And I cannot remember a time I was so disappointed. If you haven't seen it yet, or if you have seen it and liked it, you may want to skip the rest of this post.
There is a famous rejection letter that goes, "Your novel is both good and original. Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good." I have never seen a work in any medium that deserved that critique more than Avatar. Let's start with the parts that are good, but not original, more or less in the order I recognized them.
Call Me Joe "Call Me Joe (1957) is a science fiction story by Poul Anderson about an attempt to explore the surface of the planet Jupiter using remotely controlled artificial life-forms. It focuses on the feelings of the disabled man who operates the artificial body... Anglesey uses a wheelchair and is bad-tempered... He is allowed to stay on the station only because of his ability to establish a telepathic connection with and thereby control Joe, a creature designed to survive the hostile conditions on the Jovian surface." Ok, I'll come clean; I remembered the 70's comic book adaptation rather than the '57 original, but that's probably why it came to mind so quickly- the visuals of the wheelchair.
Double Star "Double Star is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction (February, March, April 1956) and published in hardcover the same year. At the 1957 Worldcon it received the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the previous year." In Double Star, the Martians’ standard greeting is “I see you”, and it is clear that by “see”, they mean more than vision, an understanding.
Dune “Dune is a science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert, published in 1965. It won the Hugo Award in 1966, and also the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. Dune is frequently cited as the world's best-selling science fiction novel.” Is it a coincidence that the production company that financed Avatar is named Dune Entertainment? You decide: Dune is about a planet that is the only source in the galaxy for something that sells for millions per gram; it’s being mined by evil offworlders. One offworlder accidently falls in with the locals- and isn’t killed out of hand because they receive a sign. So the daughter of a chief is assigned to teach him the ways of the planet and the people. Naturally, they fall in love. Passing a test of manhood- which involves riding a huge wild beast- he is accepted as one of the people, and using a mix of his offworld knowledge and his new understanding of this world, he becomes a war leader. They ride their beasts into combat against the high-tech offworlders and win.
While this is going on in the Na'vi scenes, we learn in the HQ sequences that the entire biosphere is one vast neural net. Two things about that- first, it renders nonsensical all the talk about Pagan spirituality, worshipping nature, etc. I don't care whether you're the Pope denouncing it or a Pagan approving it- either way, it's BS: the Na'vi weren't worshipping a forest Goddess, they were talking to a living biological organism! More powerful than human, yes- after all, it was established that it had tens of thousands more neurons than the human brain- but it was a living organism, not a deity. How many gods do you know who have had their brains mapped by a neurologist?
The other point about this revelation more directly applies to the story itself- that they handled it poorly, revealing the interlinked-mind effect waaay too early in the movie. It destroyed dynamic tension; had we not known until nearer the climax that this wasn't primitive religious woo, but a biological fact, the ending would not have been telegraphed so far in advance. Once you knew for certain that the planet was a living organism, then of course you knew it would fight for survival, that the Ewoks would swarm out of their trees and destroy the Imperial walkers with forest power. Oops, sorry, wrong movie- that the Eywa would use forest power to destroy the Marine powered exoskeletons.
And the really bad thing about a telegraphed ending is that it gives you too much time to think- a bad thing in a movie that is depending upon visuals to prevent you from noticing holes in the story. And let me say right here that yes, the visuals are stunning- I actually had moments of vertigo in some of the flying scenes. (You may remember that I'm not good with heights) In fact, in some ways they were too stunning; I began to wonder if they weren't using visuals to cover poor pacing in the story. That led to wondering other things, like the Hallelujah Floating Mountains... obviously they were just saturated with Unobtainium, and in a highly concentrated form- how many floating mountains do you know? Why didn't they start their mining there? They were undefended and indefensible, and disturbing a pterodactyl habitat wouldn't as bad PR back home as killing humanoids so similar to us that you can make human/Na'vi hybrids.
I began to wonder at the poor state of veteran's benefits they had in the future; not only did they not grow new legs for Jake Sully, they gave him that crappy wheelchair, when even now they're making experimental exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to walk again, and cost about the same as a good wheelchair- surely they'd be standard technology by then, if they're using bigger ones in combat. That got me wondering about the state of their technology- for example, why weren't they using drones, for minimally invasive observation? Radio controlled pterodactyls are easy enough to make, and real birds don't mind flying with drones Which got me to wondering about the Banshees the Na'vi were flying on. BS. Those wings weren't nearly large enough to carry the weight of a rider whose torso is nearly as big as your own. I'll spare you the science (unless you actually want to discuss it), but it just ain't gonna happen.
Was I over thinking it by then? Hell, yes- I was losing my willing suspension of disbelief... but that's their fault. Grand visuals do not a movie make; it is the job of a storyteller to keep you so engrossed that you don't care about plot holes or a big helping of handwavium. There was no memorable dialogue- do you remember any great lines? The only complex, interesting character was Jake himself; the others were pretty much stock cut-outs. There was no B plotline to keep you interested between developments of the main plot. There were no mini-climaxes sprinkled throughout to maintain interest. (other than visual ones- but a touchy flower or an Archimedes screw winged helicopter bug are not a substitute for plot) Look at a previous hit scifi flic with groundbreaking visuals: Star Wars. Look how complex that story was by comparison, how many characters you actually cared about, how well paced the shocks were.
Ginger told me afterwards that the ending seemed to her to be kind of gratuitously happy; it rarely works out that well for messiahs. I agreed, but I had expected it by then. They had not treated the story itself honestly; I hadn't expected them to treat me any better.