I finally saw Avatar. My short review: Fabulous effects, pedestrian story. James Cameron has certainly set the bar at a great new height for all future action movies, but he hasn't broken much new ground when it comes to sophisticated writing.
Not that it matters. This is not a boring movie, and you won't rue the price of your ticket. It's the first 3D film I've ever seen, and I'm glad I waited this long. For the first few minutes, the 3D effect seems a distracting gimmick, but as the movie unfolds it becomes much more natural. I considered only one scene gratuitous: a machine gun barrel protruding out of the screen. Elsewhere Cameron showed admirable restraint. In the Pandoran jungle, the judicious and subtle use of 3D makes the alien flora and fauna seem vividly real.
My only problem with Avatar is that every character is a stereotype drawn from other films. Remember Vasquez in Aliens? She's back, as Trudy Chacon. Wind in His Hair from Dances With Wolves? That would be in Tsu'Tey in Avatar. And so on. David Brooks has a smart column in the New York Times where he illustrates this quite well. But you don't need to read it recognize this latest incarnation of the White Messiah theme in Avatar.
No, that's not the worst thing in the world. As they say, there's nothing new under the sun. But when you're invoking such an oft-used narrative, it's probably a good idea come up with a few surprises. From the moment you meet each character in Avatar, it's possible to guess the story arc and status of each one by the movie's end. If you haven't seen the movie, try it. Avatar disappoints because the only surprises are visual.