James Cameron has still got it.
Avatar is the most visually amazing film I've ever seen. His boasts were valid: Nothing like this has ever been done or seen on the big screen. The incredible scope and detail is really mesmerizing - he created an entire planet with variety and detail that is unparalleled... and had to maintain it throughout a 2 1/2 hour film. It boggles the mind to think that (by my estimate) at least 80% of the film is fully CGI.
The motion capture (both body and facial) that Cameron employs here is impressive. I would say that he has succeeded in conquering the "uncanny valley" (that last bit of detail in anthropomorphic CGI that bridges that feeling that something's "just not quite right"), except that he is not portraying fully human characters - where the subtle "misses" are most obvious. He wisely changed the appearance of the Na'vi enough that your mind registers them as non-human and thus is more forgiving of anomalies. That could be why he made their eyes so large, in order to make them more overtly expressive. I will say that as Na'vi, I found the physical and facial animation flawless - it seemed to me very natural even when put to the test with subtle, emotional close-up scenes.
The planet is lush, dangerous and believable - populated with dense vegetation and a wild variety of creatures. Everything from delicate, glowing, floating things to scary, aggressive, six-legged carnivores. Cameron has created an entire eco-system here with some interesting details, along with one detail that made me smirk (not really in a good way) in its similarity to "The Force" in Star Wars.
I didn't see it in IMAX, but it was in 3D. I can tell you that in my opinion the 3D only added to the breathtaking visuals on the screen. It was used to good effect - giving depth to scenes, letting the audience share in a sense of vertigo when on the precipice of some huge drop or in flight on one of the local winged creatures. For me, this is exactly how 3D should be used in movies - it was there but not in a way that you were conscious of it, it just sucked you into the film that much more.
The relationship between Neytiri and Jake was well done and believable - you could say that Cameron took so long building the growth of the relationship and Jake's character development that it almost dragged on a bit... but had it not been done the ending would not have worked as well. Supporting characters, however small their roles, all worked and supplemented the primary characters nicely. The one exception might be Ribisi, who while I like him as an actor, seemed a bit miscast here.
What I found predictable was the story. You can pretty much map out what's going to happen 10 minutes in without expending too many brain cells. I was hoping for perhaps something more complex or an unexpected twist of some sort - but the entire film played out pretty much the way you'd expect it to. I'm really not a fan of "humanity as the bad guys/aliens as the good guys" and I don't know what sort of message Cameron was trying to make here (colonization of America and what happened to the native Indian population?), but frankly I found the film entertaining enough that I was able to set that aside - more easily when he actually highlighted a spiritual component of the film as counterpoint to the Sci-Fi tech.
But this has all the Cameron trademarks: Relatable characters you'll care about, a story that makes sense, mind blowing visuals and action sequences that are awesome. The final 20 minutes of the film are just a kick-ass, non-stop ground and air battle that will leave you feeling VERY satisfied.
For the parents out there, the PG-13 is for some repeated mild profanity, partial CGI Na'vi nudity (they're pretty scantily clad), battle violence and a very short scene that's pretty suggestive between two of the big blue characters. Overall I'd definitely take my child to this before I would ever consider letting them watch Transformers 2 when it comes to content.
Overall, Avatar delivers what it promised, and it promised a LOT. In the end I think it will turn out to be a repeat-viewer that you'll want to revisit often - much like most of James Cameron's other films.
If you've seen the movie and want to talk about it without worrying about spoilers, please head over to our Avatar Spoilers Discussion.
Please don't discuss movie spoilers here in order to not ruin it for people who haven't seen it yet.