By stern on Dec 23, 2009
Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.
Visually, Avatar was quite simply the best movie I've seen. Ever. For once, the movie wasn't about the special effects or how many things or people exploded with life-like splatter. The effects were great, but it was the photography and world-building that created context for the photography that made this movie. Personally, I felt that many of the Pandoran geographic elements were taken right out of the Roger Dean album cover book, including "Arches Mist" (the Pandoran holy site) and the "Floating Islands" riff that appears in Avatar as the floating mountains. Whether or not James Cameron borrowed from, or was inspired by, Roger Dean, the movie had me experiencing a fully animated interpretation of some of my favorite artwork of all time. It's one of the few cases where seeing something like this left me invigorated and excited, eager to see it again, rather than disappointed at the lack of attention to detail.
The most dismissive treatment of Avatar is that it's Dances with Wolves set in space. Making that comparison, however, ignores the body of prior science fiction art and misses the some of the underlying themes. The closest comparison I can draw (and again, whether homage, sampling or borrowing, I can't say) is to Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, the second book in the original Ender series. In Speaker, we're introduced to life forms that are vaguely anthropromorphic in some ways but have intensely alien connections to their environment that drive the conflict through the book.
Bottom line: this is one I'm going to see again before it leaves theaters, and the last movie that got a double dip from me was the first Toy Story in 1995, because it set the bar for computer animation. Avatar resets the bar for rich presentation of a rich storyline.