Avatar is one of the most exciting films I’ve ever seen. It’s not a perfect film–read on–but what it did more than any other film in my memory, is create an experience that will totally involve you–wrap you up so much in its imaginary world that you forget you’re in a theatre, forget everything actually and feel that you are so much a part of the story that you’re not watching it, you’re in it.

You don’t really notice the technical breakdown while you’re watching the movie, all the effects are seamless, but it’s interesting to know that Avatar is 40% live action and 60% photo-realistic CGI, much of which is based on motion capture technology. Four years in production, twice that in development and costing over $300,000,000, Avatar is indeed a new generation of film. It will never replace a well-done human-scale comedy or drama (see reviews for Up in the Air and Pirate Radio, for example) but it sure has raised the bar for all CGI films to follow.

The story, such as it is, is pretty familiar and you’ve seen variations of it many times: A white Euro-centered man lives with indigenous people, learns to love them, goes native, and tries to protect them against the predations of his previous culture. Dancing With Wolves was one version, Avatar is the latest.

It’s the year 2154 and Earth’s global resource exploiters have gone galactic. Their sights now are on the planet Pandora, which holds the largest supply of a mineral that is actually referred to with a straight face as unobtainium, which means it’s really rare and worth about $20 million a kilo. Pandora’s largest supply of the mineral seems to be buried underneath the biggest tree on the planet, which tree is also the most sacred site for all the Pandora tribes, holding their memories and ancestral wisdom.

The natives, called the Na’vi, baffle Earthlings. At first glance, they seem to be a low-tech primitive bunch, nary a robot in sight, but they are ferocious guerilla warriors who have held their own with speed-demon bows and arrows. They ride horse-like creatures that look they were spawned by Genghis Khan himself, as well as magnificent dragons that swoop and soar and light up the skies like Japanese kites flying on acid. The Na’vi are about 10 feet tall, with neon blue skin and big yellow cat eyes, and sport whopper-long tails that also serve as connection devices to other creatures. They all wear splendid “ethnic” jewelry and costuming and to my great pleasure, they change outfits several times during the course of the movie.

The Na’vi live in intimate terms with nature and the other creatures. For example, they know when nasty-looking creatures are just baby monsters braying at one another, or whether they’re going to snap your head off. A skill it takes the Earthlings a while to figure out. On Pandora, all the trees are all connected to one another through their roots and this underground chakra system is a source of power that the Na’vi tune into. Despite being very much like an Iron Age warrior cult, the Na’vi pay homage to an Earth Mother goddess whom they call Eywa. Interestingly, Eywa “does not take sides” in disputes about natural resources on Pandora, “she only protects the balance of life.”

As envisioned by detail-obsessed director James Cameron (Titanic), his wizard cinematographer Mauro Fiori (The Kingdom), and a battalion of super-imaginative art directors, set designers, costumers, make-up people and computer artists–with the magic of 3-D–Pandora is a world unlike any other. It’s like an enormous, pulsating, electrically charged rain forest, surrounded by sky-kissing mountains and mini-Niagara Falls and teeming with weird and extraordinary life forms. Everything–everything–is interconnected and glows with an eerie, fantastical light that changes from fluorescent to neon to incandescent and flitters between them. It’s a tree-huggers’ peyote-induced shamanic journey, exhilarating, ecstatic and utterly unforgettable.

Into this world comes a young marine corporal mercenary, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). A battle wound has rendered him wheel-chair bound and without funds to get new limbs on earth. He joined his brother on the Pandora-bound expedition. But his brother died and Jake gets to take his place and have his own body mixed with Na’vi DNA.

He wakes up from his changing pod, looking just like, but not yet thinking like, a Na’vi and his useless earth legs can run and jump just like they used to. He’s overjoyed. Watching his reactions to his new body carefully is his boss, a gung-ho American pit-bull named Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — read anti-American imperialism poster boy–whose previous encounters with Na’vi warriors have left him respectful but vengeful. Also keenly interested is the den mother of the scientific arm, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), whose memorable turn 23 years ago in James Cameron’s Aliens, still energizes me so much that I practically cheered when she woke up for her pod, red hair blazing, demanding a cigarette. There’s nothing like a sarcastic, passionate, brilliant female scientist to make my interest perk up. Adding to the human mix is a motley crew of scientists and their supporters, especially rebellious pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez).

Using his well-honed Marine Corps survival instincts, Jake Sully not only manages to survive a night alone in the Pandora forest but to get an introduction, albeit not too friendly, to princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who looks terribly fetching in her blue skin and magnificent beaded corn-row hair and shape-hugging jewelry. She also shoots a mean arrow and can swing from the tree branches so well she makes the monkeys jealous. Though her fiancée is leery of Jake, Neytiri’s mother, the high priestess, and her father, the chief, decide not to kill Jake. Instead, he is considered the first “warrior dreammaker” to be sent by the invading Earthlings, and thus they want to teach him their Na’vi ways in the hopes he can be “cured of his insanity.”

Surprising himself, Jake proves an apt student. But each time he returns to his earth body and his bosses, he becomes more uncomfortable. Part of his agitation is caused by his growing attachment to Neytiri, who needs a lot of convincing to stop thinking of him as a moron. The love story is amazingly charming and funny, a total delight. Jake learns to tame a dragon, to communicate with the plants and animals, to “see” with his heart. Eventually, Jake comes to think that his life with the Na’vi is the real world and his life as a human is the dream

The other part of the movie, being an invasion story, is the ending in which the steel-plated robots and flying behemoths from the Earth invade Pandora to take the mineral by force–and the counterattack from the Na’vi, inspired and coached by their new leader, Jake Sully. It’s big and glorious and noisy and Cameron’s message is very clear–war is not healthy for children and other living things. Other than being hit over the head with this message, the battle scenes are as exciting as any onscreen sci-fi battle and better than most because there are all these stupendous dragons flying amidst the invading high-tech aircraft.

Avatar is two hours and 40 minutes in length. That’s long. But except for some slight boredom in the war sequences, I loved every minute of this movie. I could easily have watched it for another two hours and I can’t wait to see it again. I wish there had been time to find out a lot more about the Na’vi — how they raised their children, what foods they eat, what kinds of homes they live in. And I certainly would like to know more about their myths and the sacred tree and the great earth mother Eywa.

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