It's hard to decide what to discuss first when reviewing a movie like Avatar. My thoughts on the movie are mixed: I loved the visual experience and was thrilled to see that James Cameron's first action movie since True Lies lived up to the man's impeccable track record as far as action scenes are concerned, but to say that thematically the movie troubled me would be an understatement.
Let's go with the good news first: spectacle-wise, you get your money's worth and then some with Avatar. Pandora, the moon where the movie takes place, really is the breathtaking achievement that it has been touted as. The special effects used to generate the lush jungle environments are truly the best example of creating a world through computers that I have ever seen (excepting maybe Zodiac, but that movie had plenty of non-CGI elements to its environment and Avatar's "sets" did not). What really stands out to me about the environments in Avatar is the level of detail given to even the most mundane things: the way the dirt on the ground is shifted by a character's feet, or the immaculate level of detail invested into even the tiniest leaf on a branch. Five years ago Sky Captain and Sin City gave us our first glimpses of movies without sets, and it really is amazing to see the difference between their sparse (although in Sin City's case, still effective) worlds and the gorgeousness of the world in Avatar.
Even the Na'vi look good, something that I was really not expecting. Not design-wise, of course, the aliens in the movie still look like the notebook sketches of a horny thirteen-year-old who just discovered anime, but in terms of "realism" they really can't be beat: Cameron and his team bring those notebook sketches to life with gusto. Even the lip and cheek movements, something that I have always found to be the least convincing aspect of mo-cap characters, are almost flawlessly executed. Something will undoubtedly come along some day and look even better, but for now the Na'vi are the best examples of fully-CG humanoid characters in the medium.
While the design of the Na'vi themselves is certainly one of the movie's weak points, the rest of the production design is almost unilaterally excellent. On the human side of things, Cameron goes for a hard sci-fi angle reminiscent of his earlier work, and it really works to the movie's advantage. The spaceships and bases feel like they could really be made on the timeline the movie proposes (it takes place in the mid 22nd century), and it doesn't hurt credibility-wise that Pandora orbits a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, the closest star system to our own and one that could theoretically be reached. These design and plot choices help you as a viewer to overlook the relative improbability of the avatar program (that we could create hybrid creatures with human and alien DNA and somehow control them remotely with our minds).
And the action in the movie is pretty great. Not only are the action sequences coherently shot and edited (how sad is it that that fact alone is praiseworthy these days?), but they are really exciting, reminiscent of Cameron's finest work in Aliens and Terminator 2. I was as pumped for the battles in this movie as I have been for those in most any recent action flick.
But what about the rest of the movie? The script is... it's a James Cameron script. That means it's got a lot of unnecessary (and sometimes oddly-worded) exposition, much of it delivered via voice-overs, and plenty of clunky attempts at one-liners. To Cameron's credit, however, he knows how to populate his movies with people who give such cornball dialog a certain pulpy weight. Sigourney Weaver, for one, is a joy to watch; she chews on her lines with just the right level of enthusiasm.
The "message" of Avatar, depending on how you look at it, is at the very least discomforting. I suppose I should throw in a spoiler alert here, as plot discussion follows. In Avatar, our white male hero comes to a completely foreign land with no knowledge about how to even survive beyond his military training, meets up with a culture of natives who initially dismiss him as a worthless outsider but come to accept him because there is just something "special" about him that none of them can quite put their fingers on (although it certainly doesn't hurt that he is a warrior: the natives have an instinctual aversion to scientists), and within three months is fully accepted into their culture and becomes their messiah by essentially showing them that he is better than all of them at pursuits they have been spending their lives mastering. Na'vi ride bird-dragon-things when they hunt, and a quarter of a year after he shows up the human hero becomes one of six people in history to tame the most vicious and fabled one on the planet. Racial politics like this demonstrate an almost Ed Zwick-like superiority complex: the helpless natives in the movie would literally have been wiped off the face of their planet had it not been for the leadership of a brave white soldier. To be completely honest, the only thing that makes Avatar more palatable than a movie like Transformers 2 is the fact that James Cameron has the skill to create such a thrilling movie around such a racist core.
In the third act, Avatar does away entirely with the idea of "subtext" and becomes a direct parallel to the war in Afghanistan: the human forces are fighting an insurgent group of religious fanatics in foreign mountains where the natives have a tactical advantage. The humans are obviously the villains in the movie, which is fine: if Cameron just wanted to make a point about how we shouldn't be in Afghanistan I can't say that he wouldn't have a leg to stand on argumentatively. It's how he approaches his point that bothers me. Sigourney Weaver's scientist character, in her final moments of life, basks in the light of the Na'vi god and tells Jake Sully, the hero, that "She's real." Hence, the movie is telling us that the Na'vi are right to defend their land not because they are living beings with their own innate rights but because they are on the side of the right god. That's a fucking dangerous message.
I can't tell you not to see Avatar. It's a marvelous spectacle and it works very well on its own morally dubious terms. And besides that it's becoming a downright cultural phenomenon. So if you're going to go see it, see it. You'll enjoy it. But, and I can't believe I'm saying this, just try not to learn anything from it.