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Avatar opens Pandora’s box. Out flies gorgeous scenery, game-changing special effects and passable dialogue

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It takes six years for a shipload of marines and scientists to make the journey from energy-depleted Earth to the distant Pandora, where an experimental program will be conducted to, in the words of one of those scientists, “win over the natives.” But watch out, the marines don’t exactly share the same thoughts. They’d rather just get their hands on Pandora’s rich supply of Unobtainium, which will solve all of those energy needs back home.

So do you think the scientists and the soldiers are going to butt heads? Never mind that. What do you think might happen when the local Na’Vi tribe catches on to the military’s nefarious plans? Because the Na’Vi are 10 feet tall and blue-skinned, with long ponytails and even longer tails. They’re graceful, athletic — and armed with very poisonous arrows.

That’s a small part of James Cameron’s epic outer-space tale, one that’s got plenty of originality going for it but which will undoubtedly be accused of ripping off everything from Dances With Wolves, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, and Cameron’s own Aliens.

There are many other components to this grand fi lm, which superbly uses 3D far more for depth than for clichéd “gotcha” moments. There’s lots of infantile name-calling too. The project boss Parker (Giovanni Ribisi) calls the natives “savages”; the marines call the program “a bad joke”; the lead scientist, Grace (Sigourney Weaver), calls the marines “idiots with guns.” The Avatar program consists of creating bodies made of human DNA and Na’Vi DNA that allows humans to get up close and personal with the indigenous folks. Our hero, Jake (Sam Worthington), confi ned to a wheelchair in the real world but practically able to leap tall buildings in a single bound through his Avatar, fi nds himself in a bind — stuck between doing his job as a marine and discovering, when he’s big and blue, a whole new philosophy of life and love and nature.

Self-proclaimed “King of the World” and monomaniac James Cameron has been working on this fi lm for most of a decade, taking the fortune he reaped from Titanic and making sure he did everything exactly the way he wanted to. That includes creating visuals that give us completely realistic natives, as well as the truly otherworldly fl ora and fauna; making viewers feel that they, too, have traveled to a place that’s a long way from home; and presenting fl awless composite shots that feature Na’Vi and humans acting together.

Of course, this being a Cameron film, there’s also breathtaking action, be it an Avatar on a run through the jungle, trying to escape some huge, hideous, hungry creature; or full-blown battle scenes that pit fire-bombing marines against arrow-shooting Na’Vi.

Cameron’s never going to get an award for the dialogue in any of his films, and this one’s no exception, but he does manage to express some thoughtful ideas on relationships and the environment. When the females as well as the males in his story work and fight together, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little alien romance. Jake’s Avatar fi nds some with the initially distrusting Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a sleek, cunning, probably dangerous Na’Vi who also happens to be the daughter of the tribal leader. She’s assigned, against her will, to teach Jake the ways of the clan.

This is exactly what the other humans desire — Grace wants Jake’s info, and Parker wants his intel. It’s not long before Jake has his mind and allegiance pulled in many directions. Does he help the scientists or the marines? Does he try to protect the population that he’s becoming drawn to? And then there’s the fact that when he’s an Avatar, he can walk, run, climb, even fl y on giant birdlike animals — though when he’s a human, he’s back in that wheelchair.

Cameron has given us lush visuals and a big, sprawling story of culture clash and greed, where everything inevitably leads to confl ict. It’s the kind of fantasy story that’s taken a trilogy of fi lms to tell before, yet it’s done here in a fast-moving 160 minutes. The last half hour is an unrelenting explosion of excitement. 

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