James Cameron's Avatar is a long movie about a soldier at the end of his rope who falls in love with an oppressed tribe and fights to protect them from his own war-like, culturally-insensitive peoples. Does this sound like another overlong blockbuster? I might have been the only person in the theater wondering if there would be a Kevin Costner cameo, because this film is very similar to his Dances with Wolves, another tale of a soldier who goes native.
That said, if you go to Avatar for the story, you are going for entirely the wrong reason. This is a visual film. The narrative structure exists in service to lush, black-light jungles, incredible flying beasties and floating mountains straight off a Roger Dean album cover. James Cameron waited ten years for the right technology to showcase his ideas -and it shows.
My biggest gripe is length. The sustain of one visual bonanza after another gets to be too much of a good thing. Running nearly three hours in length, having a more substantial tale to tell would have helped, like, say, Dance with Wolves. Emotional investment is missing from Avatar, pretty much from the start we all know exactly how the story will end. Not that Dances with Wolves has a twist ending, yet it told a familiar tale with unexpected poignancy in scenes and characters that exceeded our expectations.
See Avatar for the visuals. They will blow you away. The 3-D effects are top-notch, so subtle you are barely aware of them but that fully immerse you in a fantastic new world.
It also doesn't hurt to admit from the get-go that this is a film about smurfs. Sure, the ham-handed allegory of Iraq makes it seem that our heroes are ripped straight off the headlines -the military in Avatar has a mission, and I quote, of shock and awe, and is determined to fight "terror with terror" (lazy writing or self-loathing?) -the noble tribe are in truth magical beings of love and togetherness, and the "jarhead clan" is run by none other than Gargamel in camo gear, intent on nothing more complicated than smash-kill-explode-rinse-repeat. Dances with Smurfs is a freebie for Seth McFarlane or whoever*; it is also the level of seriousness that should be brought to Avatar. See it for the eye candy, not the brain candy.
*I've been informed that Dances with Smurfs originates from a South Park episode. Who knew?