"Avatar" is an incredibly lazy movie. I don't mean you'll fall asleep during it. It's got a good number of action beats and they're filmed in a competent manner. But still...
I have amazing amounts of respect for folks who make movies. I'm the sort who enjoys watching the commentaries on DVDs, and my favorites to date are those that go with the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings Movies. Just seeing all the effort that went into the writing, filming, costuming, prop-making and management... Frankly, it was an amazing undertaking that leaves me in awe.
You don't really see that in Avatar. Ok, sure the effects and the world are amazing, but haven't we seen all this before? The critters with multiple eyes and fan-like projects that wave like palm-fronds when they are startled, the floating mountains, the combat walkers, the glow-in-the-dark plants, etc, etc... Haven't we seen all of this before in various incarnations of the Final Fantasy franchise? Sure, it looks great, but I couldn't help but feel that, as gorgeous as it all is, it felt horribly derivative.
And that's the high point of the flick. The writing is probably the nadir. I should warn you at this point that spoilers follow, but seriously, after the first five minutes you could outline the rest of the flick in perfect safety. You've seen this film a dozen times at least.
This film has a blatant "as you already know" speech in the first act. While the words "as you already know" are never spoken, it is a conversation between two people who know everything that's being said. And the coup de grace is that they word "unobtanium" is used, blatantly, to describe the mysterious super-mineral that has brought humans to the planet. At that point, it became impossible to take the movie seriously.
What follows is stuff you've all seen before. The science fiction elements exist solely to justify the tropes you expect, once you know you're watching a kiddy-fare environmentalism film: the amoral corporate geeks, the hard-ass military guys who can't wait to unleash their toys and hapless soldiers on the noble defenders of nature, and the attack of the animals that shifts the momentum of the climactic battle. It even ends with a mano-y-mano duel between our hero and the bloodthirsty colonel. At least Cameron had the writing chops to give his military maniac a plausible excuse for wanting to drop a nuke in "The Abyss." Here, the colonel's desire to kill and destroy is simply who he is. It's almost too bad he didn't have a mustache he could twirl.
Much has been said about how the blue-skinned, vaguely feline natives are pseudo-Native Americans. Even that's giving the film too much credit. These are tree-hugging noble savages from Rousseau. If you want to seen Native Americans, rent "Apocalypto" or "Dances with Wolves." What you see in Avatar is milk-toast pap that Native Americans are rightly insulted to feel attached to. It is a white man's delusions of what he wishes Native American's were, without any respect for or even knowledge of their traditions, history, or culture.
Things just get worse as the film unspools. Laziness abounds: the amazing secret of the natives is never really exploited or played with, because that would mean deviating from the model. The final battle involves a military force attacking with short-ranged weapons, in spite of being written and directed by the man who gave nerds the phrase, "Nuke 'em from orbit; it's the only way to be sure." Both sides use ground forces in the battle without a tactical explanation as to why. The infantry and ground-cavalry units on both sides seem to have no reason for their involvement beyond a bloodthirsty need to kill each other (all to a heroic but forgettable Horner soundtrack). Or hero has to be rescued in the mano-y-mano fight with the colonel because he momentarily forgets that he has arms and legs.
Lazy, lazy, lazy... Sure, fun spectacle, but of the sort that demands you turn off your brain before things begin. It's hard to not feel the effort is half-assed in a world where you can rent far better films with great spectacle, excellent writing, compelling, complex characters and far more respect for the beauty, danger, and power of the natural world such as "Princess Mononoke." That's the film Avatar should be compared to, and it's one that it can't help but look wanting next to.
UPDATE: AICN offers an interesting look at the science of Avatar. And I just noticed that this is my 666th post.