James Cameron can crown himself king of the 3-D world. He has crafted a science-fiction fantasy filled with visual wonder that never forgets that story -- not digital technology -- keeps movies from sinking under the titanic iceberg of spectacle and special effects. An imaginative premise, combined with the fanciful flora and fauna of a faraway moon, plunges the viewer into an otherworldly experience.
Put on those silly 3-D spectacles and have some fun.
Cameron's plot focuses on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington of "Terminator Salvation"), a disabled ex-Marine lying in a VA hospital. He's tapped to replace his late twin brother in a multinational corporation's avatar program, which mixes human DNA with that of the native Na'vi population living on Pandora, the company's mining colony. The "dumb grunt," who has no avatar training, must quickly learn how to manage his remotely controlled, 10-foot-tall body in the most hostile environment known to man. The payoff? The jarhead gets his legs back. Things get more complicated when the avatar team headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) realizes that science and peaceful diplomacy are only part of its mission.
An efficient storyteller, Cameron ("The Terminator," "Titanic") makes every detail count. His original narrative recalls familiar archetypes and genres. The underdog on a heroic adventure is a movie staple, but the fantastical creatures and hypnotically beautiful plants of Pandora are unique -- and connected in an eco-spiritualism that blends today's environmental concerns with ancient traditions centered on oneness with nature. The indigenous people share a bond with everything from their ancestors to flying dragons and floating jellyfish-like beings.
Recalling both westerns and war films, "Avatar" pits the corporation's military muscle against the bow-and-arrow wielding Na'vi. A gung-ho colonel (Stephen Lang of "The Men Who Stare at Goats") commands the invading forces to destroy the "savages" and their sacred places to gain access to Pandora's natural resources. Cameron gives the conflict a heart by developing a romance between Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana of "Star Trek"), who teaches him the language and ways of her tribe. Similar to "Dances with Wolves" and "The Last Samurai" in so many ways, this generic hybrid also assumes the patronizing attitude of positioning a white man as savior.
Stereotypes hurt the film, particularly during the battle for Pandora. The Na'vi don war paint and whoop it up like wild Indians on horseback. Hiss-worthy villains are laughably one-dimensional. Females snarl all the time, particularly the feline-like Neytiri and the gum-snapping helicopter pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez ("Fast & Furious").
Fortunately Mauro Fiore's cinematography never fits the negative 3-D mold. Don't expect coming-at-you visuals. Instead he constructs deep space, immersing the viewer in the midst of the action.
The overall result is well worth the price of admission.