Avatar takes place sometime in the future (150 years-ish) when humans have decimated the resources of Earth, and now have shown up on the distant, lush moon called Pandora. It just so happens that Pandora is rich in an amazing mineral that will solve all of the Earth's problems. And this mineral is called... wait for it... "unobtainium". Um. OK, really? But, get this, the richest source of unobtanium just so happens to be under this giant tree, and THAT is where all the native 12-foot-tall blue cat-like Na'vi people live.
The humans that are trying (vaguely) to initially play nice with the Na'vi are represented by a contingent of private greedy corporate-types (led, surprisingly, by squirrelly Giovanni Ribisi, who chews scenery so much that he is spitting), and the Marines, led by the ridiculously cartoonish (and therefore scene-stealing) Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Quaritch knows that Pandora is tough because despite his steroidy brute-strength and thick neck, he got that nasty claw-mark-scar across his face within a few hours on this wild planet. You just know he's going to be a badass bad guy. And the pawns of the Marines and the corporations? The nerdy and earnest scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (none other than the always-welcome Sigourney Weaver).
In order to more easily walk out and about on Pandora, with its non-human-friendly breathing atmosphere, the scientists have created "avatars" of themselves, which are basically 12-foot tall Na-vi-like alter-egos of themselves, which they can inhabit with their own brain waves (think Matrix). Having an avatar (actually made for his dead twin brother) turns into a dream come true for paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as he is appointed the muscle of the science expedition and gets to run through the trees like a schoolboy with a machine gun again.
But before you can say Dances With Wolves, Jake gets separated from his avatar buddies and finds himself rescued, then hesitantly embraced, by the Na'vi as a potential cross-cultural ambassador. He falls for the local blue princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), is challenged by the toughest warrior (Laz Alonso), is slowly accepted by the tribe's leaders (Wes Studi and CCH Pounder), communes with nature by plugging his ponytail into random native orifices, and rides the toughest unrideable Banshee (which is basically a flying dragon) to show that he is the Chosen One. And while Jake is learning about this amazing new world, James Cameron is fetishistically showing us every fantastical thing he can invent with his bucketloads of money (whether they are glowy black-light plants, scary dinosaur-like creatures, or the admittedly cool "floating" mountains)... and in 3-D!
As Jake falls for the Na'vi in more ways than one (ewwww! CGI blue-people sex!), you know it will all culminate in Things That Go Boom, as all big-budget films do. In fact, from the very start, you can map out the plot of Avatar from point A to point B to point C. The story literally holds absolutely zero surprises, and is easily 45 minutes too long.
Much has already been said about Cameron's opus, and I'm sure much more will be said as it reaches the masses. I can't deny that Avatar is visually impressive. While sitting in the theater, I fantasized a pot of gold atop the screen that was pouring its endless financial gifts upon the production. But the problem is that Cameron, for years, has been suffering from the George Lucas Syndrome: He is so obsessively involved with so many aspects of his production, that he can't see the forest for the finely-detailed CGI trees. He (like Lucas) desperately needs someone to be honest with him to tell him when his screenplay sucks or when something comes across as cheesy. On top of that, for all the obsessive details in the CGI, I never, ever, was sucked into the animated portions of the film enough to believe that I was watching real people (errr... Na'vi) in a real place. Avatar feels like half real-life action, and half video game (that happens to have a fancy fancy design budget).
As usual, any old reader could easily dismiss my review. Sure, you could argue that I'm not the intended audience for a sci-fi/fantasy film with bad dialogue and attractive, shapely and toned 12-foot tall blue people. But, hey, I've liked James Cameron in the past (Titanic, The Abyss, T2), so really, shouldn't I be in the target audience? Heck, I would think so! But if that's true, Mr. Cameron, you've missed my target on this one... by a long shot.