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MOVIES: Cameron pulls out all the stops for visually stunning 'Avatar'

Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. Jake (Sam Worthington) meets his avatar, a genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora.

Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. Jake (Sam Worthington) meets his avatar, a genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora.

Bringing with it a gargantuan level of pre-release hype that has actually eclipsed his own "Titanic," writer/director James Cameron's $300 million "Avatar" storms its way into theaters today beginning the run of what some have predicted will be the highest-grossing movie of all-time.

Love him or hate him, Cameron is an undeniably talented showman for whom the term "action spectacular" seems to have be coined. Years before he started filming "Avatar," Cameron honed, and in some cases invented, the technology that would allow him to bring his vision to life, and he more than succeeds in that department. This is hands down the most visually impressive movie ever made.

Cameron's attention to the movies' aesthetics evidently drained him of all his creative juices and left him effectively limp as a writer. His screenplay is a sloppy mish-mash of genres and borrows shamelessly from dozens of other movies, most notably "Dances with Wolves" and "Pocahontas."

When a uniformly cliched Marine drill sergeant barks out the line "we're not in Kansas anymore" in the first reel, we simultaneously cringe and guffaw. Plot holes large enough to allow the passage of Mack trucks pop up at regular intervals. The personalities and motives of major characters repeatedly flip-flop without reason or explanation. Cameron also makes no effort to hide his far-left political views. The story is vehemently pro-Green, anti-American and, not surprisingly, contains plenty of barely cloaked allusions to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The plot reaches its relative peak during the extended opening act with Cameron economically and quickly providing the detailed back story. After the unexplained death of his twin brother during a six-year flight to the distant planet Pandora, wheelchair-bound ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is effectively drafted by a sinister mercenary company there to extract a valuable mineral called -- seriously -- "unobtainium."

For Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Sully is both a blessing and a curse. He has no scientific background and even less technical training but is also the last hope to work out a peaceable agreement with the native population before the head of the mercenaries (Giovanni Ribisi) loses patience and opts for a military solution.

In a manner not unlike that in "The Matrix," Sully's spirit and intellect are transported into an avatar -- a custom-designed 10-foot being that is half human and half Na'vi. The Na'vi is a blue-skinned race with large yellow eyes that are spiritually and culturally akin to 19th century Native Americans but possess a superior intellect. And they hate humans.

Sully's first avatar/Na'vi encounter is with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of a tribal leader who provides the Pocahontas to Sully's John Smith. She saves his life but can't hide her disdain for him or what he represents. It takes a while but he gets on her good side and begins absorbing her people's culture and philosophy and then starts to question his mission.

Quickly running out of narrative gas, Cameron compensates with a quick pace and visuals that only grow more impressive as the movie progresses. He's also quite lucky that his cast is able to deliver his sometimes laughable dialogue with straight faces and conviction.

The final act is almost exclusively dedicated to battle sequences and marks the only points in the movie where the effects border on frantic overkill.

With four Golden Globe nominations under its belt, "Avatar" will surely score even more Oscar nominations, mostly in technical categories, which it will likely win. No other movie released this or any other year utilizes so many bells and whistles to such great effect, but that's only half the battle. Any movie wanting to secure "classic" status or extended staying power needs a strong story that can stand on its own, and all of Cameron's audio/visual achievements can't cover up the fact that he failed to deliver one here. (Fox)