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I don't know if it's a credit to the seamlessness of the special effects in James Cameron's Avatar, but to be honest, despite all of the amazing things I was seeing, one of the most burning questions I had early in the movie was: Wait, they still have cigarettes and Jujubees 150 years in the future?

Guilty pleasures aside, Avatar is a beautiful and breathtaking movie that has a worn plot, but gets enough of a goose from dazzling effects and commitment to its material to make it a thoroughly enjoyable movie.

Paraplegic former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), volunteers to travel to a mining outpost on an Earth-like planet called Pandora light-years away as a member of an experimental program in place of his twin brother who is killed before deployment. The program has users control "avatars", genetic hybrids of human DNA and the DNA of the Na'vi, the natives who are interfering with the mining of a rare and valuable mineral referred to as unobtainium. (Which is an actual term scientists have been using to describe rare, costly, or impossible materials since the 1950's. Believe me, I'm just as surprised as you are.) Sully, in his avatar, meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a young Na'vi female, who ends up teaching him the ways of the Na'vi. Jake becomes sympathetic to the natives and must decide between his duty as a marine, and his loyalty to his newfound "tribe".

The movie has been heralded as a "groundbreaking" effort, but really all the efforts to break ground have preceded it. One of the biggest selling points James Cameron, the writer and director, attributed to the movie (and the reason he's been working on it so long) was that he wanted a wider implementation of 3D in movie theaters before it was released.

That has been achieved, but to the movie's credit, the use of 3D seems more of an enhancement than a necessity. This is easily the best use of 3D and motion-capture I've seen in a movie to date, as the digital expressions of characters are at least passable and there are no memorable examples of something that needs to be seen in 3D to be appreciated. (For the exact opposite see Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf.)

The effects are truly are amazing and are the high point of the film. The world of Avatar is completely realized and makes excellent use of technology to create a realistic-looking world. One of the more refreshing things to me, as a sci-fi fan, was the fact that Pandora's atmosphere is inhospitable to humans. (What, all humanoids don't breathe air?) Even the human technology of battle airships, mechs, and computer screens are sights to behold. The movie front-loads the wonder of Pandora and goes light on battle until the end, but when the conflict comes, it's very satisfying. (And almost nauseating, so be warned if you're prone to motion-sickness.)

Cameron knows how to stage a battle, but subtle storytelling seem beyond his command here. Rest assured that everything that comes up in the first two thirds in of the movie, will somehow become important in the end. Animals, plants, technology; if it's mentioned, rest assured it's coming back to help our protagonist in some way or another.

Avatar uses themes that are strikingly similar to other pro-nature and pro-native movies that precede it, like Ferngully and Dances with Wolves, and at times the parallels to recent political issues are whisp-thin. By the end of the movie, the references to "shock and awe" and "fighting terror with terror" get a little heavy handed and try to turn an issue loaded with greys into a very black and white affair.

Really, the movie is painted in the broad strokes of fairy tale as opposed to the fine details of nuanced development. The Na'vi and the scientists are completely sympathetic and 99.95% of the Blackwater employees, ahem, mercenaries working for the company just want to go out and kick ass.

One of the most enjoyable performances comes from Stephen Lang, who plays the scarred and grizzled Miles Quaritch, head of security at the human Pandora colony. Quaritch is a marine very much cut from the same fabric of marines from Cameron's other movies The Abyss and Aliens, but that doesn't make it any less fun watch his cavalier bad-assness square off against Worthington's tribe of cornered and angry natives.

Zoe Saldana is the standout of the Na'vi. She seems to realize that, while acting alone can sometimes shine through the filter of motion-capture, it's body language that really sells the performance. Whereas other Na'vi characters seem rigid and stiff at times, Saldana's Neytiri seems most like a fluid, organic being who shows real emotion.

Avatar isn't the best sci-fi movie of the year (that, I think, goes to District 9), but it is the most accessible. Cameron and crew have created a beautiful and believable world and peppered it with some good characters. The movie's flaw lies in that what they do with that world isn't anything that's all that new, and as a result the movie at times is more of a breathtaking travel journal of Pandora and the future than a compelling story. Cameron once said that, if Avatar is successful, he has some sequels in mind. I'm willing to give him leave to take me back to this world in the future, as long as he doesn't wait another 10 years in an attempt to popularize smell-o-vision.

Matt Sameck

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