Some reviewers have been churlish towards Avatar's storyline, saying that it lacks originality, but while its story of an Earthman who becomes assimilated into an alien culture and rises to be a leader of his adoptive people has plenty of precedents in pulp literature and film, it's how Cameron pulls these elements together that matters. He's out to make a film that is timeless, mythic, and universal in its appeal so it should be no surprise that a story with such broad intentions would have roots in other tales that have been told many times over. Originality is not the most important element of a work of fiction. What makes a story interesting is not whether it's ever been told before but how well it's told and as a storyteller, Cameron is no slouch.
As for Avatar's much-touted technological advances, I can't say how far this film moves the industry ahead or whether this is a 'game-changer' for filmmakers but I can say I've never seen anything quite so jaw-dropping as what Cameron and his FX team deliver here. It's not about money shots or specific moments, it's about everything - the whole package. This is one of the most immersive, intricate environments ever created for film. The painstaking attention to detail and the verisimilitude of everything we see here - machinery, plants, wildlife, aliens - is astonishing. This is a film that single-handedly decimates nostalgia for the methods of the past and leaves you hungry to see what else can be realized with these tools.
There's a moment in Avatar relatively early on where the character that Sam Worthington plays, Jake Sully, is lost in the forest of Pandora at night in his avatar body and he's prowling among the trees and vines while holding a torch while alien animals are encroaching all around him and I couldn't help but marvel at this moment, how every single detail of this complicated scene (on top of the fact that it's at night and that it has to be 'lit' by animated flames) is so beautifully rendered. There's many, many moments like this in Avatar where I sat amazed at the fact that everything on the screen was born entirely in a computer. I thought I was accustomed to CG animation by now but this is far beyond anything I've seen. The character work on the Na'vi alone is breathtaking. The love interest for Jake, Neytrini (Zoe Saldana), is such a convincing presence that I can imagine a day when the film industry starts to give CG acting awards. Neytrini goes through every possible emotion in this film from joy to anger to sorrow and never once do her facial expressions look like something that came out of a computer. There's real acting at play here that goes beyond Saldana's vocal work. The illusion of life that is put into Neytrini's face (and those of the other Na'vi) by Cameron's animators is miraculous.
If it sounds like I'm writing a love letter to this movie, well, I am. What baffles me is how anyone else who loves movies wouldn't do the same. I can understand someone not being interested in Avatar to begin with or to be skeptical of Cameron's ability to pull off his ambitions but it dismays me to see the dismissive attitude of some reviewers towards Avatar where they're engaged in petty carping about the storyline or the dialogue (neither of which are sub-par) and giving just a back-handed acknowledgement of its technical accomplishments. When these are the same web critics who can't say enough about a film like Punisher: War Zone (which hey, I enjoyed myself), it's galling to see them piss on a movie that's genuinely trying (with success) to expand what's possible on film. Dismissing Avatar because the story isn't appropriately complicated or adult by some imagined yardstick is like dismissing, say, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) because the characters are perhaps a little flatly written.
Some might say that effects are just window dressing or eye-candy but I disagree - they're a part of what makes movies a transportive experience. I'm sure that Up In The Air is a fine film that speaks to our current times, but does it have any battles between man-made war machines and primitive alien races who fly through the sky on the backs of dragons? I'm guessing no. Movies can speak to our times and to our everyday concerns but they can also take us out of our lives, out of our bodies, and let us experience realms purely of the imagination. And as a means to enable that, Avatar is as deeply felt and important as any work of art.