Okay, okay, I'm fully prepared for the fact that most people will completely disagree with me on this review, but here goes...
Crippled ex-marine Jake Sully gets offered the job of replacing his dead twin brother, who was a scientist involved with the Avatar project on the planet Pandora. The avatar project involves putting one's consciousness into the body of a genetically modified and grown body that is part human, part native Na'vi (The name given to the indigenous population). Supposedly the expense of creating this simulacrum, is the reason Jake was offered the job of replacing his brother, as only his DNA makes him capable of using it. Cue the Pocahontas/Dances With Wolves story of Jake as he gradually learns the ways of the perfect eco-friendly natives and ends up helping them against the evil greedy humans who are strip mining parts of Pandora, and especially want the area underneath the giant tree-home of the Na'vi.
Firstly the good stuff. In 3D, Avatar is admittedly visually stunning. What is relatively revolutionary about Avatar, is the way in which it was filmed, as opposed to what is seen on screen. Every performance of an actor was stored digitally when they were filmed on stage, including facial expressions (A technique that has been used for some time). The director, James Cameron (This is his first feature film since the hit Titanic) was then able to go back after initial filming with a 'virtual' camera. He could run around on the sound-stage, and on the screen of this 'camera', 'see' the actors and the alien world in a rough 3D form, as powerful computers generated the image live, based on the position of his camera in relation to the position of the actors when they had done their real performance previously. The obvious benefit for a director, is the ability to go back and endlessly tweak camera angles and movement, where before the only opportunity would be during initial shooting.
The 3D technology, and performance capture technology have been refined and built upon in the last few decades through various films, and in most recent years with director Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, etc. However, Avatar has taken it to a stunning level of reality, finally creating characters that look (for the most part) quite real. They appear to have just made it across what is termed the 'uncanny valley', where CGI character performances don't quite look real enough for the human eye, and make us feel disconnected from them. Though this is usually a problem when trying to replicate actual humans (As in the Zemeckis films). Perhaps Cameron's trick here has been to utilise creature designs that are essentially human, but not quite, so we the viewers don't feel as alienated by their performances.
The world of Pandora is eye catching, filled with bio-luminescent colour most especially in its night scenes. Films such as Outlander have utilised such creatures (And even included brief glimpses of such worlds) but not on this scale. This was all heavily influenced by Cameron's obsession with under-sea exploration, from which he wanted to bring the bio-luminescent life to the surface of an alien world.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Pandora is how un-alien their world is, except for this bio-luminescent theme. Everything is all too familiar. Dog-like creatures look like dogs and sound like dogs. Swinging monkey beasts look like, well, monkeys. Horse-like creatures look just like horses (And sound like Velociraptors from Jurassic Park, so-much-so that one must ask if they even changed the sound-effect). The flying beasts are very pterodactyl-like, though perhaps manage to be the most 'alien' creatures of this world, whilst the 'Thanator' (Supposedly the most ferocious ground-based creature, and the one that Cameron chose to design himself) looks more than a little reminiscent of Cameron's own design for the alien queen in Aliens (The head, certainly). Meanwhile, the Thanator suffers the same problem as the 'horse', utilising Jurassic Park T-Rex sounds, seemingly almost unchanged. The plant life on Pandora is also all-too-familiar when shown in the daytime views, with one or two interesting exceptions. Cameron has been praised for creating an entire world on screen, but I hesitate to say that everything from The Dark Crystal to George Lucas' Star Wars movies have created complete alien worlds with more originality.
There are a mish-mash of unsubtle references in Avatar. The Na'vi pander to every 'native' stereotype you can think of, but primarily Native American and African. Even to the point that they refer to themselves as 'The People' rather than 'The First People' as native Americans now do. The tribal leader is performed by Wes Studi, a native American actor, probably best known for his role as Magua in Last of The Mohicans. Meanwhile, having 'schools' in which the human 'Avatars' try to teach the natives our ways, directly parallels our human past with various populations across the globe, from Africa to America. There are numerous examples of such parallels. The accented English used by some of the Na'vi even sounds like what we would consider an insulting cliché when used in old westerns, or B&W Tarzan movies.
Cameron has also crammed in every politically correct reference he can, including the unsubtle use of having his villainous humans come out with statements such as “We will use Shock and Awe” or “Fight terror with terror”.
Perhaps Avatar's biggest problem is its lack of characterisation. None of the actors fare well in this respect, with possibly only Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, Snow White: A Tale of Terror) retaining some connection, when in human form. Considering their screen time, the lead characters of Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation) and Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), are shockingly forgettable and unremarkable. Even the villains are the worst form of cardboard cut-outs. Giovani Ribisi (Sky Captain, Saving Private Ryan) plays the soulless corporate evil, while the Mercenary Commander played by Stephen Lang (A regular 'guest star' actor in numerous TV series) hams it up no-end, coming out with some of the worst dialogue, which is admittedly not his fault. I'm not even sure some of the characters made it to two dimensions. There are no shades of grey in Avatar. The villains are unreasoningly evil without good reason, while the eco-friendly Na'vi appear to be perfect in every way, at one with nature, their world, the animals, the plants... They all even seem to be physically perfect, with nary a short or slightly overweight Na'vi in sight (Perhaps off-screen their species indulge in their own form of eugenics?)
Make no mistake, Cameron is having a good old bash at the now-extinct Bush administration, right through to good ol' Vietnam. As well as trying to tell us all to give up the evils of technology and go be one with Gaia (Sorry, Aywa, the Na'vi equivalent) by hugging a tree. Never mind the fact that he has spent absurdly huge sums of money and used the latest cutting edge technology to create this film. In fact, the whole movie feels as though Cameron has become so in love with showing off what the technology and his new techniques can do, that he almost completely forgot about the non-visual aspects of the film altogether.
Avatar is an enjoyable enough experience for one viewing, but it has to be seen in 3D on the big screen. If you see it any other way, I think you'll miss out on everything positive about the film. In all honesty, I can't think of any other reasons to recommend Avatar, other than the 3D and the special effects. There certainly aren't any characters or story that make me want to re-visit this alien world.