I have been to Pandora and returned with a mini-review for you.
Short Version: Visually stunning, game-changing sensory experience that is weighed down by a thin, predictable story that wouldn't have taken much work to make it far more substantial.
Long version: First off, all the people who have been bashing this as looking like the CGI is crap need to strangle themselves NOW! Looking at compressed YouTube clips doesn't do it justice. Going in wanting to hate it makes you a moron. I've been looking at the HD clips online and while they give a taste of what's coming, spending over 2-1/2 hours looking at it on the big screen really, REALLY sells it. If you don't sit there like a killjoy telling yourself "there's no such thing as blue cat people" so that you ruin the illusion, Avatar definitely transports you to the world portrayed.
Somehow I've managed to never see a modern 3D movie (the kind with polarized lenses instead of the old red/blue ones) until the Avatar Day preview last August and that didn't blow me away even though it was at the local LieMAX theater. Tonight's presentation sold me, but it needs a good director to make it work properly. (They had previews for Piranha 3D and it looked terrible, while Shrek Forever After looks great.) The effect looks better in pure FX shots and a little ghostly in the live-action stuff. If I closed my right eye, which is a little nearsighted, it looked really clear, so good eyesight or glasses help.
Anyhoo, rest assured that the movie looks stunning and you won't believe that what you're seeing is made from the same ones and zeroes that Tron and The Last Starfighter were made with. The characters are so detailed and emotive that Robert Zemeckis should hang his head in shame that after the horrid, stiff, doll-eyed monstrosities that were The Polar Express and Beowulf, he is no closer to doing this stuff right than I am to three-waying Angelina Jolie and Gina Gershon and frankly, I've got better odds in the long run of pulling that off than he does. (Retire, Bob. Better yet, go back to real people on real sets.) The Academy should just engrave Weta Workshop's name on the Visual Effects Oscar and send it over now because just as with Benjamin Button last year, there is simple no equal no matter how realistic Optimus Prime or the Enterprise looked. Period.
Now, why am I not raving that this is Teh. Gratest. Moovee. Evah!!!?!?! Because the story is as bad as I'd suspected. Now, some reviews - Big Hollywood's in particular - are targeting the "green" hippie, anti-capitalistic, Bush-bashing, Vietnam, Dance With Wolves, noble savage/Evil White Devil aspects, but that's not really as bad as it's been sold by some of the more strident Hollyweird haters. Anyone familiar with my politics knows what I think of the ManBearPig whackjobs and I've got the same reaction to Avatar as I had for those who suddenly liked George Lucas when they thought they saw some Bush-bashing in Revenge of the Sith: The liberals are imagining things and the conservatives need to focus on real things to complain about.
Yes, the Smurfs are noble savages (which is kinda condescending when you think about it - where are the aliens who are assholes who need some killing?) and the Evil Corporation and their Mercenary Army (read: Blackwater) are evil corporate warmongers, but Cameron really missed a chance to at least contextualize their actions. In 2154, the Earth is apparently ruined and we need resources so badly we have to travel 6 years to a star system to mine McGuffinium. (Question: How did they get all those massive mining machines to the site?) Since it's obviously really important, couldn't they have spared a minute of the 160 min run time to discuss the moral quandary this presents?
Couldn't someone have said, "Yes, it's a damn shame we've got to run these Smurfs out of their Keebler Tree, but our planet is dying and if we don't gank this planet, we're screwed."? Make the Giovanni Ribisi character a corporate puppet just doing his job, lest he get replaced; and make the military badass a little more philosophical about the nature of war-making (come on, hasn't Cameron seen Patton?) than this two-dimensional caveman running around in this 3D technological wonderland. There's only one soldier troubled by what's happening? (I know liberals need simple, two-syllable-or-less concepts spoon-fed to them lest they get confused and stop breathing, but those with firing neurons don't like being bored with tripe.)
OK, so Cameron flunked Nuance 101, but everything else about Avatar shows that he hasn't lost a step on delivering The Epic Action Spectacle. Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, Stephen Sommers and a whole bunch of shaky-camera action hacks need to sit their hyperactive asses down in a few dozen screenings and have their stupid heads SCHOOLED on how to make big stuff happen without losing the audience in the sound and fury. I was chatting with a friend and wondered how much they spend Photoshopping out the wheelbarrow Cameron must need to cart his dick around and the last act is exactly why I wonder. He is the undisputed King of the Universe now as far as action.
The performances are uniformly good as far as the story allows the actors to go. Sam Worthington is the next Russell Crowe; Stephen Lang is absolutely badass; Zoe Saldana is a hot blue cat girl; and Sigourney Weaver is a hoot and even hotter as a Smurf. Michelle Rodriguez provides a genuine Latina to play the Vasquez part from Aliens, but is otherwise the same as she always is.
Unlike the angry Intarwebz nerds who have been hating on this movie every chance they get, I went in pretty much open to be wowed and Avatar got me most of the way there. I wish Cameron had someone like William Wisher (who co-wrote Terminator 2) buff up the script to give it depth and trimmed back a little of the sightseeing aspects, but the movie flies by quickly and does a great job of doing what movies are supposed to do: Take you to places you've never been and show you things you've never seen. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon delivered that experience and so does Avatar, albeit with less kung fu and more flying dinosaur riding.
The Bottom Line: I give it a 8.5/10 score and recommend you see it in 3D at the theater because even the Blu-ray won't give you the visual overload the movie deserves. Visually sumptuous, but intellectually disappointing, Avatar is mandatory viewing if not thinking.