12/14/2009 06:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Movie review: Avatar - out of this world

There are visionary filmmakers - and then there's James Cameron, who pushes the envelope of what is possible on the screen every time he makes a film. He doesn't do it nearly often enough.

But now here comes Avatar, the most dazzling film experience you'll have this year. Written, directed, produced and, for that matter, pulled whole from Cameron's brain,
Avatar is 160 minutes of thrilling entertainment. It's as heartfelt as it is exciting, as emotionally powerful as it is suspenseful and as brain-bending a fantasy as you've seen since The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It would be easy to dismiss Avatar as Dances with Wolves in outer space, except for two things: First of all, that denigrates Dances, still an outstanding film (based on a recent viewing). Second, it implies a lack of originality on Cameron's part that is baseless on the face of it.

Set 150 years in the future, Avatar is about a mission by an Earth corporation to secure the distant planet Pandora, which is rich in valuable minerals. The humans, in essence, want to strip-mine Pandora - a mission that doesn't sit particularly well with the Na'vi, the planet's native inhabitants.

One of the new arrivals to Pandora, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is there by accident. His twin brother - recently murdered - was a scientist who had been training for the mission to Pandora. Jake, a Marine who is wheelchair-bound after being wounded in combat, has been recruited because he shares his late brother's genome.

His brother has been learning the ropes for the Avatar project: In essence, a Na'vi body has been test-tube grown, combining Na'vi and human DNA. Jake will go into an isolation capsule, where he will electronically mind-meld with the avatar grown for his brother. His consciousness will enter the avatar, allowing him to roam Pandora without the otherwise necessary breathing apparatus to deal with the planet's poisonous atmosphere.

More important, he hopefully will be able to infiltrate the Na'vi clan. The plan calls for him to convince the Na'vi to move away from Hometree, the 1,000-foot-tall tree that is their base. There's a particularly rich vein of the valuable mineral Unobtainium beneath the tree - and the Earth corporation in charge of the operation is willing to do things the rough way, if diplomacy fails.

For Sully, the experience of being in the avatar body is total liberation, after being confined to his paralyzed form for too long. He can run, jump, climb - he's ambulatory again. But he's also a Marine - so even as he makes contact with the Na'vi and works with chief scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), he's also reporting to the hard-shell security chief, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is only interested in pinpointing the Na'vi weaknesses for the inevitable attack.

Sully, however, goes native, seduced and enlightened by the Na'vi's attunement to the planet itself. As Grace explains, the connection between the Na'vi and the planet is more sophisticated than the connections between the synapses in the human brain. Humans can't begin to understand the depth of that intertwinement - and the company's only interest is eliminating the aboriginals so they can get at the riches below the planet surface.

That's a familiar message - that humans are short-sightedly lining their pockets at the expense of the planet. And the dynamic that Cameron sets up here - the heedless, ignorant humans invading a native populace whose customs and values they neither know nor understand - has resonance with the American invasion of Iraq, or Vietnam, or colonialism in general. Continued...

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