In the year 2154, the human race has journeyed to the nearby star system of Alpha Centauri. There, on the jungle moon of Pandora, they have discovered 'unobtanium', a mineral which is of immense (if somewhat vague) value to humanity. The native Na'vi race are somewhat unwilling to let the invading humans to strip-mine their planet, and an escalating conflict is the result. To try to broker the peace, a science team has created a series of genetically-engineered Na'vi bodies called avatars. Driven remotely by humans in VR tanks, the colonists hope to be able to negotiate effectively with the aliens.
Jake Sully arrives on Pandora to work as an avatar-driver, replacing his twin brother who was supposed to ship out but was killed just before departure. Sully is a paraplegic ex-marine who rapidly finds himself enjoying his life as an avatar, since it allows him to walk again. During a mission into the jungle, Sully becomes separated from the rest of his team and meets up with a local native tribe, who (after some initial culture clash misunderstandings) take him under their wing and train him in their ways. Whilst Sully gets to know the Na'vi better he finds himself being pumped for information of possibly military value by the colony's military commander, Colonel Quaritch, whilst Dr. Augustine uses his position to gain fresh scientific knowledge on the Na'vi. Eventually, when the colonists decide that the negotiations are not proceeding to plan and they need to take military action to secure the unobtanium, Sully finds his loyalties being severely tested.
Avatar is director James Cameron's follow-up to Titanic. Fourteen years in the writing and over four years in production, Avatar mixes live-action footage with cutting-edge, state-of-the-art 3D and the very latest developments in CGI. Visually, the film is stunning, with the attention to detail and vibrant colour schemes of the jungle scenes being nothing short of jaw-dropping. The CG characters don't quite blow the viewer away in their level of realism as much as say Gollum in The Lord of the Rings did, but Avatar does represent a significant evolution from even that impressive technical achievement.
The film is a sumptuous visual banquet built around an extremely familiar story. How much you enjoy Avatar will likely depend on your experience of previous traditional archetype action movies. Younger viewers will likely thoroughly enjoy the whole package, whilst older viewers may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of movies, books and video games that Avatar seems to liberally borrow from to construct its story. Star Wars, Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai are obvious touchstones, as are Cameron's own movies, with elements of Titanic, Aliens and The Abyss all on display. The battle mechs used by the company for security seem to have been airlifted in from The Matrix Revolutions, whilst a stirring pre-battle speech seems to have been cut-and-pasted in from the script for Braveheart. Game players may find the underlying premise highly familiar from several of the Final Fantasy games (VII in particular). Fans of books will also spot strong similarities to the Poul Anderson novella Call Me Joe, whilst the French SF comic AquaBlue shares strong storyline and concept ideas with the movie.
In short, you've probably read, played or seen this story several dozen times before.
However familiar the story, it is quite well-executed in this instance. Some story elements are underdeveloped, and 'unobtanium' sounds like a placeholder in the script that was accidentally left in, but the actors perform their roles more than adequately, with the performance-capture work doing a great job of converting the great jobs by Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana (the movie's stand-out performance by a mile) into their 3D equivalents. Sam Worthington is adequate as the lead, but is not as charismatic or expressive as might be wished. He does convincingly handle the action sequences, however. Michelle Rodriguez is basically playing Vasquez from Aliens but does a great job as well, delivering an enthusiastic performance, whilst Stephen Lang redefines 'badass' as the chief villain, Colonel Quaritch, a character so ludicrously hardcore it goes way beyond parody and almost becomes Art.
Cameron's love of gadgets, vehicles and technology is also on full display here, without quite tipping into the disturbing fetishistic realm of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer, thankfully. Cameron also delivers some good action sequences, with the climatic massive battle being well-choreographed and easy to follow, unlike some recent CGI extravaganzas which were way too over-the-top and chaotic (such as Revenge of the Sith and Transformers II).
On the downside, the movie's premise - white guy investigates foreign culture and ends up leading them into battle against oppression - is a little bit tedious. It would have been nice to perhaps see an inversion of the cliche (a native Na'vi who meets the humans, bonds with them but discovers they are a threat and has to fight against them?) rather than it being tiresomely trotted out once again. Also, whilst the film has some finality there are perhaps a few too many plot threads left unresolved for the inevitable sequels.
Overall, Avatar (***½) is an entertaining, impressive spectacle which is definitely worth seeing in the cinema. There are some great performances, some central SF ideas nicely explored (the organic USB leads are an intriguing idea and Pandora's ecosystem is vividly depicted) and no-one does big-budget conflict as well as Cameron. After twelve years, he's still got the touch to deliver something rousingly enjoyable. The movie is a little bit too familiar in places and it would have been nice if the script and dialogue had had half as much attention paid on them as the CGI, but the movie still has far more genuine heart than some other recent big blockbusters. It even has a romance more convincing than the one in Titanic.
The movie is on general release worldwide right now, and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2010. The film is planned as the first in a trilogy, so expect more to follow.