So, I won free tickets to see Avatar 3D, the midnight showing last night. Here's the obligatory review.
First, the good stuff: the special effects and cinematography. This was a spectacular movie in this respect. The special effects for the world--and when I say the world, I mean the world--were stunning. This had nothing to do with the 3D aspects at all. You can tell that the team that created this world spent a TON of time on it, going into every little detail and making all of those little details work together to create an actual, realistic-feeling other world. And I mean it: the world felt completely and utterly real to me, to the point where when something from out world came on set it felt like an intrusion (which was the point) and made it seem like anything related to us as humans was out of place (also the point). In fact, it made it seem as if anything related to us WASN'T REAL, that we were the special effect in the movie, not the world that served as the setting for the entire movie. It was literally stunning--beautiful and engaging and above all believable in nearly every respect. Sure there were a few "glossed over" explanations, such as how the mountains actually float (they just called it the "flux" or something), but that glossing could be ignored. And as I said, I don't believe this had anything to do with the 3D aspects of this.
One of the nice things about the creation of the world is that the special effects were NOT the central point of the movie. The world was there, and it served as a setting, but it was not the entirety of the movie. Same for the 3D aspects. There were no scenes where the entire "point" was the play with the 3D aspects to make the audience go "wow." Sure there were some "wow" scenes, but they weren't there JUST for that reason, except for when the newbies were seeing something spectacular for the first time, in which case the "wow" WAS the point, but for the character (not the audience). And these scenes were kept suitably short in my opinion. Same for the world in general: nothing was put into the movie for the sole purpose of the audience; it was there for the characters or for the plot. Too many SF and fantasy movie use the special effects just for the audience and don't let it serve exclusively for the plot or the characterization and the story. There were a few moments here and there where I thought a 3D effect went too far (such as one point where I wondered why we needed the ass shot and why it needed to be sticking out so far), but they were few and far between.
Of those characters, strangely enough, the one that I loved and followed and connected to the most was the main female alien (whose name I don't recall). I was not as drawn to the main character, Jake, much. Sigourney Weaver was great, but mostly served as a side character and in the end didn't have a huge role (a significant role, but not a huge one). The fact that I connected better with the aliens than the humans should make the creative team feel great, but shouldn't I be connecting to both, especially the hero of the story? I'm not sure if this was because Jake was just not a character that I could sympathize with, or if it was because the acting wasn't great, or simply that he just wasn't interesting, even though he was the character with the most significant character change from beginning to end. But in the end, I loved the female lead alien more, so kudos to that actress for her role.
So, some really good stuff going on in this movie: great worldbuilding, some good characterizations, especially of the aliens, and special effects used like they should be used in an SF movie.
Now some of the not so good things: the plot. It wasn't that the plot was bad--there were some really good emotionally jarring and gut-twisting moments in here--but the plot wasn't . . . new. This is the standard "humans find new land with indigenous species but with a resource we desperately need, so we try to take what we want and the locals fight back" story. The main thread is "human wins trust of locals, becomes one with them, betrays his own people and fights with them to take back the human-ravaged land." James Cameron could have used this theme to make some serious, heavy-duty commentary about some of the hideous things humans have done against humans in this vein in the past, pretty much all over the world, but he didn't need to. That point is hammered home without him needing to thrust it in our faces here. He sticks to the characters and how they are affected, and that is the most effective thing about this movie. It's what draws you in and makes your heart ache when the plot begins to take hold and get serious. But in the end, James Cameron didn't do anything really original with the plot. The only difference between this and movies with similar themes is that this is an SF movie. It's basically "Dances with Wolves" in space, as my movie companion said.
Another minor flaw is that the initial sequence--when we arrive on planet and the main character, Jake, is being introduced to the locals and slowly becoming an accepted part of their society--is a little too long. This section is extremely important to the movie: we get characterization, we get introduced to the world through Jake, we get a love interest, we get some very cool setup for events that happen later on in the plot. All of that was necessary and was there . . . but it still went on just a touch too long. At one point, the writer in me kicked in and said, "If he doesn't start the main plot sequence in the next 5 minutes, this movie is going to suck wind." I'd reached my limit of setup and worldbuilding and character building by that point. The fact that it pulled me out of the movie so much the writer kicked in DURING THE MOVIE is bad. So Cameron needed to find some small ways to cut that part of the movie back a little. I don't think it would have taken much--maybe cut 10 minutes overall from that section--and I wouldn't have had that writer moment. It would have made those scenes that much more effective in the end.
This is a minor quibble as well, but I wished Cameron has spent just a touch more time on Jake's character and how much he is emotionally affected by the fact that in his real life he can't use his legs, but through the avatar he can run, walk, jump, etc. Cameron spends some time on this, but not enough by far. I think this is why I ended up not connecting so much to Jake, and yet why I did connect so much with the main female lead. We get her side of the story and her emotions at nearly every stage in the movie. Cameron starts doing that with Jake at the beginning, but then Jake's own personal motivations and emotions get set aside. I wish they hadn't. Jake had great potential as a character of extreme interest and emotional turmoil. It just wasn't used.
So, in the end, what did I think? I loved the movie, even seeing it at midnight after a long day that started at 5:30am. I did not get sleepy at all during the showing (although my movie companion dozed out for a while *ahem*), so it completely engaged me. The worldbuilding was spectacular, but was not the point of the movie. Most of the characters were interesting and drew me in, although there were some lost opportunities with a few of the characters, namely Jake. There were some emotionally riveting and gut-wrenching parts. But the story fell a little flat simply because there wasn't anything new done with it. We've seen this type of story before (or read this type of story before) and it needed something else, some twist besides it being set on another planet, to take it up a level. That twist could have been drawing us in more to Jake's turmoil, driving home his desire to get his legs back and the choices he has--getting back his original legs by siding with the humans, or getting them back using the avatar--but Cameron didn't focus in on that enough. But it was still a good movie. In many aspects a spectacular movie.