I do not think Avatar should have been nominated for Best Movie. I would definitely give it the Best Visual Effects, but not the Best Movie award. Now, before you hiss at me and attempt to scratch my eyes out, allow me to explain why.
In my mind, there is more to an amazing movie than what meets the eye. Take Forrest Gump, for instance. I have watched it many times, but it still keeps me on the edge of my seat and brings me to tears. Yes, the movie creators used some imagery and movie magic that were unheard of at the time, but that is not all there is to the movie: it's the characters and the story that keep me coming back.
Avatar was visually spectacular and beautifully executed, with the best CGI character movement to date. My demanding eyes, with standards set by the stunning landscape of the Myst game series (particularly Riven and Exile), feasted on the fantastic colors and textures of Pandora. Much like the main character - Jake Sully - I too would have been tempted to touch every plant and flower just to see what it would do.
The scientific part of my brain was also pleased, because, for once, the appearance of the local humanoids made sense in the context of the environment, in which they evolved. The tall almost skeletal creatures were consistent with low gravity and life half-spent in trees, where they had to do a lot of stretching and reaching. The large, wide-set eyes were also consistent with the specie's evolution - the size and position of the eyes were the most adequate for spotting movement (be it by predator or prey) in the jungle, where everything melted so easily into the busy background. It was nice to see that the creators of the movie took some time to develop the appearance of their alien half-people-half-cat characters.
I applaud the actors, why had to give all they had with their voices and rely on the CGI crew to provide the facial expressions to match. This was particularly impressive, considering that the movie creators made the Na'vi refreshingly emotional - very free with their reactions both in joy and in grief. American culture does not encourage the open expression of genuine emotions (although it's ok to do whatever you want on TV), and to me the blue people of Pandora appeared nicely balanced between the two alien stereotypes: the strong silent types and the complete raving lunatics.
That said, the story of Avatar is far from original. Indian wars to the power of Amazon forest extermination created essentially a Fern Gully for grownups, down to the color scheme, where all things associated with the "good guys" were bright and colorful and all things associated with the "bad guys" were drab and ugly.
The love story and pretty much all of the other major plot points were predictable, down to the dialog, "Look, at first it was just orders. And then, everything changed. Okay, I fell in love. I fell in love with the, with the forest, with the Omaticaya people, with you. With you." Why was it the beautiful alien girl who had to teach Jake everything? Why wasn't some ugly elder appointed to at least work with him on the language and the aspects of the Na'vi faith and leave the girl for the more fun physical stuff, like hunting, navigating the jungle, riding the horses and the dragons? No, she had to do everything! Thankfully, at least the movie makers allowed three months to develop the relationship between the two main characters (as opposed to the usual Hollywood 24 hours).
By the same token, why was it necessary to kill off almost all of the supporting cast? I realize we needed the sense of loss and grief, but there was plenty of that already.
It is not that I do not support the ideas promoted by the film - I do, and wholeheartedly so. The idea of a planet as a living organism dates back to Native Americans and Celts, having been revived by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Dr. Challenger series, by the neo-pagans, and - if you would like a movie reference other than Fern Gully - in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Being a pagan myself, I embrace the idea completely. The interaction with the sacred trees particularly was something that warmed my heart.
The connection with the riders (both the ground and the airborne ones) was also a great idea. However, the choosing of the dragon is taken straight out of the Pern series, down to the detail that the dragon might try to kill you even as he chooses you for his rider. The only difference was that Anne McCaffrey's dragon riders picked their dragons, just as the dragons hatched, and were bound for life - the connection could not be broken and a rider/dragon pair could not live without each other.
For a planet that size - with multiple climatic zones and a variety of environments - it also made perfect sense that different tribes specialized in different things... but that, again, dates back to the Native Americans - the concept later borrowed by numerous science fiction writers, including Andrew Norton in the Witchworld series (the seagoing Sulcars, the Falconers, the Witches) and Sara Douglass in Wayfarer Redemption (the winged Icarii, Acharites - the farmers, and the forest-dwelling Avar).
This lack of originality is what ultimately prevents this movie from spanning the distance between a fun popcorn-chomping adventure and a true Oscar-worthy masterpiece. That said, Avatar is beautiful to watch and would still make a good choice for a family movie night.