, the RDA security forces, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch, choose to launch a preemptive attack on the Na'vi's most holy place located in the floating mountains. In the climactic battle that ensues, most of Jake's Na'vi allies are killed while defeating the RDA and Jake himself nearly dies when his human body is exposed to the poisonous Pandoran atmosphere. He is saved, however, by Neytiri, the warrior daughter of the tribe's chieftain and Jake's love interest.
The film ends with the defeated human forces being sent back to Earth and with Jake permanently taking the form of his avatar body using the special knowledge of the tribe.
After writing the majority of this, I realized that it focuses mostly on the failings of the movie rather than the parts it did well so I'll start with the end and give Avatar 3.5 out of 5 stars. It lacks in dialogue and excels in cliches and yet it is easily the most immersive movie to come out in recent years. It is a good movie but Cameron has simply gained too much power as a filmmaker (power that the success of Avatar will only add to) and that prevented the studios from adding some much-needed polish which could have turned this good movie into a great one. Avatar is a little bit more than your typical popcorn flick and a lot less than your Oscar-winning art films but it strikes a good balance between the two and offers a little bit of something to everyone. Now on to the fun stuff.
Firstly, it's worth mentioning that the plot of the film isn't bad per se, just unoriginal. While not the most cliched story out there, Avatar certainly has its fair share of tropes: a dying Earth, a beautiful princess, a crazed military commander, a wise alien race in tune with nature, and mechs. Admittedly, I am something of a film snob but it appears that James Cameron, like Lucas and Spielberg before him, has developed a bad case of what I call the Steven Spielberg Syndrome. This happens when a director/producer/writer becomes so well-known and so powerful that no studio dares to disagree with their decisions (or, in the case of Spielberg, when they start their own studio). It is Hollywood hubris, the idea that the great filmmakers can do no wrong once they make one or two blockbusters. Unfortunately, these people can and almost always will screw up in a multitude of ways either by writing hackneyed dialogue (Lucas, Cameron), or by involvement with less than cinematic brilliance (think Spielberg and the Transformers franchise). The result is the declining quality of most of these filmmaker's movies as they age. You wouldn't get many people to agree that War of the Worlds was as good as Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or that the new trilogy of Star Wars films is a step above the old trilogy or that Indiana Jones 4 was superior to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Cameron's development of SS Syndrome is obvious in the marketing of Avatar which did its best to remind us who made the movie nearly as much as tell us about the movie itself—"From the man who made The Terminator! Aliens! Terminator 2! True Lies! The Abyss! Titanic!"
The signs of SS Syndrome are also obvious in the dialogue in Avatar (written by Cameron himself) which spans the range from wooden to cringable like the Colossus of Cliches. The best (or perhaps worst) example of this is the name of the all-important mineral itself—which waverider37 correctly identifies as a MacGuffin above—unobtainium. The first mention of the name could have been tongue-in-cheek but by the second and third mention, Cameron lost most of his credibility as a writer. Seriously Jimmy, you've been developing this movie for 15 years and you couldn't come up with anything better than unobtainium? Why not Pandorite or Na'vium or even Kryptonite? (Well, maybe not that last one). 'Unobtainium' makes it sound like even you don't entirely take your own story seriously so why should we?
In the same vein, Cameron also tries his (ham)hand at political commentary and fails. The limited characterization and anti-American dialogue is irritating to those of us who understand simple metaphors but pure gold when it comes to overseas ticket sales. Describing the climactic battle as a "shock and awe campaign" is the equivalent of beating the audience over the head with a Tomahawk missile labeled TARGET: IRAQ. Likewise, when Colonel Quaritch is briefing the security forces about the growing Na'vi army, the line "We will fight terror with terror!" is the ten foot tall blue cat-man in the room.
Not that any of this wasn't to be expected: Cameron has almost without exception had a simplistic theme of 'scientists good/military bad' in his films from Terminator to The Abyss. In Avatar, he riffs a bit on his own theme by going for a neo-Luddite theme (which he ironically achieves through the use of the latest 3D technology). And yes, he does layer on the white guilt a little thick in the process. All of the major Na'vi characters were portrayed either by actors of African or Native American descent, complete with accents and tribal music to boot. The plains tribe? Check. Bows and arrows? Check. Animistic religion? Check. And though I may be reading into the subject material too much, the final battle seemed to have more than just random parallels with Custer's Last Stand. Yes, humanity has traveled dozens of light years between the stars to discover an amalgam of our own native cultures. This is Pocahontas, not Heart of Darkness. Oh yeah, the subtitles are in Papyrus too.
The African homage illustrates the startling lack in creativity in the film. While it's arguably difficult to invent something truly alien, I don't think Pandora quite qualifies as 'an original world from the mind of James Cameron'. Apparently military uniforms and weaponry won't change much in the next 150 years, right down to the digital camo. All intelligent alien life will be bipedal and have belly buttons and boobs. And no matter where we go in the universe, every planet will invariably have a dog, lizard, puma, rhino, and why-the-hell-not pterodactyl analogues. Cameron also borrows ideas heavily from marine life; jellyfish, anemones, tube worms. Everything looks cooler with bioluminescence!
And then there are the plot holes. Without getting into too much detail, there are several scenes which, while viscerally stimulating to our post-Romantic conceptions of art, make little sense in the context of previous scenes. When a pilot deserts the attack force rather than attack the hometree, no one seems to notice and there are no repercussions, disciplinary or otherwise, present in the next scene; in fact it seems as if the whole event didn't happen at all. It was all a calculated effort to rationalize the attractive female pilot staging a jailbreak in the next scene despite the fact that her previous actions would have gotten her grounded at the very least. Another example of this is the "You die in the Matrix, you die in real life!" moment. The foreshadowed catastrophic effects of a driver being 'unplugged' from their avatar rather than logging out normally never seem to arrive, even after it happens half a dozen times.
As for the special effects, they are, for the most part, forgettable. This by no means is a bad thing, in fact, I would say it's the strongest attribute of what Cameron has done with the film. The levitating mountains are so real that no question remains as to their reality, they simply exist; the Na'vi are real people, not computer generated models with the voices of people. It is a distinction of perception that is hard to describe but easy to experience. This is a step above the philosophy which seems to have dominated Hollywood for the past 10 years: that visual effects should be obvious and stylized to the point of being unrealistic. This is epitomized by The Matrix' bullet time and all the other shots it spawned as well as the extended webslinging tracking shots from Spiderman. Avatar doesn't do this. Instead, it presents the reality of the film with no ostentation or flourish.
This immersion is no doubt due to the attention to detail in all the visual effects. The schlieren lines when the atmosphere of Pandora mixes with those in the humans' controlled environments, the foggy breath in the early morning air, the expressiveness of the Na'vi's tails. With the Na'vi, Cameron has managed to leap uncanny valley and fix the 'dead eye' problem that has plagued realistic CGI characters for years (The Polar Express was famous for this problem).
As above, Avatar is a fine film for pretty much any moviegoer. It doesn't win many points for writing but more than makes up for it in style.