I give Avatar 3 out of 5 stars. The visual effects are impressive, but the story is only adequate. If you haven't seen it yet, buy a ticket and you'll enjoy this movie (especially in 3D IMAX). But it's not one you'll be talking about years from now. Read on for more details (no major spoilers)…
Other than a brief opening sequence, all the movie takes place on the alien world Pandora. Pandora's blue humanoid aliens are the Na'vi. Despite its Earth-like appearance, humans require breathing masks to operate outside the main base, run by a nameless corporation. The corporation's scientific division has created Na'vi bodies which can be controlled by humans. When linked into these bodies, the human drivers experience the world as Na'vi, and can walk around outside the base without the need for breathing masks. The main character, Sully, is a paraplegic ex-marine who unexpectedly gets a chance to run one of the avatars. All previous avatar operators are scientists with years of training, so there is initial animosity between Sully and the scientists on the base. Sully eventually gets caught between the nameless corporation who runs the base to mine a very rare & expensive mineral, and the Na'vi who have a deep spiritual connection to their world. The nameless corporation has tried to entice them with new technology, but the Na'vi are happy with their natural lifestyle. The company has well-equipped security division comprised mostly of ex-military, led by a trigger-happy Colonel. It doesn't take long for lop-sided confrontations between the security division and the Na'vi. Further complicating things is a romance that develops between Sully and a Na'vi woman.
This noble-savages vs evil-corporation plot is just barely adequate. About half-way through the movie, you will probably be able to predict the overall plot for the remainder of the movie. Cameron does have a few sci-fi twists on how the Na'vi are linked to their environment, but nothing that exceptional.
The visuals, on the other hand, are spectacular. It's hard to believe that the vast majority of Pandora's lush scenery and alien creatures are computer generated. In the last few years Cameron has been doing documentary films, and the first half of the film feels like a nicely done nature documentary. The Na'vi are equally impressive on-screen. Cameron filmed actors playing Na'vi roles, then used motion captured from these performances to animate the computer-generated Na'vi you see on screen. Previous to the Na'vi, the best computer generated character was Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The Na'vi are definitely a notch above Gollum. I've seen some reviewers who say that Cameron has finally conquered the uncanny valley with the Na'vi, but that may be a bit too generous. Although humanoid, the Na'vi are still not human, so it's hard to know if Cameron could really have pulled off an entirely believable computer generated human. Regardless, the Na'vi as humanoid aliens are totally believable and never strike a false note.
Comparing Avatar with Cameron's other movies, it feels like a cross between his sci-fi adventure The Abyss, and his romantic drama Titanic. The battles in the last 30 minutes of Avatar are excellent, but The Abyss was a white-knuckle ride virtually the entire movie. On a pure romantic drama basis, Avatar is not as good as Titanic which didn't have any sci-fi or adventure distractions.
Despite my complaints about the plot, the visuals make up for what the plot is lacking. If you haven't seen Avatar yet, go buy a ticket this weekend. You won't regret it.