Once in a blue man, excuse me, moon, comes a movie during which you literally cannot believe your eyes. Avatar is one of those films. Director James Cameron is probably best known as the man behind Titanic, but his new picture is a gigantic, special effects-watershed opus along the same lines as The Abyss, his terrific 1989 underwater sci-fi flick.
Avatar follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a marine rendered paraplegic by a spinal cord injury and hung out to dry by Veterans Affairs. Desperate for work, Sully signs up with the security arm of a mining company that is scouring a lush, Earth-like moon called Pandora for a mineral called unobtanium. (No, it's not very subtle, is it?) Under the orders of militia leader Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), Sully joins a group of scientists who have learned how to put a human mind into the body of 12-foot-tall native critter called a Na'vi.
The Na'vi are more or less human, too, except that they're blue, thin, and strangely nosed, with a culture that is two parts Australian aborigine to three parts Maasai with a dash of Navajo mysticism thrown in. Almost immediately, Sully ignores instructions from the den-motherly chief scientist Grace Augustine (a terrific Sigourney Weaver) and sprints off into Pandora's dangerous woods, eager to become better acquainted with the new world and his new legs.
Pandora is gorgeous. The gas giant it orbits, Polyphemus, fills the sky on occasion; its deadly fauna includes incredible six-legged horses and four-winged dragons and insects that helicopter through the air or squirt from branch to branch like jellyfish. When Grace tells us that the planet is literally alive-a giant brain in touch with all the animals and plants on its surface-we can believe it.
Naturally, the Na'vi worship their home world, which is sentient and can hear their "prayers," and responds accordingly when the evil humans attack, siccing the planet's scariest creatures on the evil corporate thugs.
Cameron, who shoehorned Cold War commentary into The Abyss, clearly thinks Avataris a cautionary tale, but it mostly succeeds in spite of its political aspirations (just like the other movie). Mostly, the eco-parable moments recall better movies, like Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. What's interesting about the movie's setup is that the final battle actually has you rooting against the human characters. Go, monsters! Eat the heartless people!
Cameron can build a spectacular action sequence, and he can do things with 3-D that nobody else has even thought of. (If it's possible for you to see the movie in 3-D, just do it and don't worry about the goofy glasses. It's absolutely worth it.)
What Cameron still can't do very well is structure a screenplay-for example, there's a scene where the Na'vi sit around the huge tree they use to access the mind of Pandora and sway back and forth, which apparently lets a spirit move from a human body into an empty Na'vi (like the ones the humans have been cloning). When did they develop this trick? Are there a lot of soulless but otherwise undamaged bodies lying around Pandora? From the moment the whole blue crew starts rockin' around the pantheism tree, it's clear that Sully's disabled body won't be a problem for much longer.
Still, complaints about the screenplay miss the point-movies from Clash of the Titans to Jurassic Park have proved that you don't need a story to make a fun movie, and Avatar is loads of fun. Teenagers will find it brain-meltingly awesome and adults are likely to be impressed, too. Besides some thematic malarkey, there's not much for Christian parents to find morally objectionable here-a little swearing, plenty of epic battles (but nothing too bloody), and possibly some brief flashes of whatever the alien equivalent of nudity is-it's hard to tell what's what with 3-D, blue humanoids. Like their religion and philosophy, the aliens' biology is pretty vague.