First the name. Avatar--if you play computer games, you may know this very well--is a character you use inside an unreal world. The word Avatar has its origins in Indian mythology. An Avatar (ava-tara in Sanskrit) is god's visit to earth to fix something that is broken. Vishnu, one of the three gods who protects creation, by necessity visits earth often. Vishnu, the puranas declare, is dark-blue in color (the original story teller was inspired by blue oceans, blue sky?). To go with the name Avatar, Cameron has also decided to paint the aliens blue, possibly inspired by Hindu mythology. The name and color out of the way, let's talk about the movie.
Set in future on an alien moon called Pandora, Avatar movie tells the timeless story of greed, immaturity and the violence that arises out of ignorance. Here I refer to the fundamental ignorance: the ignorance of not knowing one's place in the scheme of things. Would we as a species find a way to survive our inner demons or would our demons consume us?
The story revolves around a soldier who goes to Pandora to help The Corporation that wants to mine and export oil (ok, it's called unobtainium). The Na'vi are the alien arboreal humonoid civilization that thrives on the planet. They are part of a vast symbiotic living system that includes plants and animals which are all connected by an intricate biological communication network. The Corporation wants to mine the moon and the Na'vi fight for their homeland. A paraplegic soldier sent to participate in a scientific experiment + diplomacy mission falls in love with a Na'vi woman and the rest is predictable. Along the way, we are introduced to Avatars. Avatars are biological creations made from human and alien DNA. They are not self-aware and are controlled by a human (from whose DNA it was made). The soldier controls an avatar that is made from his DNA (his brother's actually).
Cameron a skillful film-maker. Avatar breaks new ground. The alien world Cameron and his team present us is one of the most thought-out and consistent I have seen in movies. The movie succeeds in air-dropping us into Pandora and making us identify with the Na'vi exceedingly well. As audience, we seamlessly cross the species boundary and root for the aliens to succeed against the childish arrogant pricks called humans.
The science behind the movie has it's pitfalls--for instance, how does the communication with the Avatar work while all other comm equipment fail in the vortex--, however, much of the alien world is credible and beautifully rendered in glorious 3D. It's is also refreshing to see the 3D presented in an understated manner instead of in-your-face manner.
Last comment: Art that is painted on a big canvass has its perils, especially for the artist. A movie like Avatar is a comprehensive expression of the director's mind. It highlights both the refinement and the rough edges of the artist's vision. This is true of Avatar. Avatar is a idealistic movie (some may say, children's movie and there is truth in it) that aspires for an ideal world where there is no exploitation and humans are an enlightened bunch. Fortunately, the movie's moral premise plays second fiddle to the technical feats.
I enjoyed the movie. The ending is especially poignant. The visual effects are spectacular and a lot of the production techniques are a first in the craft of movie making. For that alone, the movie is a must see.
Cameron's interview in Studio 360. He explains the floating mountains in this interview, if you have been wondering.
WIRED had a feature some weeks back. Good read if you are interested in the technical aspects of the film-making.