Avatar puts on a dazzling display

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It’s been a dozen years since king of the world James Cameron won a boatload of Oscars for Titanic. He apparently spent the downtime thinking about how to revolutionize movies with Avatar, his bloated and exhausting sci-fi epic about a tribe of tall, tailed and blue-hued creatures called Na’vi. It’s also one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. The film is set in 2154 on the forest planet of Pandora, where wheelchair-bound marine Jake Scully (Terminator Salvation’s Sam Worthington) is recruited for an ongoing project that fuses human and Na’vi DNA, resulting in “avatars” that look like Na’vi but retain human thoughts. It’s all very scientific, confusing and geeky. With a new body capable of sprinting as fast as any animal on Earth, Jake’s mission is to infiltrate the Na’vi so the military can mine the precious minerals their homes are built on (again, it’s all very scientific, confusing and geeky). It doesn’t take long for Jake to fall for one of the Na’vi (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek’s Uhura) and rethink his assignment. Avatar is pure sci-fi hokum with one-dimensional characters, heavy-handed narration and an unsurprising love story. But you’ve never seen a movie like this before. The CGI creatures and settings flourish in an alien world that charges from the screen (literally and dizzyingly if you see it in 3D, which I highly recommend). Like many of Cameron’s sci-fi excursions, Avatar includes a showdown between eggheads and military dickheads, spiritual/social/environmental subtext and butt-numbing length (it clocks in at 161 minutes). But Cameron’s achievements this time are mostly technical. There isn’t much of a human element (Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez and Giovanni Ribisi are here, but that hardly matters), and he’s made better films (like Aliens and the first two Terminators). But this hectic, dazzling movie — despite its flaws — is an innovative piece of cinema that changes the game, for better or worse, for everything that follows. ***

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