First Night: Avatar, Odeon, Leicester Square

London rolls out the blue carpet for Avatar (and it's actually quite good)

A paraplegic marine sent to a new planet, armed with a virtual body, to ingratiate himself with locals in order to gain their trust and subsequently destroy them? Sounds like the plot of a bad sci-film film. But as it turns out, it's the plot of a highly entertaining sci-fi film – that being, of course, Avatar, one of the most anticipated films of recent years.

We know a lot about Avatar – that it's James Cameron first in fifteen years, that it's the first to use 3D in this way. But strip the hype aside and what anyone wants to know is – is it any good? And can you watch it without feeling ill?

The first is easy. Avatar emerged at last night's premiere as rather good. Paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a last-minute recruit on a mission to the alien planet, Pandora, which boasts incredible quantities of a mineral that is worth a lot of money to earthlings. The invading humans are led by two factions – the scientists, headed by Sigourney Weaver's Grace, who are seeking to learn and understand more about the alien species in a bid to relocate rather than obliterate the natives, and the warriors led by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who are looking for all-out massacre. The factions have been brought together by Administrator Parker Selfridge (the ever wonderful Giovanni Ribisi), there for one reason only – to bring the brilliantly named, and insanely valuable unobtanium back to Earth.

Sully and Norm (Joel Moore) are drivers of the eponymous avatars; bodies that have been constructed out of the more sturdy natives, spliced with humans. The logistics of how it all works takes some getting used to; but suffice to say the scene where Sully awakens in avatar form is a real delight.

It would be easy to assume Cameron drew inspiration from other films of the same ilk but to generalise like that does Avatar, and Cameron a disservice. For starters, one assumes that he was developing Avatar while other seminal films of the past decade were still on the slate. There are shades of detail, and of background – the nuances of the language the native Na'vi speak; the realisation of the animal inhabitants; the history of the clan – which all reinforce the impression that you get from any film that you know has taken 15 years to make: it is a real labour of love. What's more, his decision to make Avatar in 3D was a risky one – and it's paid off in spades. As with most 3D films, less is more. Surprisingly, for a film this rich in action and this beautiful to watch, Cameron doesn't overegg the 3D-ness of it all, which makes those moments, when they come, even more of a joy to watch.

However, that's not to say that 130 minutes in 3D isn't sometimes overwhelming. Glasses were being taken off, and eyes rubbed for brief intervals around the cinema. Whether this is simply a product of an audience unused to watching movies in this way, rather than a flaw in the production, will remain to be seen as 3D becomes more and more commonplace.

What Avatar does mark is a new breed. A new breed of action film, a new hero in Sam Worthington (who delivers a much more believable, and compelling performance than previous outings) and a new cinematic experience. For every cliche – every colonel telling his troops that they're "not in Kansas anymore", every fight beginning with trash talk like "Let's dance", there are myriad moments of beauty and of poignancy. And the final battle is worth the price of your 3D glasses alone.